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How reprinting the MTA’s Standards Manual kickstarted a Brooklyn bookstore

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Designers Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth’s new design office, Order, features a dedicated graphic design bookshop

Hamish Smyth

After operating largely on the internet for the past few years, Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth of Standards Manual—the duo responsible for reprints of the New York City Transit Authority and the 1975 NASA Standards Manuals, both of which were successfully funded through Kickstarter campaigns—are taking their work IRL.

The pair recently opened their new design office, Order, in a minimalist Greenpoint storefront. The space is also home to a modest bookshop devoted to graphic design, the first store of its kind—“that we know of,” notes Smyth—in New York City.

“The shop is almost like a showroom for our books,” explains Smyth. Both the NYCTA and NASA reissues are featured prominently, along with a reissue of 1976 American Revolution Bicentenntial standards manual (of which only 1,976 copies were printed). But when conceptualizing the store, Reed and Smyth didn’t want to merely tout their own work; they envisioned a space that would function somewhere between a store and a gathering space for like-minded creatives.

So they expanded the selection to include foundational design tomes, works by influential figures in the design world—including their former boss, Pentagram’s Michael Bierut—and vintage books from the pair’s own collections. The stock will rotate out every so often, and the pair also hopes to use their office’s spacious backyard for events like talks or book launches. “This whole thing is an experiment,” says Reed.

It’s an experiment that’s been several years in the making. Reed and Smyth met while working for Pentagram, where both were on Bierut’s team, and the NYCTA standards manual was their first project together outside of their day jobs. Reed happened to find an original copy of the transit authority’s 1970 manual, designed by the legendary Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda, in the basement of Pentagram’s office; the rest, as they say, is history.

But after several years at Pentagram and a few more Standards Manual projects, the pair began to talk seriously about striking out on their own. Originally, they wanted to call the practice “Everything,” after the Massimo Vignelli quote: “If you can design one thing, you can design anything.” Eventually, though, “we realized we can’t quite design everything,” says Smyth with a laugh—and thus, Order was born.

The pair still acknowledge their debt to Vignelli, who was a mentor to Bierut, both in their office—where one of the Italian designer’s controversial subway maps hangs on the wall—and in the practice itself. “Order is really the philosophy of the way we approach design,” explains Reed. “We’re trying to make order, whether it’s a book or an identity or wayfinding, it comes down to, let’s do this in an orderly fashion so it makes sense.”

Even though the firm is still in its infancy, Reed and Smyth have big plans. They’re working with a roster of clients that includes sex-toy start-up Maude, art-book publisher Phaidon, and Miami’s Underline, a new park designed by James Corner Field Operations. They also recently inked a distribution deal with D.A.P., a publisher that specializes in art books, which will give them more creative freedom in terms of publishing their own books under the Standards Manual imprint.

But don’t expect to see too many more manuals from the duo: After its next release, an EPA Standards Manual, Reed and Smyth plan to branch out into different “design bodies of work,” as Reed puts it—hitting on topics like photography, technology, and the New York City subway (again).

“There might be some kind of fatigue happening with the specificity of standards manuals,” says Reed, who notes that Paul Rand’s IBM Standards Manual, as well as the visual identity for the 1972 Munich Olympics, are now getting the Kickstarter-reissue treatment. “They’re only sexy to a handful of nerds.”