Jakob Trollback (pronounced 'Trollbeck'), the clean-shaven 40-year-young president and creative director of the five-month-old atelier, is just as casual as his environment, wearing black jeans and brown leather sandals. He clearly relishes his new role as directorial mad scientist: mixing all mediums, forms and styles to manufacture "something beautiful," whether it's TV commercial logos, music video special effects, 3-D computer graphics, Website designs or film titles.
Before opening Trollback & Co.'s doors in May of this year, the Swede spent his first seven years in America as a creative director at graphic giant R/Greenberg & Associates (R/GA), where he directed commercials and designed logos for clients like Pontiac, AT&T and Saturday Night Live.
A longtime tech-whiz -- "I was wiring my house at the age of three" -- Trollback affectionately defends computers as "misunderstood." He says too many people think of them as machines for doing things quicker, rather than as artistic tools for doing things better. Trollbäck, who modestly claims he "almost single-handedly computerized the design department" at R/GA, insists "the computer is the birthplace of a new aesthetic." And now he's playing midwife at a new address.
"Greenberg was great, but I needed a new window to look out from," says Trollbeck, running his fingers through the sides of his thick blonde hair. "It's the same reason I left Sweden; a combination of boredom and this feeling of 'what if?' There are just so many end-tags you can design in your life before you start questioning if that's what your Maker meant for you."
Four of his R/GA co-workers, all in their mid-20s and 30s, had a similar itch for more creative autonomy and followed Jakob Trollback to form the nascent venture. The worldly crew consists of creative director Antoine Tinguely from Switzerland, art director Nathalie de la Gorce from France, 3-D artist Chris Haak from Connecticut and producer Meghan O'Brien from Illinois.
While media hounds speculate on burnt bridges and waves made by the mass exodus from R/GA, Bob Greenberg, president of the prestigious shop, insists there were none. "I've watched [Trollback] grow and change and become very sophisticated and conceptual. He's extremely talented. I wish him every success." Trollback appreciates his former mentor's support: "Bob and I are friends; he understood I had to do my thing."
That 'thing,' injecting beauty into the often artistically restrictive world of commercial advertising, could only be achieved with more free hands and less red tape, says Trollback. "The biggest challenge in the design world has nothing to do with creativity or artistry, but with politics . . . You can do something that is really cool and then [the marketing people] say, 'That's wonderful, but it isn't going to test well in the Midwest.' "
That's why at Trollback & Co., smaller is better. While there are dreams of a someday European office, the five-person shop has no immediate plans for expansion. "There is a great chemistry in small groups," says Trollback's colleague Antoine Tinguely, "and great freedom."
That freedom manifests itself in the company's diverse client base, the majority of whom are new, not R/GA recyclables. Recent projects include logo animation for Motorola's Digital DNA processing system, title execution for Bell South, 3-D-graphic end-tag design for Intel, and music video direction for another Blondie comeback single, "Nothing is Real but the Girl."
"Music is really what always made me excited in life -- to see all the creativity that exists in the world," says Trollback, a former DJ and a vinyl record aficionado, who at one time could boast ownership of 10,000 titles. Although not a composer himself, Trollback knows what he likes, and works with composers to orchestrate original accompaniments for his graphics. "For us it is very much about combining sound and images to tell a story," he says.
That holistic approach and attention to the big picture caught the eye of Merrill Lynch execs last month, when they chose Trollback, over four other agencies, to design the financial firm's new logo. John Cline, executive producer at J. Walter Thompson in charge of the account, says Trollbäck & Co.'s ideas stood out as the most creative and most conceptual, capturing Merrill Lynch's personal relationship-building message, the theme of an upcoming commercial. "Their work is artistic, not just a graphical treatment of the logo," he says. "[It's] elegantly simple, beautifully rendered and classic."
Trollback has hardly had to, well, go trolling for work. In fact, the company's only self-promotion, besides the beguiling reel open, has been the distribution of esoteric posters to friends in the design community. The posters feature the Trollback & Co. logo, a bold black square-edged rendition of the distinctive 'a' character, set amid vague geometric forms on a yellow background, the team's signature color. For Trollback, the logo represents a return to his European roots. When he arrived in New York in 1991, he changed his name to 'Trollbeck' in anticipation of mispronunciation and spelling hassles. Now the symbol that once made him conspicuous is doing so again, this time representing the rebirth of his creative independence.
And why yellow? "Well, we couldn't do orange, everyone's doing orange," Trollback explains, sounding like the fashion plate he isn't. "I think yellow is