After just two years of official existence, Hi-Res, co-founded by Schmitt and business partner Alexandra Jugovic, is commanding attention - in design, advertising, and even pop culture circles - for knowing just how difficult that is. Last year, the shop, whose name undergoes continuous cheeky reinterpretations but at the moment stands for Handsome Information-Radical Entertainment Systems, broke through with an eye-catchingly claustrophobic site for Darren Aronofsky's claustrophobic film Requiem for a Dream (still up at requiemforadream.com). Like the film's characters, the site sputters and repeatedly crashes before your eyes. "I truly believe there is beauty in malfunction and chaos, probably more than in pure superficial beauty," Schmitt admits. "To me, that's just boring."
Ten years ago, Schmitt, 29, and Jugovic, 30, were art students in their native Germany - Schmitt studying product design, Jugovic fine art - when both veered into 3-D design. "As soon as we got our hands on a couple of computers, we were hooked," Schmitt says. The pair worked as a freelance team on various projects until 1999, when they moved to London and set up shop. "Pretty much everything that we'd always admired in terms of design and conceptual design, it all came from London," Schmitt says. In the Queen's English, with no trace of a German accent, he expresses admiration for design collectives like Me Company, Designers' Republic, and Tomato.
Hi-Res' inaugural London project, a personal playground called SoulBath.com, drew the attention of director Aronofsky, who persuaded Artisan Entertainment to give the shop the assignment for the Requiem site. The site was conceptualized from Aronofsky's descriptions before Schmitt or Jugovic had even seen the movie, and executed using footage, dialogue, and stills. The result - which Schmitt describes as a "website that rots"- churns out a disintegrating series of bogus diet, gambling, and self-help websites amid a string of jarring montages. In a sense, the site is anathema to both current trends in Flash design and the very idea of interactivity. It is not "flashy," but rather slow and meditative. The user is reduced to passive observer, the POV reduced to a small spotlight of attention that can neither be expanded nor clicked away as obscure dramas play out.
"Especially with Requiem, it was a lot about uncovering and unfolding the structure that tries to hold everything up under the surface and showing how that structure, over time, crumbles and just falls to pieces," Schmitt says. "I think a lot of the stuff we do is about uncovering a third dimension in the screen, sort of going in instead of sideways." In another recent Artisan site - for The Center of the World (center-of-the-world.com), the latest film from Joy Luck Club director Wayne Wang - Hi-Res uses similarly disjointed first-person techniques to take users into a seamy strip club. The atmospherics were accomplished using footage shot by Wang especially for the site, which has since received notices in pubs as un-edgy as USA Today. "I have to admit, I never really expected it to draw in these circles," Schmitt says. "For us it's still quite amazing."
On the face of it there's nothing particularly commercial, even something aggressively noncommercial, about Hi-Res' challenging designs. SoulBath.com, for example, revolves around a virtual exhibition of anti-advertising banners by prominent graphic designers.
"It's just irony, actually, when you do something that is completely noncommercial and goes against advertising and you see that this appeals to people who work in the advertising business," Schmitt says. "I find it really funny, because we obviously didn't target marketing people with what we do. But of course it tells them something about the state of their business, which is maybe it is good to be subtle or maybe it is good to be completely different."
Or at least an increasing number of clients seem to think so. Earlier this year, Hi-Res signed on with Id, the online division of Chelsea Pictures, for representation on advertising projects in the U.S. and Canada. The shop is currently at work on an online commercial for NTT Data, the interactive wing of Japanese Telecom, that will feature the contributions of designers from around the world.
"It's funny how things sort of come back to us," Schmitt says. "And I don't mind it at all. I love doing commercial work."