Design on the verge

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New York-based karlssonwilker inc. left the trail you see here (and in the outrageous P.O.V. on p. 6). It's a pretty impressive spread of clients for a four-year-old, and the way they've spread it speaks loads as well: the black and white infographic-inspired layout, humanized and humorized with their own razor sharp bits of absurdist and sometimes self-mocking commentary, has become the duo's most compelling signature, apparent in their projects for clients like The New York Times and The Art Directors Club.

It's also a far cry from when the pair first met more than four years ago working in graphic design guru Stefan Sagmeister's penthouse studio, where the two barely exchanged a friendly word. But in 2000, when the shop's honcho announced he planned to take a yearlong sabbatical (See Creativity, May 2000) Icelander Karlsson, then a three-year associate, and Wilker, a German intern who barely spoke English, finally got a little closer. "Stefan decided to take a year off and I was like, 'What am I going to do now?'" recalls the 37-year-old Karlsson. So he turned to that newbie he never really talked to. "We sort of just opened the studio," he continues. "I didn't know him at all, he didn't know me. I thought either it's going to be fine, or it's just going to go down the drain. I will hate Jan, he will hate me or we'll have no clients."

Fortunately, the two quickly became friends, but business-wise they were completely green. They sent out a massive newsprint announcement to possible patrons admitting so, featuring a cheeky C.V. laid out in a grid-like design, as well as a picture of themselves in too-large suits covered with dotted lines suggesting how a tailor might make them look more like seasoned professionals.

Such was a harbinger of the humorous, thought-provoking voice they would bring to the work that emerged from their airy digs off Union Square, like the restaurant design for Philly-based El Diner, for which the duo came up with everything from the establishment's name, to various tchotchkes featuring their own hilarious copy (see below, right). Other early gigs included CD packaging for various record labels as well as the update of the Anne Klein lion logo, all of which are frankly and hysterically recounted in tellmewhy, karlssonwilker's 2003 tell-all of its first two years as a New York design studio.

For this duo, half the job is admittedly about play, and their great ideas seem to materialize out of divine intervention rather than through sweat-dripping lucubration. Instead of approaching their projects via a hard and fast concept, they're more often likely to kick up their heels, play some tunes (today it is Outkast, in the early days the Back Street Boys were a favorite) and then see where the music takes them. Which is what happened in 2002 when the pair was thinking up a Capitol Records assignment to do the packaging for then unknown Aussie band The Vines. "We were listening to the music loud, and said 'Okay, let's do something, let's start it,'" recalls the 32-year-old Wilker. All of a sudden, their (computer) mice were off and running, scribbling all over a photo of the band's mugs, leading to the raucous designs seen below. "So many times that's what it's like, you sit there, wait, try things out and then all of a sudden something happens," Wilker explains. "It's more about experimenting instead of coming up with this amazing concept that sounds great and that you design around but it looks like shit."

Recently the two conceived quirky branding for The Art Directors Club Young Guns competition-inspired by their own personal work. The New York Times Magazine also invited them to curate and art direct a feature for its last design issue, tracing the roots of the pair's favorite designs like Sponge Bob Square Pants and the Band Aid. Moreover, the nation of Serbia recruited the team as the first non-native designers to create its massive annual calendar, for which Karlsson and Wilker were welcomed into the country like rockstars, thronged by paparazzi and screaming fans. Speaking of rockstars, the duo also just made their foray into motion design for MTV, on a hush hush project that apparently will seek to bring the music network's family of channels into a cohesive design universe.

Despite all the fun the two seem to have, both are backed by serious credentials. Prior to their arrival at Sagmeister Inc., Karlsson attended both the Reykjavik School of Visual Art and New York's Parsons, while Wilker was barely out of his teens when he opened his own creative studio in Germany that went on to do projects for architect Richard Meier. And this was before he went to study graphic design at the State Academy of Fine Arts, Stuttgart. "It's not like we sit around and goof off the whole day," Wilker adds. "You need a certain experience to be able to see things that are a little different or that touch you. The overall process is not that random. I think you really need to have some kind of vision or skill set so that when these bells inside you ring, you know what to do."

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