Design on the Verge

Creativity showcases today's design wunderkinds, who have hurtled straight through the boundaries of communications via their daring approaches to print, the screen, the web -- even the toy shelf.

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Karlssonwilker make a statement.

New York-based karlssonwilker inc. left the trail you see here -- as well as the one you see to the right. 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. 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 raucous design. "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."


Part designers, part toy wizards and maybe even a little bit Dr. Phil, Sam Borkson and Arturo "Tury" Sandoval, better known as the Miami-based artist collective Friendswithyou, are transmitting some seriously feel good vibes via their eponymous designer plush toys. Supposedly carrying soul soothing -- or sucking -- powers, their stuffed critters like the mischievous Malfi, the Albino Squid and the multi-pedal lucky charm Mr. TTT are part of one of the most embraced toy brands among those in the design know. A fixture at cult pop goods stores, the Friends have also made appearances at art galleries around the country and recently even stepped off the shelves to star in Mr. Wizard The Legend of Speed, showcased in Nike's "Art of Speed" online film fest (see

Borkson and Sandoval, both fine artists who painted together before moving into designing the fuzzy mystical creatures, are also freelance print and motion designers whose collective efforts include projects for American Legacy Foundation's "Truth" campaign, motion graphics for Sony, promos for Latin and even the Jack Black film School of Rock. But ultimately the admittedly Peter Pan-like duo is most excited about disseminating the optimistic gospel of the Friends. "We are giving grownups a set of tools to exercise their innocence," notes Sandoval. "We are really positive about our ability," adds Borkson. "You only have one chance at a life, so it's best to get things that people can feel they are a part of, learn to believe in magic again like when you were a child. We are the only ones who can limit personal success, love, adventure. We need to embrace all the different energies in the world -- good and evil -- and make them work for us directly."


He's not even old enough to drink, but 19-year-old Chuck Anderson can already design some of the best under the drafting table. With no formal education, the Chicago-based freelance designer/illustrator has emerged as one of the print scene's most exciting talents, having created compelling eye candy for a slew of underground and mainstream mags, as well as not so shabby corporate clientele like Absolut and McDonalds. With no formal training, Anderson's brushstrokes move freely between design and illustration, his style never taking a categorizable root. "Very unplanned, inconsistent, changing rapidly, spur-of-the-moment and unintentional," is how he explains his approach -- hence his outfit's shingle NoPattern. "The name fits me for a reason," Anderson explains. "I like to think that being this way allows me to develop and progress in a way that a lot of people just can't. I have yet to create a style for myself that people expect me to stick with. I know it's cliché for me to say I don't like getting wrapped up in labels, but I don't like getting wrapped up in labels." As for what exactly it is he does do, "ultimately, who cares what it is called?" he says. "If it looks good, you can call it a load of steaming horse shit. Doesn't change the way it looks or the purpose it serves. The difference is meaningless. If you're good at what you do, you're good at what you do, no matter what you call it. I love making appealing end results, that is my goal."

Citing inspirations like family, designer friends like Jason Bass of JB Shoes and David Gensler, the Audi TT and even the man above, Anderson's portfolio is marked by its strong colors and composition, displayed in everything from bold graphics, to multimedia collage. And what's next is just about as unpredictable as the last gig. "I don't want to ever do the same project twice. They can look the same, but if I haven't toyed with a new technique, what did I learn? How did I grow? Progression is the single most important part of any artist or person, focusing on what is next."


You can practically scrape the grit of Philly's urban landscape off the work of design/illustration duo eneone (pronounced anyone) -- less mysteriously known as Benjamin Langsfeld and Thomas Schmid. After meeting in a 3D design course at the University of Pennsylvania, the pair has gone on to paint street cred all over clients like Nike, And1 and Brooklyn indie record label Ropeadope, to name just a few. "We work in a very urban area," Langsfeld notes. "North Philadelphia is no Malibu. If you took a walk in our neighborhood you would see a lot of the textures, colors and techniques we use in our work."

But don't expect to see their tags on just your everyday brick wall. Eneone's skills extend from the web to character design, although they say broadcast is their first love. Just how far their talent travels is apparent in a massive project for AND1, which commissioned a large "digital mural" that the sportswear company could take apart and collage into various print and broadcast campaigns. "We had an enormous amount of freedom to experiment," Langfeld notes. The pair merged together in PhotoShop a laundry list of techniques: hand-drawn characters, illustrator portraits, 3D models, hand made and digital stencils, hand-painted brush techniques and even Bic pen graffiti and Magnum marker tag work. The work is truly a streetwise standout, but with all the urban co-opting in the mainstream, how does eneone plan to avoid becoming a passing fad?

"Personally, we don't believe in labeling any original artwork as 'trendy,'"Schmid notes. "We tend to design about the world around us, and for the time being that world has become incredibly popular in mainstream culture. Most artists that we have met and followed have been doing their own thing for the whole duration of this so-called 'art movement.' The public decides what to label as original or trendy."


The name of L.A. motion and broadcast design studio Buck connotes everything from deer to dollar signs, all of which are present in the shop's propaganda. But it turns out the moniker is actually a jovial homage to Buckminster Fuller, the art and science visionary who just might be tickled to see the fine work his namesake has turned out for the Fine Living, NFL and Fuse networks. OK, so the reel's no geodesic dome, but coming from a shop only about a year old, it boasts some truly fresh stuff: Fuse IDs that cleverly morph sponsors like Winterfresh Gum and Puma into the network's logo and a graphically crisp nine-spot winter ID campaign for the Fine Living Network.

Next up the shop is applying its skills to moving billboards for Ikea in New York's Times Square. It helps that behind the Buck name is creative director Ryan Honey, a Canadian-born designer who contributed to Ogilvy's award winning work for IBM e-business and led the show at New York-based Heavy, Inc., which launched, prior to the dot-com bust, the much buzzed about online content portal; and Jeff Ellermeyer, a business vet who's worked for Interscope, Virgin and a slew of other recording industry giants. But beyond the shop's good-lookin' work, "our approach is really about collaboration, and that includes the client," Honey notes. "We enjoy what we do, and a big part of that is interacting with and learning from each other. It's also about mutual respect and lack of egos."

Moreover Honey sees his team as more than just "designers," he adds. "In my experience, especially in the broadcast arena, people look to shops like ours for a lot more than design. They want creative from all angles. We have to be able to provide concepts, scripts, storyboards, live action production, music and sound design, either to get a leg up on smaller studios, or compete with the larger ones."


After nearly eight years as a member of The Designers Republic -- the London-based creative studio that for nearly two decades has pioneered the multimedia spectrum with its innovations for clients like Warp Records, Issey Miyake, Mother and KesselsKramer, among others -- TDR alum Matt Pyke has launched Universal Everything, a new U.K. outfit that proposes to be as unbridled as its name suggests. "Be diverse, be original, be inventive, explore and keep moving," is the mantra the 29-year-old creative/design director hopes to uphold via a modular, multi-disciplined team of artists around the globe. "The modular approach means the studio retains its diversity and flexibility," Pyke explains. "It stays small to keep thinking focused and is expandable according to the project requirements. One project team could be assembled of a designer, flash programmer and fashion photographer, the next a fashion designer, music video director and a CGI animator."

Just months old, Universal Everything already has applied its skills to, well, just about everything: the show opener for this year's Music Video Production Association (MVPA) awards, a slew of music packaging for bands around the globe, a fabric series for Los Angeles/Japanese fashion label Sarcastic, skateboard decks for Canada's Village Green, even the sharp new website for Backyard Productions (see "It's a temptingly blank horizon out there, so we have to keep evolving and exploring to stay ahead," Pyke says. "The challenge is in applying our thinking to new products, markets and spreading beauty and love wherever we tread."


Visual effects artist Chris Staves spent more than a decade honing the work of directing greats like Gore Verbinski, Mark Romanek and Michel Gondry, as a lead artist/co-founder of Santa Monica-based effects powerhouse Method Studios, where he worked on countless music videos as well as films like One Hour Photo, The Ring and The Pirates of the Caribbean. But just three months ago, the Glendale, CA native uprooted to New York City to launch Massive Industries with executive producer Justin Lane, another Method alum.

So what are a pair of effects guys doing in a design report? Well, it turns out Massive has partnered with the motion graphic hipsters at Psyop, to turn out what could possibly be a truly fresh offering to the market-design-driven effects. "Psyop has an extremely strong reputation for creating leading edge, fantastically creative graphic-design driven spots," Staves notes. "My experience is strongly rooted in photo-real, seamless visual effects. The idea behind Massive and the concept that initially drew me to the collaboration is to combine the two disciplines of our backgrounds to create something that I don't think has really been done before."

"The line between design and visual effects continues to blur and we are currently standing right on that line," adds partner Lane. "Based on what we've seen in the past few years, projects are more and more requiring a design element as well as visual effects approach to the work. Our hope is to have the ability, when necessary, to deliver both." Even prior to Massive's official launch, Staves had teamed with Psyop on a Marshall's rebranding campaign for Hill/Holliday. He helped to integrate the designers' fully-created backgrounds and treatments on live action elements, shot by Believe's Carolyn Chen, turning out a series of shoppers existing in a completely graphic world. More recently, Massive and the Psyop designers partnered to create a non-threatening fully animated spider, halfway "between Toy Story and photo-real," notes Lane, for an American Stock Exchange campaign. Next up is a spot for AOL out of BBDO/N.Y. and a Honda-RVB project for Grip Limited, Toronto.
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