karlssonwilker inc. is a New York City design firm founded in late 2000 and run by Jan Wilker and Hjalti Karlsson. The two met while working for Stefan Sagmeister. But you knew that already if you have read their interview with Dizaina Studija magazine… So four years later, here is a quick 10+10 interview!
1. Please tell us about yourselves. Could you tell me how you got introduced to graphic design, where did you study?
Hjalti went to art school in Iceland for one year, then moved to New York to study at Parsons School of Design. Jan grew up in Ulm (check it out, it’s a city with an important design history), then started studying architecture before switching to design.
2. How did you end up in New York? What was the reason why you both left your countries and emigrated to NY?
Hjalti [see above] to study at Parsons. Jan wanted to work with Stefan Sagmeister, and he happened to have his office in New York, so i came to New York for an internship with him. that was in 1999. Now i’m very glad he was in was New York.
3. Do you feel that working at Stefan Sagmeister studio left an imprint of his working methods & aesthetics or you shared similar vision before joining him?
Absolutely, huge influence on us. Aesthetically less and less over time. When we started out with our own studio, we took over many things without questioning (like having multiple phone lines, which it turned out we didn’t need; or having one intern every 3 months, 4 times/year), some things we consciously continued (buying Filemaker and keeping a good contact list), and many others we consciously opposed (we don’t use sketchbooks). Obviously both of us were drawn to him and his work by a genuine feeling of respect, interest, maybe even empathy.
3.5 …Previous question was meant to be a bit provocative as you seem to be working almost on opposite spectrum of means to visualise projects — if Stefan uses a lot of handwriting, analogue imagery & materials, you seem to work heavily with digital tools? Is there a bit of «teenage» rebellion?
We would say that it’s more a thing of being from a different generation. For us, computers were normal, we don’t really have a life as a designer before computers. computers are not dangerous and detrimental when it comes to creativity (as our old teachers would constantly warn us); it’s actually the best tool to enable it. We sketch on the computer.
4. Ok, last one involving Stefan — In an interview with Stefan Sagmeister said that his small-studio (3 people) model was taken/inspired by Tibor Kalman, you are continuing this «tradition» in third generation… Why so? Is there a tipping-point after which there is no way back?
We tried it few times in our, by now already, 10 year history to grow to 6-7 people, but our studio always turned into a small agency, with hierarchies and group dynamics. the tightness falls apart, and politics and agendas creep in. Hjalti, myself, Nicole, and one intern seems to be a good size. but ask us again in few years, who knows what will happen by then.
5. Your projects differ very much from each other (unlike other designers who tend to impose their own style/aesthetic) — how do you achieve this, could you tell about your creative process? How do you maintain steady flow of creative & innovative output?
The one thing we could say about our process is that it is organic. There are no set rules or systems when it comes to approaching a project. Whoever is free at the time starts it, but that doesn;t mean the project is his. It’s a very low-ego office, focussing on the best outcome, and (hopefully) not on personal goals or vanity.
6. You often work with advanced technology – in The Urban Visual Recording Machine you gathered real-time data, which was then printed on the spot, for MTV idents you created a 3D ORB, which reacts to sound, designing typeface for ADC Young Guns, the temporary Vitra Store Under-Construction interiors etc. – do you collaborate with others on the technical parts or learn the tools/software yourself? Do you learn as you go along or try to explore these different tools through experimentation before using in real life projects?
We do, want and need to collaborate on some projects, makes a complicated project always better. Soemtimes the experimentation with a new tool happens within a client project, sometimes within in-house projects. In-house projects are different from personal projects. We don’t work on personal projects, meaning projects away from the studio. In-house projects for us are projects that we do within the context of our design peers, like designing a cover for design magazine.
7. Does space where you work matter to you? How long have you been at your present studio space (I assume from the begining?) and how does it influence you?
We really like our studio space, and always have. We’ve been here for 11 years, and nowadays the other 2 floors above us (there is a Dunkin Donuts on the ground floor) is all designers. It’s a small building, were we have a full floor. Our space had a bar built in when we moved in. We have a little outdoor first floor backyard space. We like being here, it almost never feels like work.
8. When visiting your studio in 2007 I was surprised about your pessimistic/non-glamurous attitude about everyday running of design studio… Now after running my own studio for 6 months and experiencing the day-to-day struggle, I see what you mean. Has anything changed in these 11 years for Karlssonwilker? What would be your advice for new studios/designers who are about to start a studio?
We are laughing every day here in our studio, and try hard (and mostly successfully) to make every day a good day in the office. We enjoy every day. We don’t look at the studio as if our lives would depend on it. What we do day to day has to makes us happy first and foremost, none else. But if that works, chances are high it also works on other people.
The reason I present daily studio life in an unglamorous light is, because it is. Students and young professionals have false hopes and notions about what we all do, and I don’t need to stand in front of a group of students and tell them how awesome everything (and in return I am) just to feel better and further confirm their mislead expectations.
9. Could you tell us more about SahreVictoreWilker? What kind of experience & form of workshop should people expect there?
SVW was founded by Paul Sahre, James Victore, and myself (Jan) a bit over 4 years ago. We all were (and still are) teaching a lot. The three of us are very different, but then again we have some similarities. We are good friends, but don’t care too much about the others’ design. It’s an annual design workshop here in New York, with people coming from all over the world to work hard, talk and play hard with the three of us. What is very special to me is that it’s the three of us in the room, making it impossible to hide behind the usually perceived monopoly of truth that a teacher has. We have to be extra sharp and open-minded, and fantastic discussions and disagreements happen. As far as what to expect; what we hear back from past participants is amazing and very encouraging; the best one for me being an email from a former participant’s wife, telling us “whatever you did to him during that week, thank you so much!”
10. What awaits us in future? The all-knowing-source-of-knowledge Wikipedia states that KarlssonWilker is for sale with a price-tag of $30′000′000, could you tell us the joke?
Well, about that, this is by now a very very old joke, ca. 2006. Back then we wanted to prove the point that people (highly unrealistically) think New York is all golden and shiny (if you make it in New York…), so we put on our website that our studio is for sale for $10 Million. People actually believed that our tiny studio could be worth this crazy amount of money, telling us “guys, please don’t do it, don’t give up!”. Then we upped it to $30 Million. Now we are millionaires, on the web at least.