Exploring the outskirts of Mexico with karlssonwilker
When we profiled New York design firm karlssonwilker for our 2012 DesignMarch issue, one of the things we discussed was the need for graphic design and visuals, and why people should pay them for what they do—what exactly they bring to the table. Their response was resoundingly simple, yet confusing:
“We can design something just right, but we can never guarantee sales or success. See, most of what sells a product is itself. If your CD is brilliantly designed, with great artwork, but the music sucks, it will not sell. The opposite is rather true, great music can sell in great numbers despite being packaged horribly.”
Then, when we paid their Manhattan office a visit a year ago, we found them hard at work on creating the visual aspect for a still-in-the-making album that was all but guaranteed to feature some pretty great music. The album in question—Gusgus’ ‘Mexico’—finally saw release this June, and it was accompanied by some intriguing design work from the karlssonwilker team.
Having had the chance to follow the design process from afar since the beginning, through visits and correspondence, we felt it presented a great opportunity to further delve into the purposes and processes of graphic design, to try and understand how an established, respected firm like karlssonwilker goes on about visually presenting a piece of music and what that entails: how an idea moves from the brainstorming stage to its final, tangible form and the challenges and triumphs experienced along the way.
About halfway through the project, I sat down with Hjalti Karlsson at an unnamed Manhattan tavern to discuss the process so far. Sipping on a Corona, he excitedly browsed through his iPhone, looking for visuals to show me. “Wait, you have to hear this!” he exclaims and offers a pair of headphones. “I shouldn’t be sharing the music like this, but, you know, you can’t take it with you. And I’m really obsessed with this tune right now.”
Hjalti, it turns out, has been a fan of Gusgus for a long time. And he is stoked to be working with the band. “I remember buying [international début] ‘Polydistortion’ in 1997, and absolutely loving it. And I’ve followed them closely ever since. They are definitely one of my favourite bands.”
The plan, he says, is for karlssonwilker to design vinyl and CD versions of ‘Mexico,’ along covers for the album’s singles, a new logo and accompanying visuals for the album’s entire campaign. “Then, the idea surfaced that we’d also create a few videos for the album, which really titillated me. We’ve made all kinds of animation and stop motion work for clients like Nintendo and MTV, but never a bona fide music video. It’s an exciting project, and we delved right in.”
A few months later, ‘Mexico’ has been released with great fanfare, along with their video for the album’s title track. Over the phone, Hjalti discusses the creative process, how they went about it all.
“We were initially presented with three or four songs, and the working title “Mexico,” he says. “After immersing ourselves in the music a bit, we sat down and discussed how we should move forward like we usually do, me, Jan [Wilker] and Sandra [Shizuka]. We would just talk and try out different things on our respective computers. It was a very organic process.”
As a veteran in the field, Hjalti has seen some changes in the ways the creative work gets done. “Back when I started in the business, you would always sketch things out with a pencil and pad. We don’t really do that anymore—the process now mostly entails discussing the different projects at length before sitting at the computer to draft out the ideas.”
I ask him if the cactus man on the album cover is meant to respond to the title. The question surprises him. “That’s an interesting idea. We honestly never thought of it that way. The form was just something we were experimenting with and wound up being an appealing image. I believe this is actually the first time this connection is pointed out to me, Mexico and cacti and all that.”
He laughs, and continues: “Now that you say it, it seems so obvious. But it really wasn’t planned like that. We never meant the artwork to reference Mexico the country; in fact we decided that using colours and imagery associated with it would be kind of clichéd and lazy. Our main point of departure for the whole project was that it should consist of a bunch of random shapes and colours that would clash with one another. The figure that wound up on the cover, I think we sent like four proposals to the band, and in the end that one came out on top. The cactus man.”
“New York hot”
Hjalti pauses and tells me to hold. “You should talk to Sandra,” he says. “She was very involved in the whole process and might have some interesting things to say about it all.”
Sandra picks up the receiver and introduces herself. After a brief chat, in which I learn that she was born and raised in Portugal, and that she’s been with karlssonwilker since 2011, we get to discussing the project.
“When we started the job, all we knew was that we were going to make a video for the song “Crossfade” and that we wanted to explore the quirkiness of 3D and some of the media and technologies that were new at the time, like Kinect and motion capture. Those were our starting points.”
She continues: “The next step was drafting in Alex Czetwertynski, who is very skilled at the whole 3D animation thing, and planning a shoot with the band. The idea was to gather material for the video and hopefully the artwork, too.”
When talking to anyone associated with karlssonwilker, you get the sense that one of the firm’s biggest emphases is on exploration, improvisation and creative freedom. And the work on ‘Mexico’ was no exception. “We didn’t really have a storyboard for the video when we started shooting,” Sandra says. “We just gathered a bunch of equipment, different cameras and processes and spent an entire weekend with the band at Jan’s place in Greenpoint.”
“That whole weekend was a little bit crazy. It was so hot—you know, ‘New York hot,’ really humid and nasty—and we were working from eight in the morning until eleven at night. The band had to be in front of the camera with these motion capture dots on their faces for the whole duration, jumping and dancing and acting super fresh, as if they weren’t totally overheated and sweaty and exhausted. It was kind of funny. We wound up with hours and hours of raw material that needed to be rendered and processed, and that was the biggest part of my job, taking that footage and exploring it.”
Exploration is important
I ask if the process was comparable to the other projects she’s done with the firm. “I don’t think so,” she says. “We have a really free way of working, and we always enjoy the process a lot. Most of the time we don’t know where it’s going to take us or what kind of results we’re going to get. That can be a bit hard, because you don’t foresee what’s coming, you never really envision a final product. With Gusgus, this was exponentially harder, even, because we didn’t really know what we would do with all that raw footage we had. We just wanted to explore it as much as we could, and see what the outcome would be.”
Going about it like that presented tons of challenges, but also opportunity, Sandra and Hjalti both confirm, a sort of burden of freedom in the Sartrean sense. But, they apparently withstood the challenge. “Working on ‘Mexico’ was the kind of experience where you learn something new every day,” Sandra says. “It was amazing, just to go in there every day and attempt to fully deconstruct the materials we had to work with. I imagine that if we were to redo the process, the outcome of the video would be completely different. And that’s the exciting part of that project; it almost makes you want to go back and do it again, just to see if a new approach would take us somewhere else, teach us something new.”
She continues: “I like the idea that we are a studio that thrives when the process is experimental, when we don’t foresee what’s coming next, and I think that’s what happened with Gusgus. Working like that scares people, and sometime the outcome might not be what everyone expects. But, it’s exciting. And it’s why I love being at karlssonwilker.”
Sandra bids farewell, and puts Hjalti back on the line.
I ask him how it came to be that their video wound up being for the album’s title track, as opposed to “Crossfade” as they had anticipated when we last talked.
“When we shot the footage and for most of the process, we indeed had ‘Crossfade’ in mind. We went back and forth with the band for a long time—it was quite a strenuous process. In the end, they decided they rather wanted to use our graphics for ‘Mexico’ as they didn’t quite feel they fit the vibe of the other song.”
Hjalti explains that this came as a bit of a surprise, and they were initially frustrated by the switchover. “We had to take all the visuals we had been working on over a long period of time and sync them to a different song. We weren’t sure the transition was even possible, but in the end we found it worked a lot better,” he says.
“Creating the basis for the video was excruciatingly slow and time consuming, so you can see why we were reluctant to switch songs mid-process. The brunt of the work, however, was the rendering and processing of the footage into 3D characters—editing the footage to make it fit wasn’t as big of a deal as we anticipated. So it all came together in the end.”
Certain elements from the “Mexico” video have been extended and will serve as the stage graphics for the world tour Gusgus just embarked on, Hjalti reveals, “I much look forward to seeing how our work looks live, we all plan on going when they play their New York date.”
We shift to more general conversation about the album’s artwork and style. “The title track video references all the artwork connected to the album, as most of it is indeed derived from there,” Hjalti says. “We decided to make it really busy, throwing in a plethora of different forms, colours and styles. Most music videos keep with a specific style throughout, and we sort of decided to go against that. We wanted to bombard the viewer with stuff—to overload it—so that it would be kind of too much, even.”
“We’ve gotten a good response so far. Some have remarked that the video makes them feel kind of dizzy, and that it’s overloaded, which is fair enough—that was our intention. We wanted to make it as busy as possible.”
Gusgus have always emphasized the visual aspect to their work—one could say they present a fairly strong visual identity with each of their albums. Seeing as Hjalti has been a fan of the band since the ‘90s, I ask him whether this affected the way he approached the project.
“Yeah, they’re a very visual bunch. It’s an interesting case actually. While most bands stick with a single logo and visual aesthetic throughout their career, they keep consistently shifting everything around—including their members. It’s gutsy of them, and I think it’s worked well throughout their lifespan,” he says.
“It also ensured this was an interesting project to work on. They never presented us with firm rules or a framework, like: ‘We’re only using these two colours for this albums.’ That’s usually how these projects go, there’s always something that’s explicitly requested, and something that’s forbidden. ‘Mexico’ on the contrary was a very open process that involved a lot of back and forth with the band.”
Knowing that getting intimate with people whose work you admire can often shatter any illusions, and even turn you off them completely, I can’t resist asking Hjalti whether collaborating with Gusgus changed his perception of the band. Does he still listen to them regularly, for instance? Or is he taking a break from all things Gusgus?
“No. Not at all,” he responds. “My enjoyment of the band remains the same, and I’m definitely not bored with the music. There are maybe two or three songs off ‘Mexico’ that I’m taking a break from, as we played them so much during the project, but I still like the album very much.”
How Does Hjalti Do It?
In June, The Museum of Design and Applied Art in Garðabær (www.honnunarsafn.is) opened an exhibit of Hjalti Karlsson’s work. Entitled ‘This is how I do it,’ the exhibit provides an overview of Hjalti’s work through the years, along with featuring portraits and posters specifically made for the occasion. The exhibit was initially commissioned last year by Röhsska, the Swedish Museum of Design and Applied Arts in Gothenburg, on the occasion of Hjalti being awarded the prestigious Torsten and Wanja Söderberg Prize. The exhibit runs until October 5.
Who Is karlssonwilker?
Megan Elevado, Director of Creative Operations [top right]
Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. Studied at New York University and Parsons The New School for Design. With karlssonwilker since 2013.
Sandra Shizuka, Graphic Designer, Partner [top left]
From Portugal. Studied at University of Porto, Portugal, and in the Academy of Fine Arts in Wroclaw, Poland. With karlssonwilker since 2011.
Hjalti Karlsson, karlsson [long hair]
Born and raised in Reykjavík, Iceland. Studied at Parsons The New School for Design, and has worked in New York for the past two decades.
Jan Wilker, wilker [sitting down]
Grew up in Ulm, Germany. Graduated from the State Academy of Art and Design, Stuttgart. A New Yorker since the year 2000.