Interview to the artist and graphic designer Eike König

The new edition of OFFF Barcelona is just around the corner, where we are Media Partners, and we can’t wait for it to arrive so we can listen live to Eike König, artist, graphic designer, teacher, and above all, a great guy.

Eike König grew up in 1970s West Germany in a politically active family, and the Cold War and its implications formed the backdrop of his childhood, shaping him into an engaged and astute youngster. As it couldn’t be otherwise, that context marked his life, along with the strict education he received, his curious attitude, his sense of humor, his versatility, and his sensitivity towards beauty, art, and design in general.

After studying graphic design, he joined Logic Records in Frankfurt, where he worked as an art director for two years. It was from that same progressive techno scene that his independent studio HORT emerged in 1994, built on eight rules stretching simply from “Have fun” to “Quit when you don’t have fun anymore”. The studio has worked with clients such as Nike, MoMA, Bauhaus Dessau, and a plethora of small yet fascinating cultural institutions.

For some time now, he has focused mainly on his artistic side, which fascinates us, and which arose from a residency he undertook at Villa Massimo in 2013. As you can see from the images, his artistic practice, which falls between art and design, stands out for its use of humor and minimalist aesthetics to decontextualize icons and phrases we are familiar with, creating new perspectives and interpretations.

Without further ado, as you will see, his creativity knows no bounds, and his reflections on the industry, his career, and life are just as fascinating as his portfolio. Take a look and read on.

What did you want to be when you were little?

To be honest, I can’t remember that anymore. I didn’t have a specific career aspiration. I devoted myself entirely to playing and sports, which fulfilled me completely.

My father had just built a new house for us, and everything felt like a great exciting adventure at that time. Even the sand dunes from which plants suddenly sprouted in spring.

You grew up in Germany during the 70s. What do you remember from that time? Could you share an anecdote with us?

As a child of the Cold War, I remember well the oppressive fear of a nuclear strike and the possible premature end of my so young life.

Some neighbors built small bunkers in their gardens, which I found absurd because the idea of living in a room underground caused more panic than security in me. In the basement of our house, I checked the expiration dates of canned goods to know how long food would last, and here too, starvation seemed more likely. At that time, many US soldiers were stationed in the neighboring town. This exposed me very early on to a completely different product and lifestyle culture. My North American friends rode BMX bikes and skateboards, drank Dr. Peppers, and turned every barbecue into a carnival with huge ice cream servings. Suddenly, I had a baseball glove in my hand and learned a different language.

Where does your passion for art and design come from? When did you discover that you wanted to pursue these passions?

My father was an architect, and I always saw him drawing building plans at a huge table at home. So, tools were readily available. Also, my grandfather demanded and financially supported an artistic education. You were rewarded, so to speak, when you painted a picture for him or knotted a carpet by hand.

Unfortunately, the results were also very pedagogical and strict, which spoiled my enjoyment of it. But the elemental triggers were my passion for music and, consequently, the graphics on the cover, as well as the infographics in magazines, which could convey and evoke a strong feeling of powerlessness over the political situation in this world with simple symbols.

So, as a teenager, I found out that a graphic designer designs the covers or infographics. That’s when my interest was piqued to develop in that direction. I also came into contact with contemporary art quite early on, as the family of my then-girlfriend had a gallery, and their whole house was full of art, and her mother liked to talk about the collected works.

Your artworks address very current sociopolitical issues. Has it always been like this? What is the purpose of your creations?

I have three professions, but they are all related. In 1994, I opened a graphic design studio called HORT. For 30 years, we have been developing visual systems and communication strategies for clients in the cultural sector as well as commercial brands and companies. Since 2011, I have been a professor at the HfG Offenbach, teaching graphic design and illustration, and since my residency at the Villa Massimo in Rome in 2013, I have been focusing very strongly on my free artistic practice.

“My decision to increasingly deal with art arose from a need for freedom and self-determination.”

My decision to increasingly deal with art and less with commissioned work arose from a need for freedom and self-determination.

Leading a studio with employees also means taking on a lot of responsibility for them. And working with clients also means always a certain degree of service, compromise, dependency, and external determination. The content we deal with in commissioned work is set by the clients, and often one is just an instrument to increase the sale of products. In my artistic practice, I can set the themes, and since I grew up in a politically influenced environment, I am interested in social developments but also in very simple human emotions, fears, and fallibilities. Art is a good medium to work on all of this and give it a body.

What are, for you, the differences (if any) between an artist and a graphic designer? Would you consider yourself an artist or more of a graphic designer?

I am both. Depending on the context. And in my opinion, that works. In art history, we find some personalities who have learned and practiced both professions. Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, Andy Warhol

“I am both. Depending on the context. And in my opinion, that works.”

You work a lot with graphic elements and fonts, are they mostly produced digital or analog?

Since my artistic practice has evolved from the applied practice, it is only logical for me that my knowledge and expertise from one find an application in the other.

My interest lies in language as a tool for conveying external and internal worlds. Specifically, though, in the space of interpretation that arises in the transfer. Depending on the context, seemingly clear information can be read and interpreted quite differently. So, my works are always open and individually readable, and not an absolute statement. I use type here as a container for my content.

“That’s why I use Helvetica, which is read as neutral.”

That’s why I use Helvetica, which is read as neutral, and not a contemporary font that would always give the work a specific character. But the actual work begins before it becomes physical.

I constantly make notes, written or pictorial, and these form the basis of my work. In these differently recorded recordings, I look for potential, which I then develop into an artistic work. This happens first digitally, and when I am sure, it becomes analog. Either I work on canvas, then it is painted, or on paper, then it is printed by hand or, increasingly at the moment, as a carpet, then it is hand-tufted.

What are your thoughts on AI? Do you use it in your projects? Do you see it as a threat or as an opportunity?

I love and hate it at the same time. And I use it. My answers are translated into English by ChatGTP and then corrected by me.

The development is already rapid, and the influence on our society will be massive. Every technological invention opens up new possibilities, both positive and negative. They solve problems and create new ones. Unfortunately, society cannot just pause for a moment to think calmly about how to deal with this development.

Do you follow any kind of creative process when approaching a project? What are your main sources of inspiration?

Conversations, literature, movies, scrolling… I encounter data daily that I find interesting or at least worth thinking about. Otherwise, my work follows certain processes and routines, but they are uninteresting for outsiders or do not provide any added value of knowledge.

In addition to having your own studio, you also teach at the Hochschule der Künste HfG Offenbach. As a professor, you work with a wide variety of and mostly very talented students. Have you ever remembered a student in particular that has inspired you in your further work?

That happens to me all the time.

The university is also a kind of fountain of youth that never runs dry. Current topics, tools, approaches are constantly debated and tested there, and you always encounter interesting talents that trigger something in you. There are some whose work I still follow, and others with whom I still work together.

At HORT, you work with big clients like MoMA or Nike. What is the creative dialogue like with such established and global brands? Is it mandatory at the studio to identify with the type of client you work with?

I can only answer this question in retrospect, as my studio now only takes on very few commercial projects a year. The operation has been rarely active since the pandemic.

Essentially, even at MoMA and Nike, only people work, just like graphic designers (we) are only human. With fears, hopes, and experiences, within a structure that one cannot overlook and therefore comprehend.

One tries to understand and fulfill the expectations of the other while simultaneously boosting one’s ego and selling one’s ideas as pure as possible.

This is the same with both large and small clients. Good work is created when both sides respect and trust each other and support each other while also offering constructive criticism. For this, one must be open. But at the initial contact, with a client like MoMA, you’re a little nervous…

At my studio, everyone could always decide which clients they wanted to work for or not, reasons did not have to be given. I am sure that the result is better when you can personally establish a relationship with the task or product. For certain products or organizations, I don’t want to work for this reason.

As Art Director at Logic Records, you started your career in the techno scene and the beginning of a new era. What can you tell us about that stage of your life? And what kind of connection do you see between music and design?

I studied and was very unhappy with the studies and the prospect of possibly ending up in advertising. I did my first internship in an agency, and the activity was far from what I imagined as a profession. Morally but also artistically.

I was young, techno overwhelmed me like an express train and generated incredible energy. In that phase of my life, so much was exciting and new. Face Magazine, ID, Raygun… everything visually spoke a different language than what they wanted to teach us at the university. In that regard, I was fulfilled by the opportunity to design for music. A great product, doesn’t hurt anyone, exciting artists and work environment, and a genre that didn’t have a fixed face because it was so young. A huge area to experiment and try out new technologies. The computer was there, Photoshop and the crazy filters… there I found myself again and could develop into who I am today.

Since 1938, when Alex Steinweiss discovered the potential of the designed cover, music has been inseparable from its visual world. That may have changed a bit since digital streams, but music still needs a visual identity today to add another layer, or rather world, to identify with, in addition to its own character.

What can you tell us about Eike König editions?

The Eike König editions are an affordable way to own a piece of my work.

“The Eike König editions are an affordable way to own a piece of my work.”

The original is often a canvas, and that costs much more, and not many of us can or want to afford it. Many have bought some edition works to eventually acquire an original. That’s how you also build up a collectors’ community.

What have you been doing over the past few months? What projects are you currently working on?

The past months have been filled more with personal mourning than with projects.

In September, our daughter Coco was stillborn. You have to process that first when something traumatic like this happens. It took me a long time to even approach my work again. I then did this with the text based rugs that I’m making at the moment. It’s a very monotonous job, fairly simple, and doesn’t occupy my brain much. At the same time, you have to be concentrated. This activity empties my mind and creates space for feelings, almost meditative.

At the moment, I’m planning an exhibition where I want to exclusively show these carpets. Soft images for tough feelings.

What piece of advice would you have liked to receive when you were starting out?

I don’t believe in advices. In the end you have to walk through the shit by yourself.

What assessment do you make of your professional career after all this time?

It’s not time for a life assessment yet. I can only say that I have experienced a lot and am very fulfilled by what I do. I have also learned to let go without drawing up a balance sheet, whether it was good or not. A balance sheet is always an evaluation and therefore a decision basis for the next options. For me, things flow more.

Do you believe the world is getting better or do you think we are heading towards hell?

Purely statistically, as Stefan Sagmeister reveals in his new book, things are better than ever… but at the moment, I doubt that this will continue to develop in the future. Too many serious crises, and the dark side is gaining more power.

Finally, what can you tell us about your presence at OFFF Barcelona?

I look forward to seeing old friends I have grown very fond of over the years and often meet at conferences. But this is the first time I’m in Barcelona with my family.

It will definitely be great for our son Wolf to experience the city and its people. In any case, I will go swimming in the sea.

(*) Images provided by Eike König.