“Who the hell is Eike König?” That’s the question that splays itself in big brash letters across your browser when researching the brains behind Studio HORT, the small-scale graphic design studio with big name clients and an in your face, combative visual anti-formula. The question, posed by the man himself as the title of his design conferences, is typical HORT. Rowdy, catchy, uncompromising in its directness.
I don’t like heroes. Kill your idols.
‘HORT’ translates roughly into ‘after-school playground’, or ‘crèche’, and this is exactly what it is: A playground for creatives. A studio where imagination is unfettered and nobody is telling you what the right way is because there is no right way. HORT is a thoroughly unconventional working environment that runs the gamut of projects; from independent label vinyl sleeve designs to visual campaigns for basketball merchandise to men’s fashion accessories for Playboy. The designers at HORT don’t have a signature aesthetic – you are just as likely to see a smudgy hand-drawn illustration as a piece of clean type super-imposed over a photograph – they adhere more to a signature philosophy that revolves around individualism and making sure people can explore and have their voices heard. In fact that’s just it: HORT is all about people.
Eike König grew up in a small village near Frankfurt, and in his early years seemed set to become a professional gymnast. But at seventeen he gave up his intense physical regimen to pursue a more artistic career, enrolling in the prestigious Darmstadt school of graphic design. Two years later it was all over. Constrained by Darmstadt’s strict and traditional teaching methods, Eike had found work as a design intern at Logic Records, who recognised his talents, offering him a job as Creative Director. Eike took them up on the offer, and promptly dropped out of university.
After a year, Eike’s reputation as a fearless designer was growing, leading to him being offered freelance work outside of Logic. It was then that he decided to start his own company, in order to be free to take on the jobs that he wanted and to be able to execute them in his own inimitable fashion.
Fast-forward two decades and HORT has worked with a host of major international clients including Disney, Universal Music, IBM, Volkswagen, The New York Times and Nike, whom they have worked with over several years. Eike also teaches design at the HfG University of the Arts in Offenbach, and divides his time between his pupils, his studio and the international workshops and lectures he conducts.
The studio is located in an old tobacco factory in West Kreuzberg. The ‘haus’ still uses coal for heating; its smokey aroma – evocative of bygone industrial eras – seeps through the walls of the spacious, well-appointed workplace. HORT HQ is entirely open-plan – Eike feels dividing walls would be anathema to the idea that everybody is open and approachable at any time.
There is a quiet, concerted buzz of industrious idea generation in the studio, the seven or so designers occasionally drifting away from their desks to share a joke or idea, or to kick a small foam football at each other. Eike, a bear of a man, comes barrelling into the foyer. Hands are energetically pumped; tea is proffered, then the interview begins. Getting Eike to talk is not an issue. He voices his opinion eloquently (in his second language) on any topic you might throw at him, but it’s hard to keep him pinned to his subject, as he tangentially lurches from opinion to anecdote to conspiratorial grin.
You studied at Darmstadt, but dropped out before graduating because you didn’t agree with the way things were taught. Do you regret ever being there?
I knew I wanted to study graphic design from quite early on, but I actually didn’t think at the time about whether that particular course was relevant to me. It was more a case of: Darmstadt was close to my hometown, and the course was well known, having come directly from the school of Ulm – from Bauhaus influences. Looking back I can see that it taught the foundations of design well, you learnt about colour, about type, about composition. But I had this idea that university was a place of revolution! A melting pot where our young brains would forge the future!
And it wasn’t.
No. I understood that it was important to know the past, but also to question it. What happened in the early days of graphic design, it was fantastic, but society changes, technology changes, and the way we communicate changes, so we as designers cannot remain static. At Darmstadt it was all about just repeating things that had been done in the past, and I don’t think that really helps us.
Now you yourself are a professor, are you markedly trying to use a different approach to teaching than the one you received?
Yeah. That’s not to say I neglect the past, as we didn’t arrive here in the year zero. You have to know history to be inspired by the successes, and to avoid making the same mistakes. But I don’t want to tell my students what is right or wrong. I let them know what is right for me, but that is not necessarily going to be right for them, you know? They should know the past, but they shouldn’t follow it. And they shouldn’t follow me, either.
That’s interesting, because particularly here in Germany, a lot of courses and studios have a kind of apprenticeship approach, where the tutor teaches you to create in their style, kind of like an artist or craftsman would in the past.
Yes, a lot of classes are based around understanding the ‘master’, but it can come at a cost of understanding yourself. I think nowadays it’s important to show students the possibilities for discovering their own path. I think that my task as a teacher is wider than showing them how to draw or design. I want them to be great designers, but I also want them to be great people, to have an understanding of their responsibilities as a creative. That’s why I do design and cooking courses, where the students have to design a dinner party. When you cook, you’re cooking for someone else. And it’s the same with design. You do it for someone else.
While studying, you started working at Logic Records, eventually becoming Art Director at the expense of your studies. How was that? You left after only a year, right?
Oh man, having the opportunity to design record sleeves was like a dream! At that time Frankfurt was a serious player in the techno scene. It was a whole different sound to the Berlin techno; it had disco and Belgian new beat influences. It was still a small scene, and working for Logic meant I got to get to know all of the artists and producers pretty quickly.
So what went wrong?
Nothing went wrong, it was an amazing place to be, but some of the artists saw the work I was doing and they wanted me to do their record sleeves too, outside of Logic, so I was forced into a decision. I don’t think I was really cut out for being an employee anyhow, so I quit my job and started to work for the bands that I liked, enjoying the creative freedom that came with being freelance.
It can be tough making the transition…
Yeah, I think I was lucky in some ways. As I said before, I had some great contacts from Logic, and it was the eighties, the golden age of the music industry, you know? Labels actually had money back then. And I didn’t have to do much promotional work because a record sleeve is basically like a business card. A big, square business card. People see it and then…it was just running by itself, really.
Why did you make the decision to move HORT from Frankfurt to Berlin?
It was only quite recently that we did that. In 2007 I think. I was working alone in Frankfurt for the first few years, then I took on my first designer. Two years later we got a big job from America, so then suddenly there were four of us, plus the occasional intern. I realised that nobody apart from me was from Frankfurt, they were all quite international, and so I asked the guys where they would like to live and work. So, my designers talked about it and they chose Berlin. And here we are. The energy here is very positive. All the young designers want to live in Berlin.
The projects you are doing are so varied: Illustration, type, photography, 3D sculpture. Do different members of your team have their specialities, or does everybody learn everything?
Well the idea of working with people came out of my own limitations. I can do a lot, but not everything, so I wanted to work alongside people who were better than me, to be constantly learning from them. Yes, people who start to work here are usually good at one thing in the beginning, but we share everything. Photographers are becoming quite adept at illustration, and vice versa. It’s the same with my internship program. We take on two at a time, one is more skilled, and one is more conceptual. They work together constantly, and over the months they each learn a lot from one another.
You all work on the projects together then?
To an extent. There will of course be several projects on the go at any one time, so some designers are focused on different things, but there is no authorship at HORT. Everything anyone does is with skills that we have all shared with one another. If one person designs a poster, everybody else has too, in a way, even if they never worked on it.
Your work with Nike has been some of your most high-profile output, and you have been collaborating for a while. Was that a turning point for HORT?
In the beginning I thought that I could design record sleeves forever. It’s a fantastic visual playground, culturally relevant, embedded in society, all these things. But then the music industry died, and I realised: Wow, stop living in a fantasy world. Life is not like this. Even if I’m a very romantic person…
…You have to be pragmatic.
Exactly. The problem was initially that because we were only doing record sleeves this meant that clients would never hire us for anything else. They put us in this little box and couldn’t see our ideas past the record sleeve format. It took some big international clients to see the bigger picture. ESPN, they hired us to design material for an extreme sports programme; based on a record sleeve they had seen in a book. I was astonished. And then Nike did the same. They scouted us to design a shoebox for their basketball trainers that LeBron James wore. And we thought, why design a shoebox? Why not design a system that allows them to design everything?
That was a pretty big risk on their part, letting you run with that?
Yes, there was a huge amount of trust on their part. We never met them, we were a small company, and we’d never done work of that ilk or scale before. They could have done it themselves, in-house; lots of companies do it that way. It’s easier to see what style is in vogue at the moment and have your designers copy that. Instead they gave us almost total freedom to re-imagine the image of the brand. Now we’ve been working with Nike for six or seven years.
What’s your approach with these projects?
Well I don’t see it as us working on individual projects; I see it as us working on relationships. We really get to know the people we are working with, even if we never meet them. And that is much more useful than a short-term approach to a single project. For instance we had a very good relationship with the creative director of Nike, then he left and became creative director of Microsoft. The consequence? We get a commission for the X-Box.
What would you say were the benefits of working in-house in a design studio as opposed to freelancing for a creative agency like Hugo & Marie or Big Active?
The similarity we have here to working freelance with an agency or rep is that we are all individuals. The people that I work with all have their lives, their own side projects. And that’s very important, that they create their own identity. Some are artists, some design clothes. We don’t want our designers to be exclusive to HORT, because someday they will leave and start their own company. We collaborate frequently with ex-HORT designers who flew the nest.
Is the design process you have quite structured, quite rigorous?
I’d say it’s very open. We want people to make mistakes. There is no formula in creativity, you can go down one path for months and then someone asks one question and everything changes. It’s a very organic process; you don’t want to focus on a solution too early.
Who are your main design influences?
In my university Otl Aicher was considered so important. His work on the Olympic Stadium…everybody revered him. He was a hero. And I don’t like heroes. Kill your idols. Not in a negative way, but I think you should be your own hero. I liked David Carson, though. He was a punk. He designed the surfing magazine Ray Gun, and he was like a scientist in the way he approached it. He would change things, change the way you read. He didn’t accept that the magazine was a finished format; he wanted to improve, improve, improve.
Tell us about the HORT band. What is it?
I always wanted to be in a band, but I can’t sing and I don’t play an instrument. The band is a real playground though. We started it as a little project just to invent the concept of a band, to design a band with three characters, each with a story, based on the mythology of Northern Ireland. We then put on events, but we only play each event once, and no-one knows what kind of music they are going to hear.
So it’s more of an experience than a concert?
It’s a performance. We design the sets, the programme, we make electronic visuals that are displayed above the musicians. Last time we had a jazz trio from Switzerland. Our interns curated the whole thing.
Can we see it?
Not online. Only if you come to the concert. It’s a one-time experience.
What three artists are you listening to at the moment?
Eminem’s new album, Benjamino Gigli, McLusky.
What are your plans for the future?
I try not to look too far into the future. We are living in the moment. What are your plans for the future?
First published in CRACK Magazine: www.crackmagazine.net
Text: Louis Labron Johnson