Of fonts and monsters: Stefan G Bucher

Stefan G Bucher has charmed audiences with his Daily Monster drawings and books, but his work has an austere side too. Eliza Williams talks to him about obsessional behaviour, the magic of chance and responsibility in design…

Stefan G Bucher was first published at the tender age of 12. The publication sporting this early illustration was Der Donaldist, a German academic journal-cum-fanzine devoted to the work of The Donaldists, a group of writers and philosophers who study the universe occupied by Donald Duck. Der Donaldist may be obscure, yet was perhaps the natural launch pad for Bucher’s eclectic career. Many of the components that are central to his work are also at the core of Donaldism: humour and an obsessive attention to detail both play their parts, as well as a healthy dose of nerdiness.

Bucher has already had many careers in one: he has worked in advertising, as a graphic designer, an illustrator and an author. He is perhaps best known, however, for a personal project that saw him add ‘animator’ to his string of skills: the Daily Monster, a website where he posted up increasingly elaborate animated films of the beguiling monsters that he drew daily for 100 days.

Bucher’s description of how the Monster project first occurred to him sounds almost religious: “I had a vision,” he says. “I was driving on a freeway and one appeared to me. I’m not given to visions by any means, at all, but for some reason I saw that and I thought ‘ooohh cool’. And it came to me in ink – I saw it on my arm but I also saw how I could make it. Went home, did it, and loved doing it. And immediately made 50 more, because I’m compulsive. Anything I like doing I want to do a lot.”

The process by which the monsters are made involves a significant element of chance. Bucher begins by blowing ink across the page, before drawing  a figure from the pattern. This loose approach is unusual in his work. “That’s exactly what makes them great fun to draw,” he says. “With all the other drawings you start with an image in your head, and then watch yourself fail at getting it on paper. Because you’ll never get it exactly as you have it in your head. By starting with a random element, there’s not this horrible, constipated worry of ‘what am I going to draw today?’, ‘is it worth drawing?’, and all this angst. With the inkblots you’re essentially finishing someone else’s drawing.”

Bucher’s dedicated production of the Monsters betrays a devotion to his work that has been present from a very early age. After getting a taste for seeing his work in print, Bucher set about trying to insert his burgeoning aesthetic into the ads in the local papers of Hamelin, Germany. Picking what he describes as “the nastiest looking ads”, he would redraw them with the same copy and specs and then try and sell his versions of the ads directly to the clients. At this point he was 16 and still in high school. His motivation was in part the chance to see more of his work in print, in part the money earnt, but largely a desire for his environment to “look nicer”. “I probably had about ten clients at the height of it,” he explains. “I was all over the local paper, and then I figured out how to get ads into the movie theatre. I wanted everything to look like I wanted it to look.”

Such entrepreneurial spirit also allowed him to save enough money to travel to America. “I did two trips across the US during my summer breaks, and I just fell in love with LA,” he says. “I loved the really bright light, I loved the open vistas, and I loved the romance of it.” He attended Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where he was an advertising major. “It was fantastic,” he says of the period, “I came from a small town in Germany where I had always been the weirdo, to a place where I was still a weirdo but I was actually rewarded for it.”

Wieden+Kennedy Portland spotted Bucher’s talents and recruited him off campus. This turned out to be a bad move. “I had this naïve idea, based on how I was doing ads back in Germany, that as an advertising guy you could write it, illustrate it, design it and photograph it, you could do it all yourself. And of course that’s not how it works at all….

“Obviously they’re a brilliant agency, but I was so ill-suited to it,” he continues. “I think they’re a great haven for people who’ve worked in agencies before and are frustrated. If they’re coming out of these more restrictive environments, this is where 2 3 they let loose. But I was coming out of art school with the idea that I would get to do everything.”

Luckily for Bucher, it was short-lived, with Wiedens asking him to leave after 15 months. He left with what turned out to be a brilliant contact book. “The thing is, my entire career since then has been based on who I met in that year,” he says. “It was a collection of amazing people. They inspired me and I then worked with them when they left. I did work with Gary Koepke, Tony Arefin was there, I did a lot of work with Jed Alger, Maggie Powers, Russell Davies.… It was a bad fit for me in terms of the vibe, the work and the place, but I loved the people. I just didn’t know how to be useful there.”

He moved back to LA, and had more success at his next job, as a designer for Maverick Records. Here he designed covers including the Matrix soundtrack album, as well as for bands such as The Solar Twins. At Maverick he also learnt a sense of client responsibility. “Advertising is ephemeral, beyond annuals that are targeted to other creatives,” he explains. “But these album covers stick around forever, especially for the people in the band.”

Bucher set up his own company, 344, while at Maverick, initially as a means to take on freelance work. The company is so named because Bucher’s office is where the 210 freeway and the 134 freeway merge – “so I just added it up real quick” – but by serendipity 344 also corresponds to the date that he arrived in the States. “I designed a calendar and numbered all the days. As it turns out the 344th day in a non-leap year is December 10, which is the day that I moved from Germany to California,” he says. After two years at Maverick, Bucher went entirely freelance in 1999.

Bucher has since produced a hugely varied body of work, brought together under the 344 umbrella, which he describes as his “respectability forcefield” because it unifies everything. If you know his work largely through the Daily Monsters, some of his graphic design work – such as his book designs for the LA Louver gallery  – will be surprising in its austerity. “I love doing both,” he says. “The more straight-laced work I enjoy because it’s information design to me  – looking at the data and finding the best structure for it. It’s usually for cultural clients or it’s something where there’s great imagery that already exists. Because I do the more crazy Monster illustrated stuff, that frees me up to take a step back when I’m working with someone else’s images, and be selfless in how I handle those pieces. I don’t have to insert myself [into the work] so forcefully.”

Amongst Bucher’s more personal projects was a regular illustrated column, Ink & Circumstance, which he produced for STEP magazine. Here he reveals wise views on how to manage life and work. Highly recommended is his column on ‘Greed Control’, essentially advice on how to work in the 2 3 commercial industries without selling out, and the sage advice he gave to graduating students (in fact useful to anyone): ‘Be useful, don’t be boring, and you will never be hungry or alone’. Bucher acknowledges that such philosophic ponderings have always been there. “But I didn’t articulate it for a long time,” he says, “because you end up sounding like an ass, and it’s very easy to set yourself up as a hypocrite. But I do try to live by it. And by doing that, you also mark yourself in a way that you’re no longer approached for sell-out jobs….”

Bucher stresses that he doesn’t mean by this that he is anti-corporate – “I did a Monster workshop for Starbucks a few years ago, it was fantastic” – and instead it is more about being able to retain a freedom to do the kind of projects he wants to do, instead of focusing on wealth and expansion of the company. “I’ve got such a nice set-up for myself,” he says, “where if a job comes in, I know a product will come out of it, and it will to a large degree conform to what I think it should be, and that’s an enormous luxury.”

His columns also offer reassurance to those who might be struggling with creative production, simply by reiterating that others go through this too. A desire for similar inspiration led Bucher to produce his book, All Access  – The Making of Thirty Extraordinary Graphic Designers, in which he spoke to 30 designers or firms that were successful, and asked them about the way being a designer has impacted their lives, both positively and negatively. “The point of the book was to make Behind the Music for graphic designers, and talk specifically about the impact that the work has on their private lives, and all that sort of stuff,” he says.

“I think that sort of honesty is the only thing that’s really helpful. I’ve seen so many talks by people who say ‘everything I do turns to gold’, and it’s very exclusionary. It’s very ‘I’m a genius, and you’re not’. It’s severely, severely edited highlights.”

Bucher has produced more books, including a Daily Monster one, and is currently working on a title about dating and relationships, which will come complete with medals awarded for “the stuff you go through in the search for true love”. He continues to film the Monsters, although periodically these days, and harbours ambitions to create a Monster TV show. As fans, we can only hope that this comes to be. As to what else happens next, Bucher will undoubt­edly continue to plough his own unique furrow.

“There are people who take the freeway,” he says. “I’m going on the back streets, without a GPS. I think I’m going in the same direction they’re going, but I’m seeing lots of other interesting places along the way. Who knows where I’ll get to, but it’s more a country drive than a straight shot to something. I want to have an interesting life. So far, so good.”

344design.com; dailymonster.com


STEFAN G BUCHER: THE PORTFOLIO

Books
Bucher has written a number of his own books, including All Access: The Making of Thirty Extraordinary Graphic Designers, and The Graphic Eye (cover shown below), which brings together 500 photographs taken by graphic designers.

He also designs book for others: he created a book to accompany the 2008 release of The Fall, directed by Tarsem (below). Bucher designed the typography for the book, as well as for the film’s title sequence and end credits.

Shown here is his catalogue cover for David Hockney’s 2007 exhibition at the LA Louver gallery.

 

826LA
When the non-profit organisation 826 National, which runs writing and tutoring centres for kids across the US, opened in LA, it turned to Bucher for its design.

826 was set up by Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari. Each centre is located behind a shop aimed at an unusual clientele. In San Francisco, this is a Pirate Supply Store, in New York, the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company, and in LA it is the Echo Park Time Travel Mart. Bucher did all the designs for the Time Travel Mart, including labels for all the products it sells, including Mammoth Chunks and Anti-Robot Fluid.

 

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