The (Not So) Glamorous Life of Karlssonwilker

Hjalti Karlsson (left) and Jan Wilker at their studio. Photo: Elisabeth Smolarz
Most design monographs follow a fairly predictable formula: in their beautifully produced pages, triumph follows triumph in a career of uninterrupted glory punctuated by pauses to pick up yet another award or admiring magazine profile. Not so Karlsson­wilker’s Tellmewhy. Published in 2003, the book, as its subtitle reveals, documents “the first 24 months of a New York design company” set up by Hjalti Karlsson and Jan Wilker. It would be fair to say that those first two years were something of a struggle…

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Hjalti Karlsson (left) and Jan Wilker at their studio. Photo: Elisabeth Smolarz

Most design monographs follow a fairly predictable formula: in their beautifully produced pages, triumph follows triumph in a career of uninterrupted glory punctuated by pauses to pick up yet another award or admiring magazine profile. Not so Karlsson­wilker’s Tellmewhy. Published in 2003, the book (shown below), as its subtitle reveals, documents “the first 24 months of a New York design company” set up by Hjalti Karlsson and Jan Wilker. It would be fair to say that those first two years were something of a struggle…

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Cover of the June issue of CR, designed, for free, by Karlssonwilker

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The idea of the book was to puncture the myth that, just because the pair were based in New York and had mildly ‘cool’ clients, they were living some kind of glamorous, charmed life. It does so successfully: disappointment follows disappoint­ment as one job after another falls through, clients cancel work and bills stack up. In order to keep going, the nascent studio relies on loans from parents, work from girlfriends and even selling its book collection (although in typically astute fashion, the proceeds are spent on a table football game). A new low is reached when Wilker and his girlfriend start living illegally in the studio in order to save rent money, sleeping on an air bed and showering at a local gym.

Of course there is a degree of egotism involved in publishing any book about your work, but Tell­me­why’s warts and all approach is as close as it gets to an act of self-effacement. And yet through some pretty unrelenting misery, Karlsson and Wilker remain relentlessly chipper – there is clearly nowhere else that they would rather be than a shabby two-room studio (shown below) above a Dunkin’ Donuts in one of Manhattan’s drabber districts.

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That they came to be there at all owes a good deal to Stefan Sagmeister: the pair met while Karlsson (from Iceland) was working for him and Wilker (a German) was an intern. Sagmeister’s set up was highly influential on their own studio. “I arrived in New York and the door opens and it’s just him,” remembers Wilker. “I could not believe it was just him working out of his apartment with one designer – who did all that work that I’d been seeing? I thought there must be at least ten people sitting around in some nice office. It’s impossible that one guy can do all this and have this international reputation. I would never have thought of keeping it that small.”

“We just thought, ‘this is how to do it’,” says Karlsson. Sagmeister also passed on some invalu­able advice. “One time a record label called in,” remembers Karlsson. “It was for Seal, who was pretty big then. I thought we should do it but Stefan found out that we had no access to the people who made decisions so he said ‘no’. At the time I thought he was crazy but it was the best advice. Now, when the offer of a job comes in, we ask what is the time-line what is the budget and can we have access to the person in charge? It’s always a disaster if we don’t.”

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Dog lamp, made for a charity auction for the World Studio Foundation in aid of disadvantaged children

When the time was right to set up on their own, Sagmeister gave them a computer and their first job and yet, says Wilker, there was a time when things were “a little tense between them”. This came not immediately but a year or so afterwards. “It was really on our part – I guess we had this kind of master and servant relationship and when you separate you want to stand on your own and do things differently. He was a tremen­dous help but we tried to find something to push away from.” Anxious to escape from Sagmeister’s shadow, they wouldn’t even show any of the work done at his studio, even though Karlsson had worked there for four years.

Nearly five years after the publication of Tellmewhy and eight years after the company was established, Karlssonwilker is still based in the same studio. Financially, things are not quite so perilous – they have a full-time assistant, Frank DeRose – but they have less than $3000 in the bank (which wouldn’t even cover one month’s over­heads), no savings and “no idea” what will happen in four months when the current projects are finished. “It’s still hand to mouth,” admits Karlsson. Their long-suffering girlfriends, now wives, still effectively subsidise them, presumably in the hope that one day they will make some real money. “They have been incredibly patient,” admits Wilker. Some might say indulgent.

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CD sleeve for The Vines’ Highly Evolved album, 2002

Wasn’t there a point when they were tempted to pack the whole thing in and go and work for somebody else – for their partners’ sake if nothing else? “That was never an option,” says Wilker. “We talk about it as a psychological crutch – one more month then we take that big corporate job.” Every January they ask themselves if they want to carry on and that’s about as far as they get with forward planning. If the phone rings with a job, great. If not, they’ll amuse themselves, perhaps designing a mailer because that’s a fun project, but never cold-calling for work.

I wonder whether the very fact that they’ve managed to survive this long on minimal income is achievement enough for them. Seemingly happy just to get by, do they lack ambition? “We have ambition, but for different things,” says Wilker, “We are very ambitious for the work.” “We are very ambitious with what we do but very passive in the way that we do it,” adds Karlsson. One example of the former might perhaps be a book that they designed for Creative Time, the New York public art organisation. Karlssonwilker decided to make the cover of the book into a piece of public art itself. They drove a van stuffed with various forms of monitoring equipment around the city to record sound levels, weather conditions, the colours worn by passers-by and other variables at various locations in the city. Visual representations of the data were printed on single sheets of paper, every 30 seconds, 10 hours a day. These sheets were then stuck on the cover of the book making each copy a unique artifact.

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Karlssonwilker created The Urban Visual Recording Machine to provide unique artwork for the cover of each copy of a book on public art body Creative Time. The Machine recorded data such as noise levels and weather conditions as they drove it around New York. Every few seconds this data was printed out on sheets that were stuck on each book

But even if there is no grand, long-term business plan, surely they must have an idea of what they want to achieve with their practice? What nature of design studio do they want to be? “These kind of mission statements were something that we always des­pised,” replies Wilker. “All of this can be communi­cated through the work and the decisions over who you work for.”

The ‘work speaks for itself’ position can be a bit of a cop-out at times: after pressing them some more on this point, Wilker responds, “From day one we were very open with anything that was thrown our way. We are not looking for a political statement with our work, more a moral statement. We want to be fair, to be honest with people, but we don’t want to use the work itself for a political cause. A lot of people ask us if we do personal work but we never felt the need to do it – our outlet is through our regular work.”

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Karlssonwilker was asked to curate, write and design a seven-page feature for The New York Times Magazine’s annual design issue in 2003. The theme was inspiration and where it comes from. “We filled it with what we thought was interesting or important at that time,” they explain. It’s designed “so that the reader could enter the creators’ minds and follow their individual paths of inspiration,” the pair explain
Didn’t they at least discuss at the beginning what kind of clients were unlikely to be consistent with that “moral statement”? “But it never happens like that,” Wilker counters. “Halliburton never calls and asks ‘can you design a tank that kills children between ages of five and eight?’ That will never be the question, it’s always much more complicated than that and it’s always on a case-to-case basis. With MTV, for example, I was so infuriated with how dumb their programming was I said ‘I’m never going to work for MTV’. But later, when they did call and we had no money, I said ‘sure, let’s fight the enemy from within!’ These things can change in a second depending on your situation.” So principles go out of the window when the going gets tough? “I just think that these boldly set-up standards can, within a day, become completely outdated,” Wilker says.

“People ask if there is a philosophy behind the work and we never answer – we can show it,” he continues. “Maybe in 20 years I might be able to write something that does not sound cheesy and that makes sense but now? How could I?” Wilker says that
he was brought up to believe that knowledge and wisdom was something accrued over decades. “But it seems like you don’t have to know anything to be interesting to design magazines. It feels like this idea of the young learning from the old is not there anymore, everything is young and quick but there is no wisdom in anything some 30 year-old has to say.” Which might seem a little rich coming from someone who put out a book about his studio when it was barely three years in existence and he was barely in his 30s.

Wilker complains that magazines take too much of what designers have to say at face value without questioning it. Indeed when putting this piece together (an initial interview in Cape Town, where Karlssonwilker was speaking at the Design Indaba, was followed up by a lengthy session in New York) he was constantly asking me to chall­enge him on various points. He recounts the tale of receiving a questionnaire from an American magazine and it printing his answers verbatim. “It was like I just say it and it’s true. I was so surprised that’s possible. So we just started making things up – we started saying in our biography that we had won all these awards and been in all these magazines and no-one challenged anything. So after this I couldn’t take it seriously when I read about someone in a magazine.”

Like many small studios, Karlssonwilker engages a steady stream of interns, none of which are paid. Some in the industry would find that inconsistent with their avowed intention to be ‘fair’. “I’m not going to pay them if I have hard time paying rent myself,” says Wilker baldly, “I think it’s correct and right for someone at a certain stage – at school, or just graduating,” says Karlsson. “They get great experience here, I never think we are abusing them.” “We certainly don’t use them as cheap labour – we don’t have those kind of projects,” adds Wilker. “We give them a lot of freedom and it’s creative work. My internship with Stefan was great – I saw it as an apprenticeship and I was extremely happy to be there. I got so much out of it, why would I ask him to pay me?”

In the studio, there is no division of clients or projects – everyone works on everything, with work passed around once one person gets stuck or others have a better idea of where to take it. They may spend a month, working seven days a week, on a very low-paid job just to get it right. “Efficient it isn’t,” admits Wilker. They tried to use time­sheets in the beginning but Karlsson spent weeks designing one and it still didn’t work. Now, they say, they have enough experience to know what a certain job should pay and if they don’t, they ask someone who has done a similar project. “I think I’d find timesheets distracting,” says Wilker. “They don’t focus on the work, they focus on efficiency – that has nothing to do with quality.”

So what are they trying to achieve with their work? “We try to entertain ourselves,” says Karlsson. “And hopefully that translates,” adds Wilker. “If you’re open with the process people can take part in it, they usually see we have had fun with it. Our enjoyment comes from playing with the meaning or the mechanics of things, the way communication usually works and trying to change that, challenging everything.”

There is something engagingly honest about Karlssonwilker – there is no attempt to disguise their failures or their shortcomings. As with a lot of designers, their work is their life and vice versa. It’s a philosophy that could be termed self-indulgent but is not self-important. Wilker says that he is never happier than when sitting in front of the computer playing with ideas. Karlsson hankers to be back in the studio whenever he is away. This space is not just a place of work, it is the centre of their universe. They spend far too long there, barely make a living and have made considerable sacrifices in terms of lifestyle to keep it going but wouldn’t wish to be anywhere else. “I just love it here,” says Karlsson, simply. “It’s paradise,” adds Wilker. “Well, when we have money it is….”. 

This article appears in the current issue of CR (June), out now. Since writing the piece, we have learnt that Karlssonwilker has been commissioned to create the identity for New York’s Museum of the Moving Image, no doubt easing their financial worries somewhat

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