In Conversation With Eike König

Designer, Artist, Teacher. The accomplished portfolio career of Eike König, founder of design studio Hort, is only gaining traction with every new venture to which he applies his visionary approach.

Following our look behind the scenes at the Samsung Serif design, our ongoing collaboration with Samsung took us to König’s Kreuzberg apartment and the Hort studio, where we get deep and meaningful with the design legend, coming away awash with inspiration on the themes of learning, development and play. Dive into his home, his studio and his mind in the following interview, where we get frank about such topics as spaces for thought and experimentation, rebuilding your networks from scratch, and the relative insignificance of Tumblr likes.

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Your graphic design career began focussed on the domain of music. In 1994, you founded Hort, the acclaimed design collective and studio. Twenty two years later, the founding principle – investing in relationships and collaboration – seems more crucial than ever. In what ways would you say the studio and your practice have both changed and stayed the same over the decades?

So I started out as an art director for an independent techno label in Frankfurt – that’s how I made my foray into the world of music. In 1994, as I started working for myself, I continued to specialise in design for music. I only worked for labels, only designed album covers and logos. Those were the golden years for the music industry. I worked alone for three years, and then over time – as I became more successful – I started to work with other people. It was a big transition, as I was used to doing everything for myself. But as we gained more colleagues and a bigger office space, everything grew organically. There was no overarching goal, no business or development plan. Things just flowed somehow. Then suddenly there came international clients – Nike, Walt Disney, Microsoft. The office equally became more international. My colleagues came from Hawai, from Korea. So the language and the influences started to change.

“All of a sudden, I had this free space to exist in, for which I was getting paid but had no obligations to fulfil. It seemed like paradise with a trapdoor.”That’s more or less how Hort was founded, in the form in which it still exists today. A very open, respectful, kind place – one that’s very interested in other cultures. All of a sudden, I found myself moving from creator to team leader. So my tasks changed. I needed to make space for different personalities to thrive in individually, to organise Hort around the people within it, instead of imposing a certain way of doing things on them. How could I read someone, recognise their potential, help them to develop? My focus shifted to organisational duties and creative direction, and slowly I built in more elements: workshops, talks, travel, and also teaching. I’m now Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Offenbach, and before that I was a guest lecturer in Weimar and Mainz, and then one day I found myself at the Villa Massimo in Rome, as part of a three-month Deutsche Akademie scholarship programme.

This was the first moment where I had the opportunity to bring together all the different strands of my life, and do something just for myself. I had total freedom: there was no obligation to produce anything in particular. I was given an atelier in the middle of Rome, and I was surrounded by artists, composers, playwrights: a super interesting group of people to be inspired and challenged by. I travelled there with more or less nothing: I wanted to have the experience of moving somewhere where I didn’t know the language, didn’t know my way around, wasn’t supported by anyone. My everyday life [here in Berlin] is organised through my networks. I know exactly where I can go to get something I need, who will help me, and so on. And then all of a sudden I was at this point where I had to build up everything from scratch. I started to create my own circles little by little, like a child – first at the atelier, then a little bigger – I searched for places where you can eat well, and drink good coffee. I asked myself: How do things work around here? Where do people come together, and where can I find art supplies? In this way, I began a new inner dialogue. The first week was about introspective reflection, fears, not knowing, not doing anything, and facing the fear of not doing anything.

Then came the question: Is a period of non-creation part of creation itself? I experienced a lot of self-doubt during this time, as I’d always created under tight deadlines, always been occupied – and then all of a sudden I had this free space to exist in, for which I was getting paid but had no obligations to fulfil. It seemed like paradise with a trapdoor. Easy to lose yourself in. You’re simply handed everything, but you don’t know what to do with yourself. I eventually started to create again, and to engage socially with the other artists who were there. My door was always open, and I invited people to come around, watch films and cook together, create together. I eventually started getting into a daily routine, and kept a journal along the way, so I – or anyone else – could trace my thought process. Four weeks in, I invited other people to visit me and create with me – people I’d already collaborated with for a long time, like Nathan and Jakob of Haw-lin, and Tim+Tim. My mother also came to visit me for a week, which was totally crazy. We were both in Rome, we ate breakfast together every morning – we hadn’t had that experience for a long time. The whole time in Rome was a kind of trigger to keep developing, researching, progressing.

“The important thing for Hort is simply how we’re going at the moment, and what our opportunities are for tomorrow. Everything else – the day after tomorrow, even – isn’t important to me.”Afterwards, I set myself strict rules for creation: for forms, materials. I wanted to get back to hands-on creating, to focus on one thing at a time, as a kind of meditative experience. I wanted to move more towards art, to stop the train, get out and walk for a bit, so to speak. I took up an atelier in Pankow, together with two painters. It forces me to leave the house, drive for an hour, and work in a space where there’s not much around me, so I have to concentrate. I also started doing exhibitions, and I want to keep developing my artistic practice in tandem with Hort – to allow each practice to inform the other. I realized recently that it had all become a little too much – I was travelling too often, not in Berlin enough, didn’t have enough time for my work. So now I’m reorganising my time to allow myself enough balance between teaching, art and Hort. The important thing for Hort is simply how we’re going at the moment, and what our opportunities are for tomorrow. Everything else – the day after tomorrow, even – isn’t important to me. As long as we’re heading in the right direction, it’ll keep going well. And at the moment, it is.

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Clean workspace, clean mind. To what extent, and how, do your surroundings – both in your home and at your office – affect the way you work, and the output you create?

“In the studio I don’t seek peace or calm, I seek an encounter with ideas, issues.”The studio is a working space for me, and my working space is mega chaotic, in disarray, and my computer also looks terrible. But you need to be able to leave things there, to lose them and allow them to resurface later. I can live with this kind of mess in the studio. But I can’t at home. I need a wide, empty space, structure, ok – maybe a piece of clothing here or there, but I can tidy that away easily. In the studio I don’t seek peace or calm, I seek an encounter with ideas, issues. Thoughts are work, and thoughts are chaotic. That inspires me. I’m not in a pure white studio where everyone sits around with headphones on, I need to be able to make a mess, to leave things lying around for days.

But at home, life is separate. I come home, and I need this space that’s just for me and my girlfriend, where I can find peace and quiet. I live together with art works made by people who mean a lot to me, also designers who I respect, and [the collection] is a mix of the tastes of both me and my girlfriend, now that we live together. I guess I also collect space, in a way. I’m super lucky to have this much space. The studio is super big too, with a roof terrace. There’s enough space for thoughts. I want three meters between me and the ceiling, so that I have enough room to think. I don’t like having decorative items here. There are plenty of them in the office.

As someone immersed primarily in 2D visuals, in what ways does the medium of television play into your life and work?

“When I watch television, I’m present, I’m on the couch. It’s between me and the screen.”When I watch television, it’s a purposeful film viewing session. And for watching films, it really makes a difference to watch on a screen that isn’t a computer. A television offers a different kind of quality. I can take a laptop with me everywhere – it’s as portable as I am. But a television creates a certain kind of occasion, a little bit like a mini theatre, especially if you connect it to a sound system. It makes you concentrate on what’s on the screen. When I watch television, I’m present, I’m here, I’m on the couch. I don’t let myself be distracted by emails or messages. It’s between me and the screen. If I’m on the train, watching a film on the go, I’m always multi-tasking. I can’t concentrate on one thing at once. How absurd is the idea of watching a film on a small television?! That’s life nowadays. For inspiration, there are so many films that can be inspirational – in terms of the creation, the ideas, experimentation, storytelling – take David Lynch, for example – he’ll end the plot right in the middle. For me, television is entertainment, and a provider of information.

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‘Hort’ is an old German word for Kindergarten. What does the word’s meaning say about the values of the collective, and what would you say have been its keys to success?

“Having a degree doesn’t really signify anything. It’s just an example of one of the anchors to which we attach ourselves.”Yes, ‘Hort’ is a super old word for the place kids go after school. Where I grew up, in Frankfurt – where the Green party was founded – there were lots of independently-organised ‘Horts’. I think the idea of this free space is really interesting, because our lives seem to be so well organised, really structured. You go to school, you sit your exams, you go to uni, you graduate, you start working… you follow this linear path, try to organize your life around this structure, although life is actually constantly in flux, in motion – there are no real moments of graduation, only constructed ones. Having a degree doesn’t really signify anything. It’s just an example of one of the anchors to which we attach ourselves. Of course, we need goals, but these goals don’t give us (a) any satisfaction, because the process is permanent, and (b) they don’t guarantee any success. They don’t have a meaning for me. I studied, but I didn’t complete my course. I dropped out close to the end because I was offered a job as the art director for this label. You don’t get offers like that every day. For my parents, that decision was a little harder to swallow. They told me, “You can’t just not finish something.” They were scared I’d never make anything of myself.

But today it doesn’t work like that. I don’t care if someone hasn’t finished their degree. I’m interested in their personality, and what that person does, and how they share their work with me. And I always looked for a place where I could just be, and keep learning, and make mistakes – sure, you have to keep the business running, but learning and development is such an important part of life. And simply to exercise the skills I already have – that gets tired after a while. After a year, it gets really boring. It just keeps you in my comfort zone, to only use the strategies I already have to become successful. In a traditionally agency context, mistakes are avoided. But actually, for the sake of development, it’s the most important motor. To have the courage to try new things. Sometimes they work, others they don’t. To have the room to be able to take risks is super important to me.

“A safe space where kids from different backgrounds come together, feel safe, start to play…”So I thought to myself, why don’t I open my own ‘Hort’, a kind of place where older children – so not-quite adults – can go ‘after school’ – after uni. A safe space where kids from different backgrounds come together, feel safe, start to play, play with the highest level of creative energy possible, socialize, learn, grow, do things together: At its core, I find this idea really beautiful, really positive as a way to be together.

Earlier, we did a lot of playful projects, and today we work on more conceptual stuff, but when we get a brief, we don’t try to take the easiest path, the path we’ve already taken, but we look at the individual circumstances surrounding each brief, and we ask what we can learn from it too. This path always takes more energy, needs more discussion with our clients. Clients often expect ideas or concepts they’ve already seen before, or can picture in their minds. When someone says, “Nothing that you see in our portfolio will be like the concept you get,” you need to trust them. I prefer the path of the new: Let’s think differently about it and try to convey our position. So ‘Hort’ is a good idea. It’s also a nice name, has nice phonetics, and no other really clear meaning for others. Americans wouldn’t know what Hort is, say, though in Spanish it’s related to horticulture – landscape gardening, growing – there’s a lot of positive in there. All of us in the office can relate to that.

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As well as being the founder and creative director of Hort, you’re a Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Arts in Offenbach. What kinds of things are your students teaching you these days?

“You don’t need 1000 likes. Create something that’s relevant and interesting in real life.”The role of the teacher has changed from being the professor-as-keeper-of-all-knowledge – the one that knows better than everyone else, and decides between right and wrong. Formerly, education was about repeating what others have already done. I was always a bit sceptical about this model, because the things we know and don’t yet know don’t necessarily impact on truth or falsehood – they are simply part of our biographies, the things we have taken to be true. But those things will be different for the person standing next to me.

Everything that I experienced during my studies and that I was critical of – I try to do those things differently. Today I teach in a University of the Arts – so there are separate disciplines, but they all run parallel to fine arts: painting, sculpture, etc. I’m in this warehouse section of the school, together with the painters and sculptors and the electronic artists and spacial designers. I have a very close-knit relationship with my colleagues in these fields, and I want to offer a research- and development-based approach to my teaching in design, graphics and illustration. I’m really intrigued by this apparent distinction between practical art and fine art. There’s a really interesting overlap between the disciplines.

I want to help my students to probe into this. Each of them is distinctly individual. No-one works like I do, and that’s important – I don’t want clones of myself. Of course they’ll be influenced by me as their teacher, but I try to focus on imparting and discussing ideas as opposed to the formal elements. My students include classic graphic designers, classic illustrators, but also those who do drawing, photography, painting – it’s super diverse, just like in the [Hort] office. Everyone is following the questions they’re personally interested in. I only provide space to do this, guide the group with questions – and draw upon my network to provide them with opportunities like showing their work in a gallery in Düsseldorf, or travelling to Tokyo to exchange their work with artists there, or bring in artists for talks, and introduce them to people to share their portfolio. Not to say, “this is my knowledge base and I will now impart it to you.” Working in this way is exciting, because everyone’s doing their own thing, developing along their own path side by side. We spend most of our time talking, actually. Which is a total inspiration for me too. I learn so much from our discourse.

And it keeps me young! If you work with young people, you can’t grow old. Pokémon Go? Five of my students had it. So of course I needed to see what it was, to keep up to date. I have one class where we just speak about contemporary graphic design. We don’t make anything – we just spend the whole lesson talking about things we’ve seen that inspire us. I want these students to develop their own interests – not to copy what others have done, but to find a form that relates to them, and develop a self-confidence to work on things that might not get 1000 likes on Tumblr, but actually mean something to them. Not to be pushed into the direction of self-promotion, but to find themselves first. You don’t need 1000 likes. Create something that’s relevant and interesting in real life. My teaching focus is on developing the personalities of my students, not on passing on knowledge. It’s super exciting. This daily work with people – whether my students or my colleagues at the office – is my biggest inspiration.

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To pick up on the Tumblr issue, it seems that the generation of emerging talent today is heavily influenced by positive feedback from the Internet. If you get 1000 likes on a photo, you judge it as a good, whereas if you only get, say, 20 likes, you might adapt your style in order to get more approval. I imagine it’s somewhat similar for graphic designers?

“So the question is how can I separate this apparent quality control mechanism of my followers’ responses from my own self-worth as a creator?”I’m a mega Tumblr fan, but also a mega Tumblr critic. I’m always interested in the extremes – and Tumblr is a kind of filter that excludes these extremes. At a certain point, the only images you see on the most popular Tumblrs are those that get the most likes. That creates a generalised, mass aesthetic. Whereas if you want to become a good photographer, you have to be someone on the edge, have a point of difference. You can analyse and read and decipher the clicks and the engagement, and the reaction is instant, but that reaction has no other meaning than an emotional one. So the question is: How can I separate this apparent quality control mechanism of my followers’ responses from my own self-worth as a creator? Of course, these apps all operate on algorithms to create the ‘most popular’ logos, designs and presets. And sure, at some point machines will take over a large part of our work.

But I don’t want to lose that. We can’t leave it to the Googles of the world to dictate the future of design. We need people at the edge to try things out, take risks, stay critical. Sure, if you have a popular blog that presents beautiful imagery in a nice way, that dictates a certain style that young photographers will adapt themselves to. You need to formulate your own position, otherwise you’ll be replaced super easily, become irrelevant. Everyone wants their own website immediately, and for everyone to like it. Of course, at a certain point we have to start In my time, you went to the library, and there were a few books, maybe a Tokyo Type Directors Club annual, but not so many references. So you had to find your own niche, define your own aesthetic. To formulate an idea, you need first to plant, water and take care of it. I mean, there are people who only collect images on Tumblr, without realizing how much work has gone into each individual image – sometimes, it’s the culmination of a lifetime’s work. But everyone wants everything to be instantly amazing. It’s a tricky issue.

"We can’t leave it to the Googles of the world to dictate the future of design. We need people at the edge to try things out, take risks, stay critical."

–In collaboration with Samsung
This interview was edited and condensed. Text by Anna Dorothea Ker. Photography by Clemens Poloczek.

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