“I’ve coined the term ‘harmony nouveau’,” says Ali Godil, founder and creative director of House of Gül, a Portland based design consultancy that believes in creating socially conscious and beautiful work. “Think naturalism meets wabi sabi. It’s about free-flowing asymmetry combined with clean, negative space, and a grid system. There’s something special about a worldview that sees beauty in chaos, has an acceptance of the impermanence of nature’s course, but also understands the strength of human logic and reason.”
Fixated on the idea of what he calls “globally conscious design,” Ali maintains that the entire House of Gül ethos is based on “understanding the big picture responsibility of design and how visual language shapes our culture,” and the scope of the consultancy’s work to date shows that this is more than just pitch-deck chit-chat.
“We really have a shared sense of social responsibility with our clients and the problems that they’re trying to solve. Once we identify that strategy and thinking, then we translate. Not just how it looks but how it functions and works too” says Ali.
As happy to work with local pizzerias as they as are the United States Agency for International Development, Ali and his team are striving to produce work which marries ethical awareness with aesthetic quality,
Look at the way the material for the aforementioned pizzeria – Rovente in Portland – uses visual humour to make a moral message clear: pizza really is for everyone. Rovente positions themselves as an inclusive eatery that caters to an entire community. Knowing that, Ali’s presented work which shows that cherubic Renaissance figures are as likely to be found tucking into a gloriously gloopy slice of pepperoni as Jesus Christ himself, or a camera-toting hipster reclining in a sunny Oregonian park is.
A recent commission from American political activist and founder of the Women’s March, Linda Sarsour, is a prime example of how House of Gül apply a design-oriented approach to projects that have socio-political impact.
Tasked with creating both brand strategy, and brand identity for Linda’s new podcast series Street Politicians, Ali and his colleagues worked on the thinnest of briefs. “All it said was that it had to embody New York streets, and be edgy, while being suitable for a podcast centred around intellectual discussions and politics.”
Their attention turned toward the city’s subway system, with both the emergence of hip hop and the underground photography of Bruce Davidson being equally important. But it was the street artist Keith Haring who they really channeled for the project, producing a series of comic, chunky, and colourful logos that aim to cloak serious subject matter in an immediately approachable guise.
“Keith really embodies a sense of free flowing expression,” Ali says when asked as to why the 80s icon became such an important touchstone for the Street Politicians series. “His work is fun, playful and embodies this free spirit of social mobility and that style he developed was so culturally fluid. It could be seen as high art in galleries, but also reached people at their most daily and vulnerable on the subway platforms. I think what’s true and beautiful can cut through the noise in that way – across social barriers.”
The eradication of social barriers fuels another large-scale project which House of Gül have recently undertaken. Valenter is a tech start-up that seeks to provide underserved communities with access to online job opportunities and skills training, with several companies in both Ghana and Kenya using the service.
Ali uses the series of posters, letterheads, and logos they’ve put together for Valenter as an example of the studio’s holistic approach to consultancy. An initial idea is matched with a creative approach to problem solving, which then trickles down to design execution.
In this instance, they thought long and hard about how to visually represent the values of a startup that sees itself as pertaining to a level of social responsibility.
“We created a brand system that utilises different shapes and lines coming together to imply that the road to professional development is never linear,” Ali says. “It requires patience and different roads to move you forward.” He goes on to say that the ‘Valenter’ logo itself, “is clean and modern, with different shaded sides and can be used to create a pattern and repeated. This speaks to the different resources of the platform and how it can be scalable – providing stability and strength to your journey forward.” This, by the way, is what Ali talks about when he talks about harmony nouveau.
The rebranding of Zaytuna College, a Muslim liberal arts school in Berkeley, California – America’s first – is arguably the most ambitious project they’ve tackled to date, and the one that Ali seems the have thrived on. Still, given that they were responsible for everything from social media strategy to video production, that shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Despite the knotiness that comes with working with large institutions and their many, many, ever-moving parts, Ali sees House of Gül and Zaytuna as kindred spirits. “We really have a shared velocity. Direction and speed, right? It is a very large and nuanced institution, but we try and help them tell their unique story in the most authentic and inspiring way. Which is a beautiful struggle in the current social climate.”
Playfully reflecting the seriousness with which most educational institutions hold themselves, the latest House of Gül designed Zaytuna College newsletter embodies a sense of suitably austere aesthetic authenticity. This polyphonic ability to hop from project to project, deploying a variety of tones and voices, whilst remaining committed to a deeply-held understanding of the importance of ethics is a hallmark of the studio.
Incorporating Muhammad Ali, horticultural motifs, and Arabic characters, the work is engaging but restrained, modern but timeless, sophisticated but not overtly showy.
Claiming that it’s their job to “unlock the beauty of every living thing or project that we encounter and bring it to the world,” Ali sees the Zaytuna commission as being indicative of a way of working, and thinking, that strives for timelessness during a period of near total global flux.
At this juncture he invokes the names of Plato and Kant, noting that those philosophical giants were of the opinion that beauty was a divine experience rather than a sensory one. “We contemplate beauty,” he says, “with the eyes of the heart. And that’s what we honestly strive for here. It’s the same reason why all people from different walks of life, ethnicities, religions and age groups, stop to gaze in awe in front of the Duomo Cathedral in Milan or the Sistine Chapel, and stop to take pictures in front of a beautiful sunset or rose garden. Those universal principles of beauty that unite humanity at our core is what excites me. It’s where truth lives.”
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