The last weekend of September 2019 was a busy time for the design community, especially if you were on social media. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, think back to the last time you experienced some serious FOMO, or, experienced a bloody great time because you were there, at Us By Night. Antwerp’s nocturnal design conference with a difference was the talk of the town, pretty much for the singular reason that it seemed as if the whole design industry was there. Sorry (not sorry) for the inundation of Instagram stories beaming out from the disused riverside warehouse that was Us By Night’s venue.
As flocks of creatives descended on Antwerp via planes, Eurostars, trains and buses from all over the world, the small Belgian city was quickly overcome with a load of Dickies-wearing, black hoodie-clad, trendy-type folk. One thing was for sure, a lot of them were graphic designers. But stepping into the mammoth concrete vacuum, on first impressions, it seemed as if we had journeyed far and wide for a huge party, not a design conference. As the second-largest disco ball in the world (it was enormous) spun centre stage, surrounded by stacks of white spray-painted cars (yes, real cars), we all knew from that point on, this was going to be a weekend to remember.
As the buzzing venue gradually became, well, more buzzy, the festival’s entertainment was also well underway. Stalls constructed from scaffolding allowed the lucky attendees to get a tattoo, play video games, create a bespoke Riso print or letterpressed design, you could even queue up for a massage from one of two exceedingly lovely women. Aside from the hub of side activities however, the thing we were all there for, kicked off promptly at 5 pm on Thursday.
On the main stage, It’s Nice That favourite Jonathan Castro talked us through his creative process. “I try to replicate symbols from my community,” he said of his metallically blended designs. Delving into the cultural history of his native Peru, Jonathan’s work often pays tribute to the subversive, alternative cultures that he grew up surrounded by in South America. With fervour, he talked the majority Western audience through the powerful cultural symbolism within one traditional costume. And citing indigenous costume, club culture, noise music and the tumult that is Peruvian politics as important influences in his work, Jonathan generously shared the thoughtful rationale behind his highly contemporary work.
The personal journey was a recurring theme throughout the majority of talks at the festival. Often, the personal insights into a creative and how this has, in turn, shaped their creative mindset over time, was not only the highlight of the talk, but also the most inspiring. As design enthusiasts, we can easily recall our favourite designer’s work – Studio Dumbar’s Amsterdam Sinfonietta, Kelly Anna’s empowering illustrations, The Rodina’s performative design for example – but we know less about the personal experiences that got them there in the first place.
Nicole McLaughlin, the woman behind the funkiest recycled shoes that you have ever seen, was a great example of this. She started out her adult life with no intention of being a designer. In high school, she says, “I had a massive crush on this guy who was deaf. I had no form of communicating with him so I taught myself sign language.” After studying linguistics at college, she entered a design internship at Adidas as an underdog with no technical experience. But working her way up against the odds, and eventually making a name for herself for her hand sewn recycled garments (which are incredible, and exceptionally meme-able), Nicole found herself questioning her purpose in the industry.
Something didn’t sit right. She felt like she was “moonlighting as this sustainable designer [on Instagram] while working for a huge brand at the same time” doing basically the opposite. Long story short, she decided to quit and make a career for herself, hosting sustainable workshops to make new garments out of the old. She even does this for brands, using samples and faulty items to create new and innovative, one-off styles.
Hassan Rahim, Na Kim, Grilli Type, Fisk, Shawna X and Anthony Hamilton, just to name a few, also shed light on their personal journeys throughout their career. Their talks exemplified the fact that our personal experiences will always inevitably shape our creative paths, often, in more ways than one. For Noël Leu, cofounder of the Lucerne-based type foundry Grilli Type, it was his extensive travels around the world that caused him to take a U-turn in his practice. From creating the kind of refined and minimal work that is wholly expected from a Swiss type foundry, Noël talked us through how a trip to Japan threw a spanner in the works.
Fascinated with the ubiquitous forms of Japanese visual language that birthed all kinds of kawaii, Noël came away from his trip thinking “I really enjoy cute things in everyday life.” Consequently taking on a completely different kind of design project than he was used to – mascot design – the Swiss designer applied his newly found ways of thinking and seeing into his previously rigid approach to design. And while Hassan talked about his unconventional and unstable entry into the design industry, Shawna X discussed how motherhood totally changed her outlook on life and work, and Fisk’s Bijan Berahimi explained how his Iranian roots have infused the nurturing hospitality of the Portland-based gallery; the audience was left feeling satisfied and well-fed with uplifting inspiration after each of these speakers.
But in a whole other kind of personal insight, Saturday’s closing speaker offered a twist on this recurring theme of personal journey. In a new kind of creative role, rarely covered before on It’s Nice That, Lukas Kaiser, the man behind all things Will Smith and family, talked us through how he manages the family’s image through the digital landscape. His talk weaved in and out of Will Smith (of course) and how he creates a jovial, self-deprecating image online by combining meme-esque humour with some incredibly talented animators and motion designers.
Citing some of the funniest kids on Tik Tok as key influences with this kind of work, Lukas shed light on a number of highly creative roles popping up within the strange world of celebrity representation. For Lukas, whose job requires him to consistently ask: “How can we get people to fuck with [Will Smith] and make fun of him?”, it is all about “self-degradation”. And similarly to how many of the star-studded line up revealed highly personal and vulnerable details of their lives, it was a great twist to end the festival by unveiling some rather ridiculous things about someone else.