Eike König on artistic freedom and creating work with meaning beyond income or likes

The founder of revered studio Hort, summer camp After School Club, and now an independent artist in his own right, Eike has had to learn how to spin many plates. We chat to the artist and designer about a time he got the balance wrong and how he’s adapted subsequently.

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Of all the names that have been featured in this series, German designer, educator and artist Eike König has one of the broadest portfolios. He’s turned his hand to everything from branding to painting, sculpture, typography and printing. And has tackled each with a clear love of craft and creativity and a good sense of humour too.

Raised in 1970s West Germany by a politically active family, the Cold War and its implications formed the backdrop to his childhood and turned him into an engaged, astute youngster. These qualities drove him to pursue graphic design at Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences but, frustrated by the course, he dropped out and joined Logic Records in Frankfurt where he worked as an art director for several years. It was from that same progressive techno scene that his independent studio Hort emerged in 1994, built on eight rules stretching simply from “Have fun” to “Quit when you don’t have fun anymore”. The studio has grown exponentially in the years since, working with clients including Nike, MoMA, Bauhaus Dessau and a whole host of small yet fascinating cultural institutions, and becoming an incubator for compelling graphic design talent.

Alongside running a thriving studio, Eike has taught on various graphic design programmes, predominantly at HfG Offenbach. As part of this role, he launched the famed After School Club, a week-long series of workshops held at the university every year, a programme which fast became the sought-after summer camp for Europe’s most innovative emerging creative talent. It was a place they could create, free from the constraints of university or client briefs, and where they could attend workshops hosted by – and therefore get their work in front of – industry leaders by day and then party into the night. Oh, and it was free to attend.

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Eike König (Copyright © Eike König)

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Eike König: Shout (Copyright © Boumediene Belbachir)

Despite all this, today, Eike is perhaps best known for his artistic practice, something which stemmed from a residency he undertook at Villa Massimo in 2013. Given the time and space the residency afforded, he began a new era of his creative work; one that plays with language to cross-reference the art canon and pop culture. Using humour and minimalistic aesthetics, Eike decontextualises icons and phrases we are often familiar with, creating new avenues of interpretation. His works are meant to be understood and enjoyed by many; they toe the line between art and design and therefore make a case for dismantling such distinctions.

Such a wealth of experience in the creative industry means Eike has learned a thing or two so, when we catch up on Zoom, I’m curious to dig into the various facets of his career. And over the next hour or so we delve into the shift from client to personal work, mental health, creative education, and why kids should be taught design from an early age.

It’s Nice That: You’re known for having started Hort, but you’re equally well known for your independent artist practice. How do you divide your time between the two?

Eike König: Well, most of my time now goes to my artistic work. Hort’s been going since 1994, so the structure is in place. I’ve organised the studio in such a way that I’m only part of some decisions at the beginning of the project, and I’ll step in if I’m needed. But everyone knows what they’re doing; I’m not really important anymore. My personal interests shifted too since I did a residency at Villa Massimo – not only my interests but I realised that I need to invest way more in this practice than in my studio right now. If you create an organisation or structure that makes you obsolete, it’s perfect. It’s ideal. That was very important for me, without that, I could not even do my teaching, let alone my artistic practice.

INT: That must have changed even more when you had a child?

EK: Since I became a father, my working structure has completely changed. Before, I was just working all day, doing whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, but now I only have certain windows when I can actually work. So to manage this workload, I had to be way more structured and organised. I work less now but I’m more efficient.

“I had burnout but it was also depression. It just hit me from one day to the next. I had been ignoring it until I couldn’t anymore. My body shut down.”

Eike König

INT: At one point that balance wasn’t quite there and I think you experienced burnout?

EK: When you’re young and you start your own business, you want to prove how good you are, how well you perform. I always connected that with speed; how fast I can change or do things, how many things I can do at the same time. That was, for me, success: managing a lot of things at the same time, in a short amount of time. But that’s very naive. It takes something from you. You get to a point when it’s just not healthy anymore.

I had burnout but it was also depression. It just hit me from one day to the next. I had been ignoring it until I couldn’t anymore. My body shut down. But that was a very important time for me to think about my working structures and if I really wanted to continue doing things at the pace I was going. I realised I had to slow down, I couldn’t work for half a year. I had to reflect, look at what was hurting me and how I could adjust. That’s when I started to work more with a team so I wasn’t responsible for everything anymore. I started to see my job differently – less as a service but more as a value that I can create. And just because I’m working with someone, it doesn’t mean I’m working for someone.

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Eike König (Copyright © Eike König)

INT: Your residency at Villa Massimo was pivotal for your career. What did you learn there?

EK: Well, usually graphic designers don’t get to do that residency, I was one of the first. It’s usually the “four pillars of culture”: architecture, writing, classic composition and fine arts. So it was a huge honour, it is a high accolade in Germany. You get money, you get a studio in an amazingly beautiful building in Rome and no one wants anything from you. That was a completely new experience. Before that, people would contact me to get a solution to their problem and they would pay for that. My work was always related to a client. Even if I was doing something for charity, I felt like there was a client relationship; I had to fulfil something, it needed to work out. But suddenly, I had time, money and space and no one wanted anything from me. It wasn’t easy, though – I needed a while to adapt to the new freedom. I did ultimately want to create something that I was happy with.

INT: What kind of work did your newfound freedom lead you to make?

EK: While I was there, I went back to what I learned in art school – doing things by hand. I didn’t use any computers at that time. I wanted to experience designing in space, making work in which my body was fully involved in the process.

I set up a print shop there. I had a rule that each print had a specific type size, paper size, fixed lines and within these rules, I had to somehow communicate my inner dialogue to the outer world. For me, the problem is always that I cannot solve any problem through thinking, I just run in circles. A thought is immaterial, I cannot look at it or touch it. At a certain time, I realised that if I give a thought “a body”, that is, if I write it down and give it a physical presence, then I can have a dialogue with this thought. So these prints were a way to make originals out of my thoughts.

I thought this set of rules was a good way to focus and explore the possibilities within these rules. I thought that because it was limited, I would come to an end at some point. But the more I made, the more I experienced an endless open space. Every time I opened a new door, more possibilities turned up.

At that time, I was also reading a lot about other artists working with language in their practices and it’s just great to understand where you fit historically. Then I started to collaborate with artists who were doing the residency at the same time. I also invited people from my team to do projects with me in Rome.

INT: Who were you reading about at the time? There are some obvious parallels to draw between Warhol, maybe the Guerrilla Girls, Barbara Kruger in your work…

EK: Kruger, for sure. She studied graphic design and now she’s one of the most prominent and important – whatever that means – artists of today. I see a strong connection between our works, even if just biographically because I was also educated as a graphic designer. I think you can see how what I’m doing now is just another step on from my graphic design work. But there’s also Jenny Holzer, Christopher Wool. The more you look, the more you find. I was also reading a book about Martin Kippenberger, written by his sister. He used language often. His work is very diverse, from installation to painting to performance. But the centre of his work is language, and he had a certain humour which I really like.

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Eike König (Copyright © Eike König)

“Pop culture is for everyone, that’s where I can see the power it has: it connects all cultures and ages and social layers.”

Eike König

INT: Referencing specific artists or pop culture is very prominent in your work. Both Homer vs Homer and Tell Me do that.

EK: You can find references everywhere! I just did a few pieces referring to the work of Joseph Beuys, who turned 100 this year. He was a very political artist – but anyway, who’s not political? He’s very prominent in German history but there are dark parts of his life that we don’t talk about, so I’m interested in someone being glorified as a personality but at the same time, how you can deal with their wrongs. I am interested in the tension this creates. So I will reference existing artworks, but often in a humorous way. I don’t take myself seriously. That’s why there are also a lot of references to pop culture.

At the moment, I’m reading a lot about high culture, things you see in institutions and museums. The more I see and learn about that, I realise how important pop culture is to me. Not just for me, though. Art that we put into museums is exclusive and for a lot of privileged, educated people from certain cultures. It’s very dominant and it’s written about or curated by white men. But pop culture is for everyone, that’s where I can see the power it has: it connects all cultures and ages and social layers. Therefore I like to cross-reference. I have a piece that is a mirror and it reads: “Who do you think you are?” Barbara Kruger did a piece of work with this same statement but it’s also a reference to the Spice Girls. That’s what I love! We influence each other so much. I don’t want to say “this is good” or “this is better”, my work should just talk to a lot of people. It should be read or understood by a lot of people and you can see in it whatever context you want. I don’t want to produce work that is highly intellectual or self-referential, where you need to have a lot of prior knowledge to understand it. My work is what it is, it doesn’t hide anything, there’s no big hidden story.

INT: There’s a nice parallel between the ideas you’re exploring now and the fact that you undertook a residency that was traditionally for what are considered high-brow art forms. It seems like a backlash to those ideas is a bit of a red thread in your practice.

EK: There’s this nostalgic idea of how culture is built and it completely ignores what design does nowadays. We still celebrate culture in white spaces, in churches, but design has such an impact on our lives – that’s what we should be teaching kids because we interact with it all day. There is so much power in design – we can design addiction – we should be teaching that so that kids are more prepared to encounter what they automatically experience. And maybe they can control it or understand how to hack it, how to push it in a good direction. Let’s not just teach painting or music – those things are important, of course – but for me, it’s important to teach them design.

After I did the residency, they opened it up more; Stefan Sagmeister and other designers did it. They understood how people working in business could also have this experimental time in their career and explore things in a different way. You can see now how my artistic practice is in between those two words. It’s still graphic design in a way, I still use the strategies and the aesthetics and the knowledge of graphic design. I’m branding myself in a certain way. But the context is different.

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Eike König (Copyright © Eike König)

INT: While you do still have these graphic principles in your work, it has changed a lot. Do you think it’s important to have that kind of evolution as a creative?

EK: I didn’t think about it. It’s a process. It was just the next step for me as a person. When you’re in business for nearly 30 years, you understand a lot about how a business is run. All these problems you have to solve, they repeat, and the discussions also repeat. It becomes routine in a way, so I felt I was getting tired, there wasn’t much challenge or progress. Sometimes I also get tired of working with clients because I feel I will never enter a situation where a client fully trusts me. It’s a big word, trust, and I hear it very often – “I trust you” or “We trust your expertise” – but still one negative comment on Instagram and they begin to think what Hort is doing is wrong. It’s so fragile.

A good project is a lot about debating and negotiating but at the same time accepting the other side and listening to them. But it just repeats, all the time. Then when a big project is done, I’m not even happy because we’ve been a part of it for so long and we’re just moving on to the next project. I want to celebrate the things I’m doing in my life more. I want to give it a meaning other than income or likes. I want to go home in the evening and feel I’ve built or finished something. I want to put it on a wall and look at it. So right now, what I’m doing is way more fulfilling on a personal level. Not just because other people also like it, but because I can look in the mirror at the end of the day and feel I’ve made something. It’s so simple. I can completely get out of the high-speed digital life, I can completely shut off and be in my own studio bubble. It’s way more controllable than working with a client who might change their direction overnight. There’s much more pleasure and fulfilment because I’m responsible for the whole process.

“I want to celebrate the things I’m doing in my life more. I want to give it a meaning other than income or likes.”

Eike König

GalleryHort (Copyright © Hort)

INT: Would you say that After School Club was an attempt to create space for that same kind of creative fulfilment in others?

EK: That’s one of the main ideas behind it. But it’s also about creating a social gathering, meeting people you’ve never met, becoming friends and forming networks. After School Club has a lot of layers. In a short time, you can create great things. You don’t always need a year. If you compress that process, you make different decisions. Which is the opposite of how our university [HfG Offenbach] works; the students always have time, months, years to work on a project and sometimes I feel frustrated by that. Things need to start and progress, plus that’s so far from how business life is. Working together in a safe space where you’re not judged by professors and you don’t get a mark is important.

The idea was to have a sort of design festival, where there are lectures but, like a festival, you sleep there, you have parties into the night. And it worked very well, people are still talking about it! It was also important to teach the students who ran it that you can do these things, you don’t have to wait for an institution to do it for you. You can create your own festival, be a good host and invite people. The whole thing was just very positive. That’s what people loved about it, I think. It wasn’t just about what you were creating, it was about being there and being together and having fun.

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Hort (Copyright © Hort)

INT: What compels you to teach? You dropped out of university and have some strong opinions about how a degree doesn’t matter, so what do you think the value of creative education is? What do you get out of the student-teacher relationship?

EK: Things have completely changed since I was a student. At that time, knowledge was very centralised, there was no internet, and so the professor was somehow a saint! They were the ones collecting all this knowledge and giving you advice, telling you what is good or bad. You depended on that. I’m very happy that we’ve left this behind. Now, you can get all of the knowledge you want from the internet, it’s out there. So my experience and knowledge is simply my experience and knowledge, my truth is just my truth.

It means the relationship between students and professors has also changed, and that’s a very good thing. I learn as much from them as they do from me. I can’t stay in the time I got socialised in design, I would be teaching them the wrong things because the world has changed so much. So it keeps me young, I have to be open to trends, to what’s coming up and becoming popular, new aesthetics, but also new strategies and tools for communication and so on. In the end, it’s not a financial thing, it’s what I’m learning from them, that’s my payment. I have contact with amazing young people; for sure not all of them, but sometimes you have incredible conversations which open up completely new worlds for you and you suddenly see things differently. It gives you energy. Teaching shouldn’t be a one-sided thing.

INT: You grew up during the Cold War and have mentioned how that impacted your decision to go into the creative industry. Then, during the pandemic, you definitely used your work to reflect on what was happening. How else do you see yourself responding to the changing world through your work?

EK: My family was very political, so my surroundings were a lot about what’s happening in society and what your position could be in society. When you grow up in an environment like that, it becomes you and the older I get, the more I’m into it. When I was a teenager, other things were definitely more important for me, but now as a father, the future has a new meaning. My life will end at one point but life will go on still connected to me.

At the moment, I’m thinking a lot about being responsible for what you are doing but also how much impact you can have – in both negative and positive ways. My commercial work was very much an engine for capitalistic ideas, selling things. Creating aesthetics that are adorable and likeable and that promote the storyline of the product. Design is a tool. But I can also use this tool to question things, to be critical, whether it’s in a humorous way or very obvious. I’m still using the same tool but less now to support a commercial product.

“Design is a tool. But I can also use this tool to question things, to be critical, whether it’s in a humorous way or very obvious.”

Eike König
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Hort (Copyright © Hort)

INT: In that sense, it must be difficult for you to predict where your work will go next but what are your ambitions? How do you want your practice to evolve?

EK: It will always be about language, I think. That’s what my main interest is. Language is power. You know, I started with printing and then I moved over to painting and I treat these paintings like 3D renderings. I also did some work with stone. Now I’m going more and more into installation and experimenting with other formats and materials but the concepts are still the same. I’m really glad I have the opportunity to exhibit again because a lot of exhibitions were cancelled due to the pandemic. You can read my work through Instagram, it’s a projection, it’s a message, but you can’t touch it, you’re not standing in front of it. It’s important for me that it is real, it’s not a photo.

INT: That makes a lot of sense considering how you often pair works together, or carry a piece over multiple canvases. You recently created ZAP! #@&*! ARGH! for example, and actually Who do you think you are? is also a great example of that.

EK: When I work in space, I create dialogues between works – it’s hard to do that on Instagram. I can’t really tell a bigger story than just one or two images. It’s a lot about where you put the work in space, which you confront or place next to each other, that’s how you create narratives. I see my work as individual pieces but also as a bigger cacophony of voices and they sometimes talk to each other or they’re contrary to each other. Putting them together changes their meaning. I’ve produced a lot in the last one and a half years but now I can put it out there, create dialogues, see people walking in and having conversations about the work. That’s what I’m really looking forward to.

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About the Author

Ruby Boddington

Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.

rbd@itsnicethat.com

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