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Features / Miscellaneous

A week at Eike König’s female-led and thought-provoking After School Club

Illustration:

Max Guther

At Eike König’s After School Club, there’s everything a design student could ever need. Want to print an A2 artwork of something you’re working on? You can do it and it’s free. Need advice on what typeface is best for something? One of the world’s best designers is sitting over there. In need of a cold coffee to combat the summer heat and your hangover? The cafe serves it with ice or ice cream.

A week-long series of workshops led by industry leaders, held at university HfG Offenbach, After School Club (ASC) has a prestigious reputation the world over. At its head is Eike König, the ever-smiling advocate of free education who saw the need for a programme where “the quality of your work is the only thing that matters… not the size of your wallet,” he says. As designer Na Kim puts it, he’s “a very a special figure as a teacher because he’s created not just a general workshop, but a playground for students.”

With money no consideration, ASC represents something very unique in the design industry, usually an elitist environment due to the middle-class white men who act as its gatekeepers. Instead, it refreshingly presents an equal playing field of disciplines, backgrounds and identities. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that its fourth edition this year embodied this naturally forward-thinking ethos into its line-up, inviting only female speakers.

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At ASC over the past week, the topic of its mostly female workshop leaders cropped up in conversation a lot. The idea was initially voiced by Eike, a regular name on the design conference circuit, as he was confused by the lack of female representation at events for, literally, no good reason. “It’s a topic I think is quite important, especially in an institution where I am teaching,” he explains during a panel on gender equality at ASC. “Any university is a male-driven institution, we thought ‘why not make it a statement?’ and invite mostly female artists and also those who have broader ideas of gender fluidity.”

With the idea of an all-female line-up decided, Eike’s students drew up a dream list of young female identifying creatives producing a high standard of work, but also designers the students actually wanted to hang out with for a week. The final list included South Korean designer Na Kim, Leipzig-based illustrators Stefanie Leinhos and Anna Haifisch, one half of Offshore Studio Isabel Seiffert, New York-based digital artists Pussykrew, photographer Marlen Keller and performance artists Franziska Aigner and Billy Bultheel. The strength of this line-up is not in the fact that they are women, however, it’s simply a list of creatives impressively and enviously good at what they do.

“Any university is a male-driven institution, we thought why not make it a statement and invite mostly female artists and also those who have broader ideas of gender fluidity.”

— Eike Konig

In Isabel Seiffert’s group, the female-focused theme took hold of the class during a workshop on The Blazing World, a novel by Siri Hustvedt “about a female artist who is super frustrated with the art world in New York,” Isabel tells It’s Nice That. The novel tells the story of the wife of a famous art collector ignored as a spouse and a woman. Until, “at some point, she decides to take three living men as her masks to exhibit and promote her work, to see what the reactions are depending on the personality of the artist,” the designer continues. “It was work she was always doing but the perception of it became so different. I found this really interesting because part of that you can still see in design, many fields really. You connect these attributes to gender. Men are creative or a genius, women are emotional and hesitant.” Taking the novel as her base, Isabel’s workshop played with masks in both the personal and graphic design sense.

Round the corner, Swiss-born and London-based photographer Marlen Keller was also playing with identity. ASC is traditionally known in the graphic design field and photography, where Marlen settled following a degree in fashion, is not a regular fixture. Because of this, the photographer wasn’t familiar with the event beforehand and so, going in a little blind informed her workshop: “I really didn’t know what background people would be from, or that much about After School Club,” she explains. “I knew they came from all over the world so it had to be something very open and not specific."

As a result, the photographer asked her class to group-up and discuss what informs identity, constructing “a reality or a world to work in which actually justifies what they do,” balancing conceptual ideas with improvisation. In the end, each project was entirely different from the next, despite their identical starting points. The final images, printed large or projected onto walls, varied in style, subject and technical skill, producing “different directions with the same input basically,” says Marlen.

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Down a winding flight of stairs to the bottom floor of the university’s campus sits Na Kim, a designer whose unique practice is born out of a career studying both industrial and graphic design in Seoul and the Netherlands. Speaking honestly, Na explained that her life — one that’s seen her hop between creative disciplines but also the polite attitude of Koreans and the more direct attitude of the Dutch — has left her feeling confused about her own identity. To discuss this feeling in a visual sense the designer looked to personal archives, asking each student to bring in a piece of clothing, group together, and create a collection. Na wanted students to experience that “graphic design can be new things,” she says, enjoying how fashion designers are more likely to take risks on the new, in comparison to the gridded rules of graphic design.

Na’s workshop was unexpected for those who’d hoped to work with her. But, in trying something unfamiliar, it taught the students an alternative design approach, one far from the usual opening of InDesign. “The concept of the archive makes participants bring up personal stories and share personal ideas with other people,” explains Na. “I believe that now we’re full of references and you really need to develop a sophisticated eye on what is valid for you. Everything can be very cool, very modern, but what’s the right choice for yourself when creating something? The starting point should be yourself, your history and memory, what you dreamed of last night or what you ate yesterday, everything is connected to yourself.” In response to this, Na’s class created fashion collections, morphing themselves into designers unrecognisable to the ones they were just a week ago.

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Next door, illustrators Anna Haifisch and Stefanie Leinhos set up shop. With both of their works commenting on everyday feelings of melancholia – and with a mutual love of Peanuts, – the pair told their class to embrace melancholic feelings for once. “I am often melancholic and enjoy it as a source of calming yourself down,” explains Stefanie. “We also found that it was an interesting topic because it’s maybe a bit unpopular,” she adds. “It irritates you a bit at first but as a topic, it’s an appreciated source of inspiration. In Ancient Greek times philosophers even stayed at melancholy clubs.”

Today, melancholia is more of a treat Stefanie suggests, “a luxurious thing as most people don’t have time for,” but one her class was afforded. The students took a while to get into the flow of it, but after a week each had embraced melancholia, showcasing their sigh-inducing works in an exhibition. “People being melancholic are considered lazy, like they don’t have their shit together,” says the illustrator. “As we don’t see it this way, we thought it was cool to let participants enjoy this feeling for the week, to see it as something positive and creative.”

On the other side of being melancholic was the creative act of being fully active in a performance workshop that pushed students to its creatively physical limits. Run by Franziska Aigner and Billy Bultheel who both work with artist Anne Imhof, its students were based at a local boxing club a few miles away. The first hour of the class’ day was spent boxing intensely. On our visits we found them running around the ring, the instructor clapping loudly to signal that it was time for them to get down and do pushups. After an hour of boxing, the students read for an hour, then listened to music, experiencing extremes to mirror the intensity of being a performance artist.

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Over the road, Polish-born New York-based designers Pussykrew, made up of Ewelina Aleksandrowicz and Andrej Wojtas, ran a workshop using equipment many students hadn’t ever laid their eyes, let alone their hands on. Media artists and directors working within 3D, XR, video and sculpture design, Pussykrew were the digital outsiders of the week. Growing up in Poland where cultural opportunities were limited, “we always wanted to escape” the pair explain. This feeling was one the duo wanted its students to explore during their week-long workshop, asking them to create a safe space for feminism and non-binary identifying people but by using computational technologies.

Pussykrew’s work has a direct approach, including people from multiple cultures “to influence, challenge and empower,” it explains. In its work of trying to represent people and “not fetishise them”, Pussykrew’s workshop showed the power of people as its students embraced the task and overcame technical hurdles.

Bowled over by the intense effort of its students — Pussykrew’s students would often be the last to leave the studio as the janitor jangled his keys to get them out — the inclusivity the duo wanted its students to create took over the whole campus at After School Club. Each speaker created its own safe space, encouraging and open to every possibility imaginable due to the nurturing nature of its female speakers.

A week of intense creativity, it was Ewelina that voiced one final point of encouragement to her class which perhaps best sums up After School Club in a thoughtfully designed nutshell: “You don’t have more power than the next person to you,” she says, “you just have to share that power.”