The trio behind Alexis Mark on their “personal and artistic” approach to graphic design
Off the back of a landmark year, Marie Grønkær, Kristoffer Li and Martin Bek are ready to take on more expansive projects and hone their unusually collaborative practice.
Last year proved to be something of a breakthrough for Office Alexis Mark. The research and graphic design studio based in Copenhagen was relentlessly busy, working on Denmark’s national pavilion for the Venice Biennale; releasing a comprehensive identity for its home city’s premiere art and design fair, Chart; creating a smart visual identity for Ariel, a new exhibition platform; and publishing a handful of beautiful, conceptually rich books and catalogues. Anyone who is familiar with the studio’s work, however, will know that the trio behind it have been quietly honing their craft and finessing their approach for the past three and a half years now.
The most impressive thing about Alexis Mark is that it consists of just three people, old friends Marie Grønkær, Kristoffer Li and Martin Bek. (Confused by the name? You’re not alone – we’ll come on to that shortly.) The founders initially met at the Royal Danish Academy’s School of Design in Copenhagen, but all decided to leave Denmark afterwards and continue their studies abroad. Marie ended up at Rietveld in Amsterdam, as did Kristoffer (via Switzerland’s ECAL), while Martin went first to Zurich University of the Arts and then on to a master’s at Yale School of Art.
“We all sought out schools that had an emphasis on a different, more personal and artistic approach to design than was being taught in Copenhagen,” says Kristoffer, describing Danish design education at that time as being “very pragmatic and design-solution-oriented.” In many ways, this urge to “go against the vernacular,” as he puts it, was something they shared in their early student days and which continues to inspire and compel their output today. In many of their projects, you can almost hear the trio asking themselves, “What would be the obvious form for this content to take?” and then deliberately heading in the opposite direction. Throughout their portfolio, you can see them using formats and media for purposes they were not intended for (take, for example, the giant digital billboard they employed as a bar menu at the 1000 Books Art Book Fair/Pop-up bar).
It was in 2017 that the trio finally decided to return to Copenhagen and set up shop. Aside from wanting to collaborate on projects, one of the main reasons behind this move was a desire to import into Denmark various things they had seen and learnt abroad. Immediately, they looked for a street-facing studio that would allow them to be publicly accessible. “We had this idea of starting a platform, from the beginning, and finding a physical space to do this,” says Marie. “So, this studio is on street level and we can fit a lot of people in, even though it’s quite tiny.” Soon after they moved into the space, the trio launched a programme of events, inviting designers, artists and musicians to host exhibitions, screenings, talks and performances.
The live events programme is aimed at getting people to open up and share, Marie adds, creating a sense of “generosity towards letting other people know what you’re working on.” For Kristoffer, it has allowed people “who are interested in certain subjects or approaches or mentalities to find each other.” The events ran fairly intensively for two years or so and, while they don’t put up an exhibition every month as they used to, the studio does still play host to album releases, talks and concerts on a fairly regular basis.
GalleryVisual identity for One Thousand Books 2018
Annual Reportt, as the Alexis Mark events programme has become known, has had a huge impact on the work of Marie, Martin and Kristoffer themselves. As Kristoffer puts it, the events have turned the studio into a space where they are “not bound by work projects but more by interests and ideas that we are keen on exploring together and with others. That was a super central part of our idea of establishing something interesting together here in Copenhagen.” However, it’s also had an impact on the city’s creative scene. “Without saying that it didn’t exist here before, there’s not the strongest community around these sorts of practices in Copenhagen,” admits Marie. “And we’d found that abroad a lot.”
“Even our friends from abroad were like, ‘Who is this Alexis person all of a sudden?’”Marie Grønkær, Office Alexis Mark
GalleryVisual identity for the Danish Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale, showing Heirloom by Larissa Sansour
It wasn’t just this idea of having a public face that the trio brought back from their work, internships and studies abroad. They also carried something more intangible back across the Danish border. “We realised that small studios, consisting of three or four people, can do a huge job for a big cultural institution, and that it doesn’t need to have this big machine power behind it,” says Marie. Before having these experiences, none of them would have thought that it would be possible for them as a studio of three to work on something as large-scale as a comprehensive exhibition identity. This confidence in the power of their small and nimble studio structure was invaluable in those early days.
Of course, being so small has its drawbacks, but in the main, they manage by having what Kristoffer describes as “fluid” working relationships. On a smaller project, there will normally be one person handling the emails and doing most of the meetings; on larger projects, like a big exhibition identity, for instance, they might all go to meetings with the museum director. But always the starting point and the approach are the same. “We will always be in it together in the beginning,” Kristoffer explains. “So if Marie is leading the project, she will approach it with a mindset that we have developed together.”
“Sometimes you can see the hierarchy in the design. This is something we’re trying to erase.”Martin Bek, Office Alexis Mark
GalleryVisual identity and art direction for Chart 2019 art fair
This means that Alexis Mark’s work avoids falling into the pitfalls that some larger design studios fall into, where “you can almost see in the end result how the process worked,” says Martin. “A cool idea was handed from one team to a project manager, then over to a designer. You can see it doesn’t fit together, because the designer wasn’t in it from the beginning. You can see the hierarchy in the design. This is something we’re trying to erase.” In their work, Marie, Martin and Kristoffer try to maintain what Marie describes succinctly as a “rotating structure”, which enables each of them to shift position constantly and reassess a project with fresh eyes. According to Martin, this allows “the idea and the aesthetics to coexist better.”
“Maybe we just put everything in the blender and give it a more vibrant, collage-y and punkish aesthetic.”Kristoffer Li, Office Alexis Mark
Which brings us to that name, Alexis Mark. The studio’s slightly mysterious moniker is closely linked to its flat structure. The trio knew they wanted a persona, but didn’t want to “brand” their own names. “So, we ended up choosing this fictional character,” says Martin. “Then suddenly it’s three people showing up to a meeting. It was a bit weird in the beginning, but the choice is symbolic – it tries to unify us into one unit.” A couple of other considerations went into their naming, which took around half a year to land upon – the founders wanted the name to be unisex and to be easily pronounced in both English and Danish. Also, in the end, says Martin, Alexis Mark “just sounded good.”
This has definitely led to a fair amount of confusion over the years. “Even our friends from abroad were like, ‘Who is this Alexis person all of a sudden?’” says Marie, laughing. “In the beginning, we probably embraced the mystery a bit more.” She does admit, though, that they still receive emails nearly every day addressed “Hey Alexis…” – even from clients and contacts who know the three of them well.
Increasingly, though, their work and reputation as a studio precede them. Last year’s work for the art and design fair Chart is a typical example of their idiosyncratic, highly conceptual approach and garnered a good deal of attention. Again, you can see how the trio asked themselves, “What’s the most obvious way to communicate this?” In past communications, Chart had kept the art and design parts of the programme very separate, to the extent that they were represented by two different colours (red and blue) in all communications. “Our most initial reaction was asking, ‘How come these two things need to be so different from each other?’” says Kristoffer. “What if we, in a quite literal sense, in the end, put everything on top of one another?” The final identity contains images from the previous year, blurred out and layered on top of each other to form a kind of intricate collage, with the colours blending into each other. “Instead of everything being very clean cut between blue and red, maybe we just put everything in the blender and give it a more vibrant, collage-y and more punkish aesthetic,” says Kristoffer.
And while the execution is innovative, unexpected and even slightly irreverent, the conceptual support structure is robust. “We talked about it being something between a blurred memory and expectation,” says Martin. Marie nods in agreement. “We wanted to talk about the past, but also about the event that is changing a lot and developing, so we wanted something that didn’t feel fixed and static, but that had this sort of vitality and vibrancy to it.” The end result is a visual identity that feels fresh and surprising, though not for the sake simply of novelty.
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Perspecta: The Yale Architecture Journal, Issue 50
Last year also saw the studio tackle all the visual communications for Denmark’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which was given over to Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour for her project Heirloom. Alexis Mark designed the exhibition visuals and graphic design, including a sumptuous catalogue documenting the project in English and Italian. Needless to say, the work is richly detailed, not overbearing and yet, at the same time, recognisably the work of Marie, Martin and Kristoffer. Having their work shown at a global event, and representing their entire nation at the Biennale garnered the studio worldwide attention and an opportunity for them to showcase their unique and artistic approach to graphic design.
So, is 2020 already shaping up to beat last year’s barnstorming success? In short, yes. The trio has already got three identity projects lined up for this year: for Chart 2020; for an expansive Paul Gauguin show at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotektet (they’ll also be handling the exhibition design for this); and for a cross-institutional exhibition by New York-based collective DIS Art.
We can also expect three more books: a 50-year anniversary monograph for the Danish architecture practice Vandkunsten Architects; a critical reader for Copenhagen Architecture Festival; and an artist book for Nanna Debois Buhl. Outside of these projects, Marie, Martin and Kristoffer will be working on a new apparel release in collaboration with the band When Saints Go Machine and a collaboration with the artist Paul Elliman, which will culminate in a publication. On top of all that, they’re going to be bringing back Annual Reportt with a fresh round of events and exhibitions in their studio space in Copenhagen. No doubt this will inspire Marie, Martin and Kristoffer to push the envelope even more in their projects over the coming 12 months, but it will also feed back into the city’s creative scene as a whole, growing the community that this trio has been instrumental in fostering.
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Ones to Watch 2020
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