Eike König set up Hort in 1994 under the name Eikes Grafischer Hort – Eike’s Graphic Design Playground. It was intended to be a vehicle for his burgeoning design career but has since become something more complex; a creative club where participants collaborate on client briefs while simultaneously maintaining practices of their own. It’s a recipe that’s brought great success over the decades and seen Eike head up projects for the likes of Nike, Universal Music, The New York Times and Walt Disney among others, constantly developing and evolving his graphic language with the participation of an ever-changing team. We went to his Berlin apartment and studio to find out what objects he keeps close to him and how they’ve shaped him over the years…
“I don’t actually have that close a relationship to objects,” says Eike. “I’m not a fan of collecting things and putting a lot of history into them. I like to let things go. It helps me to lose weight and to look forward because all these things remind me of something in history, but they don’t really help in the now. I don’t have a car and I don’t need status symbols, so I chose these objects from the perspective of my own biography. They’re still loose – it’s not like a narration from the first object to the last where you’ll get my whole story – but they’re kind of based on my experiences and remind me of moments that changed my life a little bit.”
1. Trivial Voice: Movin’ Over
This is the first record sleeve I designed when I was working at Logic Records in Frankfurt. I was doing an internship there and it was the first time I was designing for music and the first opportunity I had to do professional design on the computer. When I was at university they would occasionally let us work with computers, but you had to book two-hour slots as we only had five of them available for all the students. They’d just tell us to sit down and work out what we could do with them. At that time there was Photoshop 2 or Photoshop 1 and we had these filters and plug-ins that would let you do cheap 3D renderings of balls and surfaces.
Back then Frankfurt was one of the main centres of techno music and I was working for one of its biggest record labels. There was no visual language for that genre of music yet – it was only just starting to define itself – and a lot of stuff was very cheaply produced and sounded very naïve. So I thought it would be good for me to design in the same way; to be naïve with a new technology and not be afraid to do things that people might not like aesthetically.
That ended up being a good step to discovering that I should do things that I liked to do and not just what people expected from me. Later on when you’re doing business you also have to fulfil people’s expectations but I still see myself as a professional who doesn’t just want to fulfil expectations, and I suppose this was the beginning of that philosophy.
2. Canon NP1330 Photocopier
The copy machine is a very important piece of technology in our studio. When I started out there were no computers around so graphic design was really hand-crafted work, you had to make decisions about where to include technology and how that changed the way you designed. What I like about the photocopier is that it’s designed for reproducing things quickly but it also has these additional elements like scaling. When you take this layer of functionality the manufacturer has given it and start to experiment with the limits of the technology, then you arrive at solutions the maker never thought about. In the early days it opened my mind to see that there was an object with specific functionality that I could push and try to figure out what was possible beyond that.
The copy machine is still a really important part of how we work. Lots of people think that we do this hand-crafted work because it’s the most visual, or the thing that people particularly like about us, but it’s just another tool. We try to see things as tools that help us to visualise our concepts. It’s no different to a computer or pen.
It’s also a useful reminder that technology somehow always offers something new. If you don’t just accept what other people think of it, start to question and experiment with it, you’ll find out that there’s a whole realm of possibilities that you can use as a designer and that ultimately it’s there to help you make things better.
3. Thorsten Brinkmann: Rain McKeul
We have this open factory space here in Berlin – there’s no doors and everyone works in one room – but I sit on the far side of the room . When we arrived the walls were white and clean and I always saw my studio as being like a castle, a safe place where I can be who I am and do what I want; that helps me to protect myself in my everyday life. I need this kind of safe place to work.
I saw Thorst Brinkmann’s work very early in his career and I instantly fell in love with his way of working. I had the chance to meet and have dinner with him and he was talking about his process and how he’s a collector and is always reorganising things, his tradition and where he comes from. I connected his personality and his stories to his work and then found a lot of similarities with myself.
Now I feel like this particular character always has my back – he’s like a warrior for me in my castle. He’s the first thing a client will see when they enter the space; they’ll see that there’s a warrior behind me, helping me to fight for whatever idea I have. He’s like my guardian.
4. ESPN Snowboarder
This was a part of the first international job we did for Walt Disney. I got this email from ESPN asking if we could work on a worldwide campaign for them. Initially I thought it was a joke, because why would Walt Disney want to work with us? How would they even know us? But they said they’d seen a piece of work we’d done with puppets doing a motorcycle race on a record sleeve and they wanted us to design puppet scenes for some extreme sports.
It was the first time I’d worked internationally and you learn a lot when you leave your own country. So we spent two months working on this – building the scenes and building the puppets – and we changed to LA time which is nine hours behind, so we were working through the night and sleeping in the day. The client put a lot of trust in us, that we could do the job and produce something really global. They really invested in us, which made us strong in the end and made me realise that you don’t need to be a big company to work on big projects, you can be small and still be on the same level as these big businesses.
5. Bauhaus Paperback Series
In the beginning Hort were record sleeve designers, but you can’t build a reputation in Germany if you just design record sleeves – everyone thinks they can design record sleeves! Then we became people that worked with Nike doing strange and wild typography. Nobody ever thought we were capable of other things – they’d think they couldn’t work with us because they weren’t as big or as cool as Nike. But we’re graphic designers; we get a brief, the brief has a problem and this is the problem we have to solve. That’s our job, it’s not dependent on the product.
At this point we’d never worked in a cultural field, but then we had the opportunity to redesign the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation identity and it was a big door-opener for us. You always need a visionary – in this case Philipp Oswalt, the director of Dessau – to trust in you and see that you’re able to work on another level, on one of the most important cultural brands in Germany. He was prepared to take a risk with us and these books are part of the result. After we did these, a lot of other cultural institutions contacted us and asked to work with us.
6. Ja/Nein Posters
There’s a German institution called the Villa Massimo in Rome and it offers scholarships for artists that are the highest achievement you can get in Germany. There are 10 studios surrounded by a park in a nice villa in the middle of Rome.
They usually invite two artists, two writers, two composers and two architects and a lot of well-known creatives have been given a scholarship to live and work there. Usually it’s closed to these four disciplines, but the new director opened it and decided that one studio would be available for other disciplines.
Suddenly I got this call from the director saying that I’d got a scholarship. I never thought it would be a possible opportunity for me because it wasn’t for designers but I ended up being the first graphic designer to receive a scholarship there. I chose two months in the summer and moved everything over there, leaving all my network behind. My idea was to figure out how I could start making work without anything and go back to the roots of my creative life. I invited people over that I’d worked with for years and they spent time with me collaborating on projects.
These two posters were from a project where I cut my own letters and ran a print workshop that invited artists to have me produce work for them, to create one-off originals. They’re a reminder of a time when I was so productive because I had time for myself and could make work that wasn’t connected to commissions or contracts. Now I want to take more sabbaticals, like Stefan Sagmeister. Actually he’s the next one who’s going to the Villa Massimo. He’s following in my footsteps!
7. Nina Hagen’s Journal
Nina Hagen is one of the biggest punk rock singers in Germany and I worked with her once on a project. It was great to work with a real artist who’s really famous. I mean she’s a crazy woman. A wonderful woman. Crazy in a wonderful way! When we were working together she was making these journals, collecting images and words, that tell a lot about how she feels in a particular moment and who she’s spending time with. There’s also a lot about how magazines talk about her. It’s a very personal thing. After we’d finished working together she gave me one of these books and within it you find out about this guy she was in love with and then split from who just vanished.It gives a real sense of how that affected her emotionally. There’s also stuff like personal notes from Phil Collins.
8. Hort Portraits
This is my team. I have them hanging on the wall to my left in the studio so I can always look at them. It’s a growing gallery of drawings by Nadine, one of our interns, of all the people we work with. They’re all done in a really raw way but in each of them I find the personality I know. It’s fantastic to see them every day because (I know this sounds like bullshit) we’re kind of a family and these people are really important to me. We’re all connected because we’re all part of this one big picture.
To have the chance to work with these people each day gives me more happiness than if a job is done well or we get talked about in the press. I have a personal connection to everyone who works here and I know how they’ve developed over the years. It makes me proud to see how they’ve become the people they are now.