For our latest edition of At The Bar (a regular get together in our Amsterdam Studio, each time with a different with a special guest speaker), we were excited to host Studio Yukiko, aka Michelle Phillips and Johannes Conrad. A Berlin-based Anglo-German design team, the pair are making a name for themselves in the industry with their unique approach to editorial design and art direction.
I first met the duo in 2011, late at night in a typically Berlin bar; impossibly dark, oppressively smokey, enticingly cool. I’d arrived in the city that week, carrying just a suitcase and a vague notion that Berlin was a place associated with a certain amount of creative liberation and spontaneity; a city that might provide me with the time, space and motivation to do something I cared about. Whatever that might be.
And so, sitting there in the hovering smoke, wiping beer foam from my mouth, I was delighted to listen as they recounted the challenges they’d been facing that day filming a music video with a live owl. Perhaps music videos with live owls would be something I could do, I thought. These guys were cool; these guys were Berlin. I wanted to be their friend.
Tragically, over the subsequent 7 years I never got to work with a single live owl. But I did manage to build a friendship with Michelle and Johannes, in spite of their irrepressible dedication to work and the manically busy schedule that it generated. I visited their studio, located in a former municipal swimming pool/art space/techno club (this is Berlin, after all) and later, when that was shut down to make way for luxury flats, I visited the upgrade, which is located just off the Potsdamer Strasse in an area defined by its private galleries and avant garde fashion stores.
During that time, Studio Yukiko have been applying their irreverent, playful and experimental style to a wide range of projects, garnering plenty of recognition along the way. At the beginning of this year they were included in It’s Nice That’s list of “Ones to Watch 2018”, and their collection of industry awards has been steadily growing.
All this attention and praise could lead some to develop an air of arrogance, but not so for Yukiko. Speaking in our Amsterdam Studio on a sunny April evening, their honesty and humour left us all smiling. When asked what drew them to work on Flaneur, a widely successful “travel” magazine that interprets one street in one city per issue, Michelle explained, “We’d never done editorial before, so we had no idea what we were doing. But we thought, fuck it, let’s have a go. We didn’t know what any of the rules were – how to do bylines, pull quotes, stuff like that – but not knowing that freed us up to be a lot more creative.”
Freedom is something that typifies their style: any graphic design rule you can think of, Studio Yukiko have probably broken, unapologetically. One of their recent projects is a magazine series aimed at Gen Z (and people interested in Gen Z as a cultural force). Featuring articles on topics including gender identity in the digital age, post-influence influencers, and virtual nationhood, Sofa Magazine looks like no other magazine you’ve ever seen. “We took our inspiration from 90s Internet aesthetics, Japanese TV and 80s soft porn films,” says Johannes, proudly. The spreads are colourful, garish and, some might say, ugly, “We started being contacted by people asking us to talk about ‘ugly design’. But we don’t think it’s ugly. It’s amazing – look at it!”
“Ugly or not, when you don’t limit yourself by convention,” asked Creative Director Jason Kempen, “how do you critique your own work? How do you know when to stop?”
“That’s a good question – we should probably do that more! But for us, these projects are like a playground where we can let loose and do all the things we’d never be allowed to do with more constricting client projects. With clients, you have to please them, which is fine and good, but sometimes you need to do something for yourself, where there are no rules and you can just play. Eventually, the things you discover doing that will trickle back into your other work, in a slightly more acceptable form.”
In addition to Gen Z, Michelle and Johannes have produced work aimed at an even younger generation when they art directed 3 editions of ZEIT Leo (the little sister of German weekly newspaper Die Zeit). The process taught them some important lessons about designing for different audiences. “Designing for kids is really hard,” admits Michelle, “They look at things completely differently. They don’t navigate a magazine in the same way that adults do because they don’t know the conventions. So in that way, we had to keep the design very simple. On the other hand, they have no expectations, so you can be a lot more playful.”
Following an intense round of questioning from the fascinated audience, Michelle and Johannes wrapped up their talk and my mind wondered back to our first meeting. I had been right – they are cool, and they are very Berlin. In fact, seeing their work and passion did influence me to pursue a career I really care about. So here we are, 7 years later, with me still listening to them, delighted.
And guys, if you’ve got any tricky owl filming planned, just give me a call. I’ll be on the first plane. No sweat.
Alicia Mitchell is a Client Manager based in our Amsterdam Studio. All magazine images courtesy of Studio Yukiko.