Trying it on

AUTHOR:  
Published:  November 12, 2010
Trying it on

My life appears to have taken a turn for the Swiss. A year ago I reviewed the superb book, Data Flow, from Gestalten and discovered it had been designed and co-edited by onlab, a company founded in Zürich in 2000 by its creative director Nicolas Bourquin. A year later, here I am in Switzerland only to find that Bourquin has settled in Berlin.

It is difficult to say exactly where onlab as a company is based because it remains slightly mysterious, but there is no mistaking the trail left by its design work. “Over the past nine years, the main focus of our work as designers, art directors and publishers, in cooperation with agencies, clients, professors, students, project partners and co-workers, has been to explore ways in which to stage complex contents,” Bourquin explains of onlab’s slightly amorphous nature. “What interests me most about this is the variety of possibilities for conveying relevant topics and the accompanying changes in perceptions. At the present time, you could best describe onlab as a core team, a strong network of experts with the intention to always challenge new collaborators.”

Logophiles may already know of Bourquin’s work through his design and co-publishing of the first book of the Los, Dos and Tres Logos trilogy, also with Gestalten. This was created during the time he was in Berlin working part-time for Polyform, with whom he had worked on a competition pitch to design the corporate identity for the Museumsinsel in Berlin. They won the competition, which led to a night on the town where Bourquin discovered the crazy nightlife of Berlin, and instantly fell in love with the city. So much so that he decided to move there.

2raumwohnung, album and vinyl, limited edition

2raumwohnung, album and vinyl, limited edition

As the workload of onlab increased, Bourquin searched for somebody who thought about things on the same level as him, and ‘who focused on story and content as well as visual quality’. A chance meeting at a conference with Berlin native, Sven Ehmann, soon saw them working together. “We come from two very different worlds – Sven is from a photography and journalism background – but we completely share the same opinions. We work together on several projects to define how a particular commission will function. We both organise content, build the story and create an attraction.”

To my English-Australian eyes the Swiss-German tradition comes through loud and clear in onlab’s work. Its books and magazines sport grids that would make Josef Müller-Brockmann proud, but a dash of contemporary spice prevents the work from becoming too austere. Its recent orange and black intersections layout on sustainable mobility for Domus magazine is undeniably retro, but the treatment of the pull-quotes and the subtle breaking out of the grid make it one of my favourite pieces of the studio’s work. Any idiot can be flashy, but it takes real skill to make something understated yet elegant. Bourquin is, however, less convinced by my Swiss-German pigeonholing. “There certainly are some roots there, but I don’t think we worked on having a particular Swiss-German style from the outset. Most people we work with appreciate our conceptual thinking and working method. Other than that, we always try to have collaborators and interns from different cultures and roots to open up to different approaches, working processes and aesthetics. A Carson-esque approach would be totally possible if it was suitable to the project idea.”

Domus Cover, March 2009, Photography: Ori Gersht, wrapping: onlab (image copyright: NASA), Publisher: Editoriale Domus, Italy.

Domus Cover, March 2009, Photography: Ori Gersht, wrapping: onlab (image copyright: NASA), Publisher: Editoriale Domus, Italy.

Photography also features strongly in onlab’s work, in particular the cover series for Domus, which shows a refreshing understanding of photography as a design tool. The irony of the proliferation of digital photography seems to have been a decline in the powerful photographic image in design spreads, almost as if photographs have lost their value in the digital plethora. “With Domus we invested a good amount of time in researching new and different possibilities of architectural photography and presented this to the editors to inspire their way of working with photographers. We invented a structure that gave photography a stronger relevance combined with the story on a double spread rather than being separated onto fold-out pages. We are also responsible for the cover because we did the redesign. We used this opportunity to feature artists and photographers, both presenting existing work and collaborating on realising ideas. We conceive, shoot and design a few covers ourselves as well.”

onlab is also the co-founder of ‘etc. publications’, a platform for independent publishing set up with Ehmann and independent journalist, Krystian Woznicki. Titles published in the etc. series are thematic readers in newspaper format. “Each addresses a current, politically relevant issue from different, unexpected, inspiring perspectives,” explains Bourquin. “The editors challenge authors from different backgrounds and different places around the world to declare their personal position either in written or visual form.”

Currently, all issues are sold out, but they are planning to reiterate the ‘adventure and experience’ with a new concept based on the same idea.

Domus Magazine, Intersections #923, March 2009, illustration: Tobias Krafczyk, Publisher: Editoriale Domus, Italy. Folding on YouTube: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xr8JK8T8kJw

Domus Magazine, Intersections #923, March 2009, illustration: Tobias Krafczyk, Publisher: Editoriale Domus, Italy. Folding on YouTube: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xr8JK8T8kJw

Regardless of the project or medium at hand, onlab also works on exhibitions and runs workshops. Bourquin advises that he enjoys the problem solving element. “I like being challenged in different ways in order to develop onlab further,” he says. “The challenge in being a publisher lies in the editorial work and as an artist I am interested in looking at cultural differences and similarities subjectively. In any case, perception must go beyond the surface of today’s world, while intellectual and practical abilities are repeatedly put to the test. It is part of my job as a designer to develop a solution-oriented and structured method of working, suitable for every new project, whatever the medium is.”

Perhaps it is this desire to organise and structure that lies at the heart of what I find typically Swiss-German about onlab’s approach, rather than any particular visual tic. This desire to both create and simultaneously organise complexity is deeply part of the Swiss-German culture, and the clean lines and formal structures belie a depth underneath that is too often missed.

From Desktop magazine.

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