A conversation between All Australian Graphics and Toko

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Published:  April 10, 2015
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Opposites React is a series of conversations between two different studios or practitioners. We’ll be featuring the Opposites React series online over the next month.

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Nearly 30 years separate the practices of All Australian Graphics (originally founded by Mimmo Cozzolino and Con Aslanis and later renamed All Australian Graffiti) and Toko (Eva Dijkstra and Michael Lugmayr). Their visual principles sit at opposite ends of the style spectrum, yet there are a couple of points where the studios intercept. Both are formed of uprooted immigrants with work that circulates the idea of identity – Toko, which tests localised styles with each project, and All Australian Graphics, which actively interrogated Australian identity as a whole, taking what its founders saw in society and reinterpreting it playfully through their work.

Mimmo Cozzolino with AAG Kangaroo folio case designed by Con Aslansis (1976).

Mimmo Cozzolino with AAG Kangaroo folio case, designed by Con Aslansis (1976).

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Toko’s commissioned reinterpretation of the Hans J. Wegner CH33 chair, for a charity event by Cult and Carl Hansen + Søn (2014).

How has the role of the ‘immigrant’ identity (as an outsider) affected your work?

Toko: For us, it is an interesting, challenging and seriously complex idea – the absorption of operating in context. We worked in three continents, of which Europe (more specifically The Netherlands) sculpted us the most – it was, after all, where we were educated and where we enjoyed our first steps as designers. After The Netherlands, we moved to Chicago, and it was there that we experienced working in an ‘alien’ environment for the first time. Like sponges, we absorbed all the US stood for and rather quickly incorporated US vernacular into our graphic output. We truly enjoyed this new insight and spent hours documenting street life and visual cultures, but when we moved back to The Netherlands something was askew. We realised that our ‘new’ work really did not resonate with prospective Dutch clients and, eventually, ourselves. We had let ourselves get carried away.

In the US, we only adjusted to context and simply forgot about our creative principles and our conceptual education. This is what we have been trying to avoid after immigrating to Australia.

We now stick to our principles and approach design purely from a conceptual point of view. Which means that local styles and vernacular can become part of a project, but only if desired – it will not inform the outcome for the sake of it. In the current ‘copy culture’ and homogeneous climate, our heritage is a dramatic point of difference.

AAG (Cozzolino and Aslanis): One critical difference between the ‘migrant’ quality of our studios is that in the case of AAG, both Con and Mimmo arrived in Australia as young teenagers: Con in 1959 as a 11-year-old and Mimmo in 1961, aged 12.

Their formative years were spent trying to make sense of the new culture they encountered upon arrival in Melbourne.

Aslanis: What symbolises this land, whether it’s the landscape, the flora and fauna or its Anglocentric urban culture, became a fascinating visual lexicon for me. As a ‘New Australian’ Greek kid, I was, of course, fascinated by the differences that I encountered here. In the urban life of Melbourne, you could not escape the footy, the Holden, the brick veneer, Santa in summer, Graham Kennedy on the box, Vegemite or iron clad Ned Kelly. I even remember the excitement in Melbourne for Australia’s first shopping mall – Chadstone. This was the 1960s – the time of Australia’s biggest cultural and economic boom since World War II – and an American cultural invasion into Australia was in full swing. It sometimes felt that holding onto Australian iconography was ‘uncool’. Like many young people at that time, I began to ask questions as to what it was to be ‘Australian’.

In my situation, more in the visual context of course, I often responded by taking the mickey out of it all. I saw myself as half kangaroo, half Greek – a fictitious character that later became the logo mascot of the studio.

Cozzolino: It took me at least three years to become proficient in English. All the while I just wanted to fit in, become one of the locals. As much as I loved eating my mother’s onion (and egg) frittata, when it oozed olive oil into my schoolbag and stunk out the classroom, I wished I had a cheese and Vegemite sandwich like all the other kids. So deciphering all the symbols that marked my new culture became a complex and difficult undertaking for me. Only in hindsight did it occur to me that publishing Symbols of Australia (a book on the history of Australian trademarks) was about me wanting to be accepted as an Aussie. I tried to fit in by understanding every tiny bit of Australian culture.

AAG's The Great Aussie Bite by Izy Marmur

AAG’s The Great Aussie Bite, by Izy Marmur (1977).

Toko's invitation for the Sydney Writer's Festival (2013).

Toko’s invitation for the Sydney Writers’ Festival (2013).

If the AAG studio was working today, what do you think would be its most influencing factors? Would Australian identity still be such an issue?

AAG: If AAG was operating today, it might be made up of Vietnamese, Sudanese, Sri Lankan and Aboriginal illustrators/designers. I wouldn’t be surprised if such a studio already exists. As to what they would be influenced by, Australian identity would definitely be on the cards. More importantly, they would be feeding off the pulse of contemporary culture, just like AAG did. The early 1970s in Australia was a time of political and cultural reassessment and AAG was inspired by that.

In any event, most of the ‘Australiana’ topics we used then would feel a little passé today. AAG was obviously representing a reaction in a particular time in our history.

At Toko, you have said that you left behind any cultural signifiers in your work, whereas at AAG you embraced nationalistic (although much of it in jest) qualities of your new country in your work. How does/did this impact client expectations?

Toko: We have never engaged in new business because we believe in mutual attraction – clients should choose to work with us because they appreciate our work, and not because it is convenient. Looking back, we can see a very clear pattern of projects where our mutual ambitions and beliefs generated some successful outcomes. Our beliefs, approach and heritage have combined to form an intellectual identity based on professional progress, one that is often challenged in an increasingly traditional Australian environment.

Our identity (creative output) can only blossom in an open-minded, honest and collaborative environment (traditionally Dutch), which is free of nostalgic and pre-tested expectations. Our identity is also to challenge what graphic design has become – with ‘brand architects’, the despicable ‘reference culture’ and multitude of short-term courses (just to name a few) diluting a beautiful and immensely satisfying profession. In short, our ‘identity’ is a complex beast that surely informs our work and attracts, hopefully, like-minded clients.

AAG: AAG was first and foremost a freelance illustration studio servicing Melbourne and, later, Sydney clients. We did some design work, but our strength was illustration. Primarily our clients were art directors at advertising agencies – a savvy, fussy bunch with particular preconceptions about what they liked or didn’t like. Some were quite conservative, others less so. Some would give us very tight briefs with no opportunity for creative input. A handful who saw our creative potential used to get us in and just talk through the brief – no roughs to follow, just concepts to develop in our own way. We did the best work for these people.

But the best creative work AAG ever did was its self-promotion. The name of the studio, with mostly foreign surnames (Greek, Italian, Polish/Jew) certainly created some curiosity. The intriguing folio cases meant it was easier to get a conversation going with a prospective client: they invariably wanted to know what the kangaroo case was about and what was in it.

Our regular promotional postcards were a fun, cheap way to keep our mailing list thinking about giving us work. In the pre-digital era, there were only two cheap methods of communicating with clients: by mail or by phone. We also created promotional posters and, eventually, the Kevin Pappas Tear Out Postcard Book (Penguin, 1977). The postcard book was both a studio product and a piece of self-promotion, with a launch in Melbourne that was a huge party for our clients and friends. The book and the studio had great exposure in the press, on radio and on television (Penguin sold 22,000 books within six months – a runaway bestseller for its time).

We sent out about 500 Kevin Pappas books to clients and prospective clients and, within a very short time, we started getting more work than we could handle. This helped us become more discerning about choosing work that was more interesting and creative. Up until that stage, we barely had enough work to make a modest wage, so it was always a toss-up between taking on whatever came our way (even if it was boring) or taking home a lesser wage.

Mimmo Cozzolino in AAG address change postcard. Photograph by Gilles Terrier.

Mimmo Cozzolino in AAG address change postcard. Photograph by Gilles Terrier (1977).

Toko's identity design for the Art & About Festival, City of Sydney (2014).

Toko’s identity design for the Art & About Festival,
City of Sydney (2014).

Toko's identity design for the Art & About Festival, City of Sydney (2014).

Toko’s identity design for the Art & About Festival,
City of Sydney (2014).

What worth did/do you find in the embracing, or rejection, of a house style?

Toko: ‘Form follows function’ and ‘less is more’ are extreme clichés, but they do inform our practice, whether we like it or not. In addition, we search for tension (the tension between effortlessness and extreme detailing, or aesthetic and ‘ugliness’ for memorability). I am sure you can find a common denominator that runs throughout our work, but the abovementioned principles do not dictate a particular Toko house style. Our ambition instead is to translate briefs in authentic, exciting and fitting outcomes, thereby sidelining our own aesthetic preferences. By doing so, we can approach every new project without baggage or self-imposed requirements. Do we reject having a house style? No, but we prefer to operate without ‘one’.

AAG: Our house style was about creating strong, offbeat ideas that made people sit up and take notice.

Cozzolino: We never promoted Australiana as such, even though Australian motifs recurred in some of our own promotional work. Each commercial brief was answered to satisfy a series of needs from marketing to the art director wanting to win awards.

After a while, we did start to get a name as a studio that created offbeat, unpredictable results. This put off some people, but others used this to their advantage. And so it was that some of our work never directly saw the light of day – three or four agencies regularly used us as an ideas think-tank to develop concepts for products as varied as underwear and cigarette packaging. They had realised that with half a dozen illustrators/designers in the one studio, they could get a few dozen great ideas in a very short time. While this type of work generally had to be done quickly, it was satisfying on two counts: it paid well and it challenged and flexed our creative muscles.

Aslanis: I thought sometimes that our promotion was working too well! Some clients thought that we only drew kangaroos and koalas! But in most cases, particularly with ad agencies, we had a lot of creative freedom. I feel some of our best work was done in such conditions. There were many people of our age working in the creative teams in the ad agencies who understood and appreciated the AAG philosophy and a lot of work was passed on to us via them. It only took a phone call, and Mimmo was off to St Kilda Road carrying our kangaroo or Melbourne tram or Luna Park portfolio case…

The Melbourne Cup, by Con Aslansis (1977).

The Melbourne Cup, by Con Aslansis (1977).

Toko's exhibition design and environmental graphics for the 13th Venice Architecture Biennale.

Toko’s exhibition design and environmental graphics for the 13th Venice Architecture Biennale.

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This instalment of Opposites React first appeared in The Principle Principle print issue.

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