Opposites React: The Royal Studio x NODE Berlin Oslo

Published:  May 27, 2015
Katia Pase

The Royal Studio is a Portugal-based print design and illustration studio. NODE, with studios in Berlin and Oslo, focuses on editorial, identity, exhibition and interactive work.

Each studio treats the blank page in starkly different ways. The Royal Studio playfully texturises and maximises, presenting an iconoclastic mash-up of text and image, while NODE reduces and refines, with a more conventional treatment of text and grids.

We started the conversation by asking João Castro from The Royal Studio, and Anders Hofgaard and Serge Rompza from NODE to give an overview of the principles that underpin the studios’ approach.

The Royal Studio: We have a deep conceptual and strategic approach to design as a practice, with an emotional hunger for graphic development. The notions of style, trends and authorship are never masters or dictators of the projects at hand. We never aim to impose a preconceived mindset when creating imagery; we take each project to its exhaustive extent.

The Royal is a child of the mainstream, born in an age of globalisation. Mass culture taught us that in order to communicate, the symbols must relate to the audience – either in a commercial sense or in a conceptual exploration. Therefore, we could state that we are creatures of the media working either for or against it (being that in order to contradict an argument you need to make use of its premise). We refer to every project as a product – either understanding it as a commercial asset or a free-from-budget visual essay.

NODE: We feel a certain resistance towards graphic design and the way we treat a blank page may reflect this – in fact, we try to avoid making works where the voice of the designer is obviously present. We are quite critical to anything added and feel we have to be able to adequately ask and justify: ‘Why would you want to do this?’

This may be a result of modernistic influences, or perhaps it’s just that modernist ideas suit our way of thinking and working. We don’t necessarily subscribe to the strict functionalist ideals one might connect with mid-20th century modernism – rather we’re more fascinated by the early modernist movements that seem more fluent, experimental and searching. Our work is not necessarily rational or functional; we like rules, but find it equally important to break or challenge them.

We find that one of the most inspiring and rewarding aspects of our practice is when making some kind of discovery. This may happen either when trying to come up with an idea, or when working with the material (i.e. elements on the page). Although it is not always possible, we always try to make some kind of discovery when resolving a brief. If the idea is strong enough, it guides the project and the overall design process.

Royal, you mentioned ‘globalisation’: how do you think being based in Portugal affects your work, if at all?

Royal: We are not particularly attached to Portugal or its visual codes. We’re keen not to glorify the country, or any notion of patriotism. Nowadays creativity and research is expanding: to live in a certain country doesn’t limit your impact on global activities and projects anymore. We feel grateful to the internet gods for allowing all creatives to enter previously inaccessible discussions. The space for casual business encounters is bigger than ever, especially if your work stands out as a unique, well-built and justified vision.

NODE, how would you define the influence of Berlin and Oslo on your everyday lifestyle?

NODE: Berlin is a city that is still developing and trying to find its form, much because of its history. It’s probably partly what made the city attractive to us and many others. It gives you energy, keeps you curious and open-minded, but also somewhat restless, perhaps.

Since we are working across two capitals, it is natural for us to compare both cities. They are similar in many ways, for instance architectonically: the urban planning of the Grünerløkka area, where we have our Oslo office, was supposedly inspired by Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin. Economically, they are fundamentally different: one could argue that there is too much money in Oslo, whereas Berlin is technically bankrupt. In Berlin there is a surplus of energy and initiative (since this is not always funnelled into the economy). In Oslo there is a capital surplus with a well-functioning and inclusive system that values equality. The situation in Oslo has led to development, but it seems less tangible, less accessible to us, and somewhat nouveau riche.

Node 1

NODE: Berlin Documentary Forum 3 (poster) for Haus der Kulturen der Welt, 2014

Node 4

NODE: Høstutstillingen ’11 (various) for Norske Billedkunstnere (NBK), 2011

Node 2

NODE: Phil Collins (poster) for the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, 2013

Node 3

NODE: Urban Images (publication) for Oslo National, 2011

Royal, we’re interested in your statement that describes working for and against ‘the media’.

Royal: When mentioning media we are discussing the tools of mainstream communication, and how working with these tools every day as designers – as either communication mediators or authorship leaders – we continually manipulate them for our own benefit. With this in mind, it’s essential to be aware of the audience’s perception of the message.

Playing with media symbols and their messages can be seen in a collection of our projects. For example, in the self-initiated Dishonest Manifest we built illustrations by appropriating content from news articles and online discussions to construct a critical argument, in this case regarding the Palestine-Israel conflict.

We recently developed a web experience for a client by combining multiple YouTube streams with randomised content from Google Images, led by a specific set of tags and search terms used to form a scavenged video. We’re also building a design festival identity based on the idea of ‘the designer as a thief’ using #robinhood as a countercultural statement.

NODE: What are your personal countercultural statements?

Royal: Well, feed us a glorious sandwich and we could talk for hours! Simply put, we are by no means masterminds of public opinion nor do we try to corrupt anyone’s view on anything. We strive to be utterly transparent, exaggerating every project’s ideas, so that they can create a point of cultural discussion for the audience. This doesn’t seem to be countercultural in any way except for one aspect: the audience is generally as naive as it is non-critical, and is therefore permissive and reactive to the contexts that one creates. We can build, instruct and mislead at will. Our main countercultural statement is weirdly enough, to build culture.

NODE, can you elaborate on your natural resistance towards graphic design?

NODE: Part of that resistance is towards ‘the scene’. One of our motives for founding the studio in Berlin was that it had no defined ‘graphic design scene’ back in 2003 – at least not one we could relate to. This, we felt, gave us the liberty to define and develop our own practice without a specific design culture to mould us. We even find the word ‘design’ slightly repellent in some contexts. It might be comparable to that of a musician when he or she is being labelled under a certain genre.

The other reason for this resistance has to do with our own work process, and this is harder to explain. We find there is a certain level of resistance in any good work that we produce. There should be some uncertainty when presented with a blank page – one should not know from the start what one is going to produce, or even if it is going to be any good. If there is no resistance in the process of creating, then you probably used some old ‘trick’. If there is no resistance for the viewer, then they are probably also not getting challenged, but rather has some preconception confirmed (i.e. a cliché).

Royal: Do you believe in the social role of the designer? By assuming a relational approach to the practice – how would you elaborate on a relational understanding of communication?

NODE: Yes, we believe the designer may have a social role. We find it liberating that design now can be a number of things – and the field still seems to be widening – so it feels like you can make graphic design into whatever you want it to be. In this sense, we would say that relational aesthetics is one of several strategies that expands the palette and understanding of the design practice. It certainly provides a framework for better understanding of how design influences its surroundings and vice versa.

Does your background in graffiti influence your work today? What separates your design practice from producing art in the public space?

Royal: We were never the neat kids; we loved the dirt, the disrespect, the tags, the unilateral messages, the ego and the swift technical perfection of street art. Following the era of a spray-can-writing-revolution, the path has been mental. A lot has changed since our early days in graphics.

Our knowledge grew by undertaking random experiments and meeting heart-warming clients who were looking to push the limits of the market. You haven’t reached the end when you understand something, but rather when you ‘feel it down your spine’. This ongoing and constant process of learning separates our practice from the narrow graffiti alley.

However, we still carry that adrenaline in our gut; we saw the benefit of producing something when it is least expected. Graffiti made us visually bold, I’d assume – not maximal, but assertive. While hitting the streets, one aims to be the loudest visual voice; how weird it is to think that has stayed the same. Graffiti made us work intimately with letters and nowadays, 10 years later, we understand that we were learning typography, expression and composition all along.

The Royal Studio: Indiesciplinas (ticket)

The Royal Studio: Indiesciplinas (ticket)

The Royal Studio: Nas Palhinhas (poster)

The Royal Studio: Nas Palhinhas (poster)

Royal 2

Soireé Graphique – The Honest Manifest, 2014

Can you tell us more about your research process?

NODE: The research we do is not systematic; we simply use it as a means of coming up with ideas for our design solutions. This process can be what makes a project interesting, but it could also be the idea, the risk involved, the people we work with, the content, the technique used, the different environments we experience etc. Variation is the key. We also find the context quite essential: a project that could be quite average for, say, a small gallery can be quite radical for a large company.

Royal, you said that ‘in order to communicate, the symbols must relate to the audience’. What are these symbols and how do you relate to them?

Royal: Symbols must consider the subject at hand, as well as what the subject itself can communicate. Which tools are used to characterise the subject? What is the meaning of such tools? How does the public perceive it? These questions ultimately lead to the understanding of what the symbols are, and tell us how we can make sense of the communication.

These symbols are the conveyers of messages within every piece of visual material. We can pin Communism to a red star; we can be playful and use a rotten fish to summarise the economy, or with the same disrespect, we could use a smiley face to connote the mass-mentality of religion. Iconography, symbols and their contextual behaviour allows you to shape a particular context, to have a critical stance in the way you build a communicative relationship with the public.

This instalment of Opposites React first appeared in the April/May print issue.

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