Studio profile: The International Office

Published:  January 4, 2012
Studio profile: The International Office

How does a studio work from the edge of the world? For some, it’s a constant staring out, pining for the perceived ideal: bigger clients, bigger budgets and the ability to do the perfect piece of work. For others, it’s a formal process, solving design through woolly Venn diagrams, hand waving and doublespeak.

In New Zealand, we live on the periphery, but observe the world around us, isolation mixed with enquiry. Our observations bring a unique take on universal questions required of a design practice – how do we meet a client’s need, tick our creative boxes and, in all honesty, pay the printers to do that next fun job?

But the edges are where the unexpected happens. We sit bemused by the idea of cross-discipline work, we all have to wear many hats in the process of design. While we don’t live in the romanticised view of a brave new world, the unknown can still scare and excite. We live in a world of always on, ever present visual ubiquity.


Swingtags. Lela Jacobs' Summer/Spring 2011/12 collection 'Echoes of Awe'

Poster. Lela Jacobs' Summer/Spring 2011/12 collection 'Echoes of Awe'

The Australasian visual culture is still young. Yet we pine for identity. Granted, I don’t profess to state we come from a brave new world of design here, but our work is informed by our environment, a romantic view of isolation and the need to figure out alternative ways of doing things. It’s interesting to think how studios create when they spend a lot of time staring out, analysing the foreign instead of imitating the local. New Zealand is a long way from Dessau or Ulm, yet an ability to reference and build visual cultures appropriated through the lens of the computer screen or the book page, is something that a designer must do while working from the arse end of the world. The International Office’s work may look foreign to its New Zealand contemporaries, but it wholeheartedly embraces the universal graphic language of neo-modernist graphic design.

Wellington, New Zealand is where we find The International Office, a respite from what we can see as New Zealand’s design aesthetic. The International Office is staunchly graphic, always identifiable. It’s always a bit of a hard ask to describe your own studio; nebulous terms like multidisciplinary and cross-functional hint at a designer’s wide range of interests focused down into a single output. Design has a habit of being indefinable, shifting from discipline to discipline; it’s refreshing that The International Office embraces the capital G in Graphic.


A1 Poster for the 2011 German Film Festival

A2 Poster for the Adam Art Gallery, The Commons Project, 2011 Performance Series

Duncan Forbes and Elaina Hamilton started the studio in 2007 as Experimenta; four years later it had morphed into The International Office, always providing a group of never quite three, but always two people. Down a nondescript alley in central Wellington between a backpackers and a steak house, the studio inhabits a nondescript warehouse space. You can tell a lot about a studio from its space, bookshelf and musical playlist. Walking in, face-to-face with Forbes and Hamilton’s space, finds them both deep in contemplation, while a Mastodon track plays in the background. A3 sheets of paper are strewn across the desk, but the grid remains within their working space.

The International Office, when they do talk, uses similarly strict rules to the ones that guide their design. You can say a lot in a limited palette and @intloffice says a lot in the brief 140 characters that Twitter allows. The reality of an exorbitant amount of choice means that often it’s the constraint and systems that give us the freedom to push against the boundaries of what is designed.


KLIM Type Foundry. Specimins for Metric and Calibre, 2011

KLIM Type Foundry. Specimens for Metric and Calibre, 2011.

Design is something we live and breathe on a daily basis. We all start the day surfing our favourite blogs and Tumblrs like magpies, finding the great projects. Interesting projects can start from inadvertent conversations or even just a simple observation. The collaboration projects with Kris Sowersby of Klim on Founders Grotesk showed how a graphic designer’s eye could work with a typographer to produce an interesting classic Grotesk. There’s that initial fascination that a magpie view can produce, fascinated with the strong geometric forms and how they could be used in the real world, rather than the cold hard world of the specification sheet. The conversations that happen around the outside are what inform the work, not the process or the work itself.

I, myself, have lost far too much time in musty bookstores with Forbes, paging through racks of dogeared science fiction, with sweet pulp covers and the smell fresh in our nostrils. It’s that ephemera that can influence us that we absorb on a daily basis. We’re always collecting; whether it be conscious or unconscious, Forbes and Hamilton can debate the finer points of civilisation breaking down in a dog-eared J.G. Ballard novel, or the latest poster in the series for the Goethe-Institut.

Walking down Cuba Street, it’s hard not to notice the studio making a difference to the visual pollution that inhabits a city; its posters are instantly recognisable. ‘Werner Werner Werner’ stares you down, imprinting the strong forms of Helvetica Neue on your retina. The latest show for the Adam Art Gallery’s Common People exhibition, the designs don’t follow the perceived norms of the posters around it, a clean graphic language with a
lack of a logo wall. It’s a strong breath of modernist fresh air. Who doesn’t want to change the world to their own aesthetic view? Craving the need to fix the ugly, the strong modernist aesthetic combined with a sense of wit. It’s a happy place that I would like to inhabit.


Hue & Cry Issue 5. Cover and Back, 2011.

From desktop magazine.

Thumbnail image: KLIM Type Foundry. Newspaper specimens, 2011.

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