Geoff McFetridge x Sonnenzimmer

Published:  April 2, 2015

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.


Sonnenzimmer is the Chicago-based studio of Nick Butcher and Nadine Nakanishi, merging typography, printmaking, design and fine art.

Geoff McFetridge is an LA-based designer running Champion Studio, whose client work ranges from illustrated book covers, public murals and music packaging, to the visual elements for Spike Jonze’s film Her.

Geoff McFetridge

Geoff McFetridge

Geoff McFetridge

Geoff McFetridge

Together, Sonnenzimmer and McFetridge represent a clear switch in the traditional expectations of image creation. Sonnenzimmer’s work, akin to abstract expressionism, has moved from art into design work, and McFetridge’s more figurative image-making has moved from commissioned design work into the exhibition space. Here, they discuss how clients, freedom, skating and exhibiting affect the work they produce, and their contentment in producing it.


Sonnenzimmer: Having got our start in the ‘commercial’ realm of the graphic arts through our screen-printed posters, and having slowly crept towards more gallery oriented work, it’s been our mission to blur the lines between these two worlds (applied art and fine art). For us, you’ve done this seamlessly for years. Your work transcends easy categorisation. That said, you’ve made a clear distinction (on your website, at least) between Geoff McFetridge and [the studio] Champion Graphics. While we understand that this divide helps in communicating what it is that you do and its various applications, we’re curious if you could elaborate on why you’ve chosen to separate these components, and what your take is, in general, between the two ‘parts’ of your work.

McFetridge: I did separate my site into two sides. It’s ‘the seam’. First off, my site sort of sucks, and websites are really not something that I have much interest in. That said… it was a conscious decision a few years ago to make that separation.

Let’s go waaaay back. For years, in interviews, I would hear myself talk about how I ‘blur the lines between my commercial and fine art work’. I was being sincere, and in many ways I was succeeding at doing so. But there was a point a few years ago when I took stock of what I was doing and saying, and saw that, really, all the best work I was doing was not for clients. The best work I was doing was distinctly on one side of ‘the seam’. This led me to take stock of what I was doing in the studio, and I noticed: 1/ The commercial work was completely supporting me. Nearly all the money I was making was from client work. 2/ Nearly all the interesting, original work was happening in my gallery shows. 3/ These shows were not really focused on selling anything, and I had little interest in selling this work (because I was doing fine making money creating ads for Napster).

So, in interviews I was saying one thing, but when I stepped back, I was seeing something entirely different. At that point, there was a dramatic change in the way I worked. It was not overnight, but it was dramatic – a new level of consciousness. I began to work towards making what I was saying in interviews true. This meant all sorts of things: selling artwork, switching to drawn animation, moving away from vector graphic work, drawing as if I had never drawn before, turning down a lot of work… I started to make paintings and I hired an assistant. Many decisions. Basically the lights sort of went on at that point. I became a tyrant in my own studio.

Around this time I also desperately needed to have a website made. All I had was a page with my email address, my phone number and my fangs logo. So when my new assistant made my website, I thought to make that separation. It is about honesty and it proposes a number of questions. You have to decide what you want to look at. Do you want to see the drawing I did for Nike, or do you want to see a drawing I did? It allows you to ask: ‘What differences do you see in the work?’ ‘What similarities are there?’ ‘How is there so much fluidity between the two sides?’ It is more interesting to have the seam, the separation. There are so many things it addresses, but I think it is most important to know the context in which I decided to do it.

I wonder how this applies to how you look at your own work?

Detail from Insound 10 x 10' by Sonnenzimmer

Detail from ‘Insound 10 x 10′ by Nick Butcher and Nadine Nakanishi

Detail from 'Insound 10 x 10' by Sonnenzimmer

Detail from ‘Insound 10 x 10′ by Nick Butcher and Nadine Nakanishi

Sonnenzimmer: I think we are sitting in a similar place to where you were then – taking stock. We are making a conscious decision of where we want to be, rather than just chasing projects to survive. In 2012, after six years of churning through hundreds of print projects a year, our studio began to stabilise through acquiring two long-term design clients – a gallery and a publisher – that we do publication design for. This stabilisation allowed us to stretch out a bit with our ambitions. It was no longer entirely crucial that our print production fully support the studio. For us, this meant when we weren’t working on our clients’ publishing projects, we were delving into quilts, sound installations and painting.

This stabilisation was double-sided though. In a way, the love for typography, image making and printing (that had led us to poster making) split off into isolated tangents. So, lately, we’ve been trying to bring these elements back together with the gallery work we’re doing. We’re developing a typeface (Splitbeam) for a short play we’ve written that will be part of an upcoming exhibit at Columbia College’s Center for Book and Paper Arts. We’ve begun releasing small publications with each of the exhibits we participate in. Basically, we’re hell bent on keeping these creative endeavours – typography, printing and image making – together.

Ah – ‘the seam’ (we really love this terminology, by the way). We are still sitting squarely on top of it. Design work keeps us afloat, but it’s still much of the print work that gets folk’s attention. It’s funny how public perception and reality don’t always sync up. We’ve made a conscious decision over the last year to beef up our art production to change this perception and to set us on the course we want to be on. Here in Chicago, we are usually referred to as designers. This is fine, but what we are doing is not just design. For us, we still want to blur the lines between design and art, as we don’t see much of a difference, both being authored form. It’s the grey area where really interesting things can happen, right?

All that said, we may find in a few years that we need a clearer division, for the sake of the viewer. All of our lofty intentions could prove to be confusing. Grey areas are often that way. Boxes do help people navigate: design = service, art = unencumbered expression? Maybe we shouldn’t care about the labels.

I will say that client-based work has allowed us to explore, both within it and outside of it. For that we are very thankful.

Even if the more interesting things are happening in your personal artwork, do you find that client-based work influences it? Like producing for a design brief inspires something that you may not have come up with without it? This is most certainly true for us. For example, a recent identity project inspired us to dive into type design within our own work, as we’ve become more interested in taking a more ‘from the ground up’ approach to the work we produce.


Geoff McFetridge mural for Oakley at Berrics skatepark, LA

McFetridge: This, I guess, is an example of how commercial projects are part of my work: I was asked to do a mural at the West Los Angeles Courthouse. The WLA Courthouse is a skate spot that was very influential to skateboarding. It was a sort of proving ground for pros, and a place I used to skate with friends in the 90s. It became a bust and then went into disrepair. After a long series of events, Nike sponsored the removal of the ‘skate-stoppers’ and a huge clean-up of the abandoned space. They asked me to do a mural in the centre of the space. So I had two days to plan a mural, and had to leave a vacation to do it.

So I got paid to do this job, but the main reason to do it was to participate in this significant cultural event or, at least, it was to me. There was no brief for the project, and this is a common type of project I am being offered lately. It is definitely a ‘grey area’ type of project.

In retrospect, I see that one of the reasons I have always done commercial work is because of this type of interest in participating in the culture that I was interested in. I also like the structure of doing work like this. The timelines are usually very short and intense. Most of the mural had to be made up as I painted it. This is in contrast to a large-scale public art project I have been awarded, where I am mired in preparing budgets and work schedules for work that is to happen a year from now.

It sounds like you guys have a very diverse set of interests, and work that goes far beyond the print work you do. I think that is great, and I think it is important to look beyond people’s expectations of you. When I first did art shows, it came as a revelation to me that instead of drawing an apple, I could just have an apple sitting in the gallery. (A pretty basic revelation!) In this very basic revelation, I came to understand that though what I do is very formal, and image-based, what I am really trying to do is create experience.

I agree that the concepts of ‘the seam’ or ‘grey area’ are terms that are interesting – they are ways to describe the space between things. I have said in the past that I am interested in the ‘space between yeah and yes’ and the ‘gaps in language/image’. Experience?

Field Integration (spread) by Nick Butcher and Nadine Nakanishi published, 2011

Field Integration (spread) by Nick Butcher and Nadine Nakanishi

Field Integration (spread) by Nick Butcher and Nadine Nakanishi published, 2011

Field Integration (spread) by Nick Butcher and Nadine Nakanishi

Sonnenzimmer: When the curtain comes down, it’s interesting how we are all master jugglers. It’s actually awesome to hear your skateboarding connection, as it was a big part of our own creative development.

We both grew up in smaller regions in different parts of the world, Nick in Dyersburg, Tennessee and Nadine in Schaffhausen, Switzerland. Skateboarding was our first introduction to cultural ideas and expectations outside of the canon. In fact, Nadine came to Chicago to work on Bail magazine in 2003, where we met. Skate graphics were pivotal for us each to embrace image language. To this day, we refer ourselves to graphic artists – in a traditional sense. The artists that have such rich history in this field, such as Salvador Dali, Paul Klee, Max Bill, Sol LeWitt, Ed Repka, Jim Phillips, Yuichi Yokoyama and many more, keep us pushing. Skate graphics were so immediate, and as precious as they were, you also used them, destroyed them on your deck, lived with them. These are images we connect to. They also informed our thinking that anything can serve as a canvas, and that images can be created and live outside of white walls, yet still have immense impact, no matter the history or theory behind them. This makes us always extend into the world naively, and has been a good thing not to await the gallery or service world to knock on our doors.

Agency jobs like you mention seem, for us, unreachable with our image language. We can be found in the decorative quarters. Perhaps we could bid on a Kleenex box job – we still hope for [maker of loose-leaf binders for school students] Trapper Keeper to do the artist series thing! Ha! But it’s also this limitation that has given us a lot of freedom to not [hold] expectations and work away in the corner. Though this has, in recent years, become the biggest challenge. Namely, how to create friction in our own work and break expectations, even when there aren’t any.

When we started Sonnenzimmer in 2006, we were very passionate in believing in an abstract language to carry image solutions for posters. Posters that weren’t designed on the computer, but sculpted from the ground up. Eight years later, the level is higher, and the need to fight for abstraction has ceased (it won, there’s plenty of it now). Using sarcasm, parody, appropriation – many do it faster and better. That brings us to a different point – we feel your work never has a hint of sarcasm. Which is what makes the space you create even more powerful. It seems you put a lot of trust into your viewer to then take the work they experience into their own minds to think about. We appreciate this straightforward speaking, it actually opens the moment for a true encounter.

We’re curious though, do you ever get bored of your own style or sick of that special place where your mind sits that generates your work? We’d love to hear of some super out-there direction you haven’t quite had the nerve to try yet.

Geoff McFetridge for Footlocker

Geoff McFetridge for Footlocker


Geoff McFetridge for Footlocker

McFetridge: It’s funny how many creative people have had skateboarding push them into making art.

Regarding my lack of sarcasm (even though I am a Canadian!), I do try to be very sincere in the work. Years ago I made this choice. Truthfulness seemed like another way to narrow my practice. It helped to focus my creativity in moments of indecision… to choose the more truthful option helps propel the work forward. When it comes to the limitations of my style… yes – I change styles all the time. At the same time, there are ways of working that I never tire of (to a fault).

As for directions that are far out that I have not tried, one thing that I have noticed is that ‘far out’ has become more of a ‘far in’ type of activity. Just making sense of what I am doing keeps me very busy! Refining and taking stock of what I am doing in my work has been a big part of what has been going on for the past few years (physically manifested in the paintings I have been doing). Things have become very microcosmic over the past few years.


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

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