White Noise
Made in White City

Craig & Karl
The Interview

This month's guest editors are Craig & Karl, a design duo who have pulled off a rare trick: creating work that is both distinctive and timeless over the course of twenty years.

As they work on a surprise public commission in White City, we talked to Karl about art in the wild and how colour became the pair's accidental signature. 

WORDS - Karl Smith
16.03.2017

Graphic design gets a rough deal within the art world – not least because so many seem determined to exclude it from that world altogether. That function is the springboard for its form, that its reason to exist cannot be decrypted by critics or scholars because it wears its intentions on its sleeve, seems to incite a particular kind of snobbishness. What the pretentious don’t seem to allow for is the fact that graphic design, like purpose-oriented ambient music, can be a beautiful thing in its own right, both in conjunction with and separate from its intended use, brimming with literal and figurative colour and a potent sense of vibrancy.

Craig Redman and Karl Maier (that’s Craig & Karl for short) are, in many ways, the embodiment of this: over the course of two decades together as a design partnership they have built up a body of work that is defined by its vitality and its effervescence. And, in creating work that is uniquely Craig & Karl, rather than acquiescing to the stylistic whims of every client, they have also created something much less common in the graphic design world – as anyone who designed websites in the early 00s or late 90s will tell you – in a collection of work that has not dated or fizzled out.

Craig and Karl 72dp72DP, an immersive mural created for the underground carpark of a private residence in Sydney, Australia.

Theirs is work defined by a fairly unusual blend of sincerity and humour: having known each other now for around twenty years since meeting in college in Australia, the country of their birth, the Craig & Karl moniker is more than just shorthand for the sake of sloganeering – it is testament to their relationship. “We met in our first semester of art school in Australia in a city called Brisbane and a lecturer put us together to work on one of our first projects. After that we worked on pretty much every project together,” explains Maier in a manner at once open and quietly considered, speaking in a café surprisingly crowded for a Wednesday afternoon. 

Craig and Karl portraitsCraig and Karl's self-portraits.

From those early days of close collaboration, Maier and Redman now work together separated by the Atlantic, the former in London and the latter based in New York. Yet their work as a unit seems not to have suffered as a result. “I think because we met when we were young, we lived and worked in Sydney together for six or seven years,” Maier continues when I ask him about the realities of artistic cooperation across an ocean. “We kind of just had to adapt. It really didn’t take anything away from our process: in some ways it made it easier for us, because it forced us to figure how to work together in the most efficient way with only an hour or two a day to talk to each other. The collaboration now isn’t so much about working together on everything, but about the creative space we’ve made – about trusting each other to work on different things and giving each other room to talk about different things. It’s good for us. It’s very much a brotherly kind of relationship at this point; it’s great when we get to see each other, but it has this whole other dynamic to it now as well.”

“I don’t know if I could do it, if I could just meet someone now and decide to set up a studio and have it work out and be fun,” he continues. And in that sense too, separation might even be the key to their success – brothers, after all, have a tendency to get on best when they’re not living in each other’s pockets and it’s hard to imagine that years of entering a room to meshed greetings of “Oh, here come Craig and Karl,” wouldn’t take their toll. Maier nods: “It works for us.”

Craig and Karl Agony EcstasyPersonal work entitled Agony and Esctasy.

Over the course of a long career of working together, there are other things too that seem to work for the transatlantic designers. And, given that they’re joining us as guest editors for this month of White Noise, it seems only right to ask about one focal aspect of their work in particular: “Colour has always been there for us and now, really, it’s become a key identifier – something people come to us for,” Maier explains. “It’s not like we had a moment where we thought, ‘No one else is using colour, we should really do that,’ but we grew up in the 80s and 90s in Australia and it was a bright, bold, brash kind place – it’s just always there, we can’t help it.”

It’s a response that picks up on the peculiar and subtle ways in which colour can infuse itself into a person’s life: we all had favourite colours as children, but as adults its presence is far more understated. Craig & Karl may have never meant to adopt colour so heavily or so warmly into their work, but its place in their lives and its imprint on their way of thinking seems to in a sense to have demanded it. 

Craig and Karl battlesBattles, an installation at the C-Mine Cultural Institution, Genk, Belgium.

When I ask Karl about that tricky relationship between art and design, he pauses for a moment with the air of someone who has been forced, more than once, to either think about it or to be the topic of discussion. “They’re these two closely aligned things that are constantly rubbing up against one another, but which people are always trying to keep separate,” he says, agreeing that the imbalance is both very arbitrary and very real. “If you’re an artist and you decide you want to do a design project then you’re celebrated, but if you’re a designer who wants to create a work of art then you’re derided.

“It’s a strange thing,” he continues, “things that are functional are considered somehow less valuable than things that have no function at all.” Not only is this a typically golden-ageist view of art, it also doesn’t really apply to the duo’s work, theirs being a career seemingly based on the idea that it’s possible to bridge the gap. Their 2013 cover for New York magazine, for example, which captured the face of President Obama in the kind of vivid colour which is emblematic of a Craig & Karl project, is very much a monument to and totemic of that precise moment in history, capturing as it does both a time of unbridled optimism and of the weighty solemnity of a task at hand. As a piece of work, it’s lasting proof that design can make a contribution to the zeitgeist in the same way as more traditionally venerated forms of art, perhaps even more so taking into account its mass appeal and circulation. It’s also admissible evidence that commission and conscience are not mutually exclusive.

Craig and Karl Obama Variety
A cover for New York maagzine commemorating Obama's second term in office, and a cover for Variety's annual awards nomination issue. 

“That was such a good project to be a part of,” Maier says, leaning in briefly to make sure that his voice carries over the noise of the room. “He’d just won his second term and it was a real moment, but also the magazine was everywhere: you’d walk down the street and you’d see it lying on the pavement. Everyone who subscribes to it got it in their mailbox. We love that kind of stuff – it’s just very accessible and available to everyone.”

It’s a welcome break from the corporate design language of signs and signifiers. “When you say you’re a graphic designer, it seems like people automatically draw up a very clear idea of what you do,” he responds, with a slight tone of resignation in his voice. “If you’re an illustrator people think you make children’s books; if you’re a designer people think you make adverts. But it’s just a vehicle, really, as much as anything else.”

The scope and scale of their work together often seems like a reaction to this. Five years ago when they created that iconic image of Obama they were already working on a lot of portraiture – an idea which in itself seems to rail against the kind of prevailing machinated view of what it means to design something. Their installation, Sweet As One, which took thirteen tons of brightly-coloured sweets and created a carpet emblazoned with a rich mixture of iconography on a street in Chengdu, China, isn’t exactly typical of those associations either – but it is typical of Craig & Karl.

Craig and Karl ChengduThe Sweet as One exhibition in Chengdu incorporating 13 tonnes of sweets.

It’s also a project that brings the conversation neatly to their penchant for site-specific work and to a unique piece of public-facing work about to take place in White City. “Some people will always like it and some will hate it most likely. Once it’s out there in the world people will react to it in different ways, and that becomes a part of the work itself. Those reactions and how they change over time – what that means in terms of the project’s place within this environment – are as important as the way the work itself will inevitably degrade and evolve over time into something else entirely. That’s something that this kind of space gives you, something unique about these projects: you can distance yourself and just let it go.”

While context and the presumptions of others will always inform any work, its meaning shifting over time with connotations and attitudes, these kinds of projects will always allow for a particular kind of freedom and also a kind of total surrender. Here in White City, the impact of change will never be just historical or conceptual, but physical too. A tangibly changing work for a tangibly changing place, linked forever in a sort of symbiotic time capsule. It is, as Maier says, “symbolic of bigger changes going on.”

Photo at top: illustration for Google's Think Quarterly.

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