Sonnenzimmer is a Chicago-based art and print studio run by Nick Butcher and Nadine Nakanishi. Their amazing design/artwork caught our eye when we saw their names credited against posters for the likes of Aphex Twin, Silver Jews and Broken Social Scene.
It turns out they are looking to put a book together about their unique process for merging abstract forms, pictures and typography (they’ve got a great Kickstarter Campaign running over here). We wanted to know more about how they work, who they work with and what’s with the book idea.
Bowlegs: So how long has Sonnenzimmer been in existence and how did it all get started?
Nadine: We started in 2006. Initially, we got a space to share printing equipment and have more square feet for painting. Slowly one poster job after another helped cover rent. The idea of putting our creative energy together to have a working studio surfaced. It was a gradual process, many part-time jobs and it’s still a wonky ride every other month. We are still getting to know each other at the studio, may it be project management, business styles, creative vision…
Nick: Like Nadine said, it was a very organic beginning. We were really just sharing space at first, with the notion that we’d one day work together. As projects came in from our individual efforts, we decided to dive in and start collaborating on those projects as Sonnenzimmer. After a few years in this mode we decided to make a real go for Sonnenzimmer as a business. That was in 2008.
Bowlegs: Tell us about your style – you describe it as the merging of abstract form, pictures and typography. But where do you start in terms of research and inspiration. For example how did you come up with the Aphex Twin poster?
Nick: Nadine and I have very different working methods. She’s more of a planner and researcher, and I’m work more intuitively. So, most of our work is a mixture of these two impulses. Many times, Nadine will come in with a particular concept or image idea and then, through working on it, we’ll venture into something new, sometimes ending up back where we started, sometimes not.
Or sometimes, we’ll start with a piece of art that one of has created, either a painting or drawing, and add and subtract until we are happy with the composition. More recently, we’ve changed our dynamic on projects a bit. When a project comes in, we pick one person to be “in charge” meaning they have the final say in the design. We both work on it, bouncing off ideas and executions, but ultimately, the person “in charge” leads. This idea came from years of fighting over colors and long drawn out projects!
Bowlegs: Do you only work on projects that excite you? Tell us about a few recent projects that have been really interesting?
Nadine: We don’t have the luxury to cherry pick projects. We take on everything that comes in, unless we are already booked. We make our rent $10 dollars at a time because we are at the fringe of the design industry and outside of the art world. Of course, we have to feel it’s within our idea of integrity to do the job, meaning are we the right fit to make it successful for the client. Recently, we made a poster for the Mies van der Rohe Society, that was a super amazing experience. It’s not every day where you can put material experimentation and minimalism into a functional piece that serves as an advertisement within your own city. Even though it was for fundraising, it was a commercial job for us. It’s a great gesture of the society to do those kind of things. A great example of cultural institutions reaching out to artists and designers. Lately, there’s been a lot of that here in Chicago.
Nick: Like Nadine said, we take just about everything that comes through the door, that said, we’ve been extremely lucky with the clients that our work attracts. From an outside perspective it may seem as if we are extremely selective, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Recently we had the opportunity to work the awesome Michigan-based label Ghostly International on a series of art prints for their online store.
Bowlegs: What are the Free Jazz Bitmaps you produce? I see you work with the record label Hometapes for these?
Nick: Free Jazz Bitmaps Vol. 1 is the first in a series of process-based publications centered around music. Vol. 1 collects electronic music that I produced over the course of 2011 and pairs it with solo improvisational reinterpretations by Chicago-based free jazz musicians; Jason Adasiewicz, Mike Reed, Tim Daisy, Keefe Jackson, Jason Roebke, and Jason Stein.
My tracks are on side one and the reinterpretations are on side two. The idea is to explore the idea of source material and how it changes through various iterations. My music was composed using micro samples of house and free jazz. Those songs were then passed along to the jazz musicians, who deconstruct into something entirely different. The improvisations function almost as a remix, but in the wrong direction. They will also serve as the source material for Vol. 2. I’ve worked with Hometapes on two previous albums of electronic music. 2005’s The Complicated Bicycle and 2008’s Bee Removal. Adam and Sara have been wonderful supporters of both my personal work and our work here at Sonnenzimmer since we began. They put so much love and care into all their projects. It was a no-brainer to approach them with this project.
Bowlegs: OK so you are on Kickstarter looking for funding for a book to present your work – when did this whole idea start to come to life?
Nadine: Last year we had the opportunity to showcase our work at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago while setting up a satellite print shop. There we were surrounded by our work while talking to visitors that came in. It was in this context where we realized how interested people are in abstract imagery, but how alienating it is to viewers when presented in a white cube.
Our posters bridge a dualism in that language, making it accessible. That’s very important to us, because in visual languages, it shouldn’t be a battle between representational and abstract. They are both equally important to understand and appreciate. We thought a portfolio book that has an educational and instructional angle, that’s not just about a status quo monograph, would be great to get out to people. Kickstarter opens our work to a bigger audience while providing a “direct mailer” aspect that’s important for our message.
Bowlegs: The book is going to include more than just images right, what else will be featured and who might it appeal to?
Nadine: We have a great mid-sized preface that amazing designer and artist, Michael Cina, will be writing. His contribution is really crucial for us. He’s worked as an artist and designer for so long and being engaged in semiotics through his critical writing – so it’s great to have someone judge our work from a point of view that is rooted in practise.
We’ll be breaking our posters down to a simple wireframe of the composition, dissecting the compositional intentions. We’ll have excellent photography reproduction for this book because of the help of photographer Nathan Keay. Next to the blurbs for every posters we’ll also list a few of the steps we used to get to the design solution. These will act as instructions or jumping off points for designers who wish to use them. Knowing though there’s no limit to creative viewing.
The book will also be designed by Alex Fuller. He has a great notion for typography and minimalism. Having co-run his own publishing company, 5×7, we are sure he will enhance the experience by balancing the design vs the content.
Bowlegs: Where did the title Warp and Weft come from?
Nick: “Warp and Weft” is weaving terminology describing the two yarns used in the construction of cloth. The “warp” yarn runs vertical while the “weft” yarn runs horizontal. Nadine has become very interested in weaving recently, having bought a small loom to experiment with. Learning about the process, we both really liked how those words sounded together, both familiar and strange. When deciding a title for the book, it seemed perfect. Two individual parts forming a single fabric.
Bowlegs: Are you not worried in exposing your secrets to people by de-constructing your own work?
Nadine: Never, you have to trust that your ways are unique and if your ideas get applied, they are relevant. Having your visuals be integral to the image discourse right now, is huge. If this sensitivity gets implemented that’s a success. Then we might move on to something else.
Nick: Influence is part of the legacy of art and design. We’d be thrilled to a part of the trajectory of either.
Bowlegs: Finally tell us a band you would love to design a poster for?
Nadine: Actually, if I could pick, I would die to do a Utah Jazz (NBA) poster, or even better a Chicago Bulls one.
Nick: I’d love to go back in time and do a poster for any of the following….. Ornette Coleman, Unwound, His Hero is Gone or Albert Ayler
Head to Kickstarter to get involved in helping Sonnenzimmer get the funds for the book
Head to Sonnenzimmer’s website to check their excellent work