Human Empire is a multidisciplinary design collective that creates playful and iconic works. Beautiful/Decay recently interviewed them about how their collective was started, their influences, and recent projects.
Can you talk a little bit about how Human Empire was started, how the three of you got into design, and met?
In 2000 I originally founded Human Empire as a t-shirt label and side project from my former design studio o8 design along with my good friend Mor Ce of 15 years and my girlfriend Wiebke. The three of us met during our college years. When I was just starting out, I was tired of the stressful and not satisfying internet and design jobs for big commercial clients and really loved the free design jobs I was doing for Morr music and other music labels and bands. We decided to move from Hanover to Germany’s second biggest city Hamburg. We used the name of our t-shirt label as our comprehensive name for our design/illustration studio and clothes label. We always tried to focus on the free and interesting projects for the music industry besides always doing designs and illustrations for big clients, advertising companies or magazines.
I read that Wiebke Schultz also established an online shop and two local stores in Hamburg- can you talk a little bit about the idea behind the shop and what you guys carry?
Since 2001 we have run Human Empire, starting out as just a t-shirt brand but eventually our product range expanded bit by bit with the offering of sweatshirts, hooded sweatshirts, jackets, bags, books, posters and other things. Besides our own designs we focus on collaborating with designers and labels from all over the world that have the same passion for retro stuff, classic typography, pop art, music, etc.
I also saw that you did an exhibition of amazing original Swiss posters between the period of 1955 and 1966-why did you select this particular period? Seeing some of the works as well, it seems to have some sort of influence or inspiration for you as well?
Yes – classic Swiss design from the 50s and 60s have a great impact in my design work. I had a Swiss professor while attending college that was always impressed by reduced simple and bold designs. Since then I started to collect Swiss books and posters. I think the illustration and design from this period has something that is extremely missing in today’s design and advertising. Swiss design often makes you smile and feel good because of the warm and bright colors, humor, etc. People especially needed this after the war in the 50s and still do today with the economy crises.
I think this is one reason why retro-influenced designs are so popular these days.
Can you walk us through a typical day at your offices?
First we check our emails, which usually takes at least an hour to answer all of them. I usually start out by working on a cover design, Wiebke visits the shops around this time. 10 minutes will go by, the phone will ring and I’ll have to do other things. Then we have lunch at a nice and not too expensive restaurant in our neighborhood. After lunch I do illustrations for anything from a band, club or a magazine and then switch to do a record cover or go the short distance to our shop where we have a small photo studio and a workshop where we can produce artwork or interior decoration for our stores.
What’s your process like as far as thinking creatively towards making unique and original works?
Our work is very spontaneous and we don’t plan too much (in detail) when we start with an art piece. This makes the process very time-consuming. We don’t know exactly what will be the result when starting something because it is very important for us to experiment and try out new ideas and approaches. The artwork often changes several times during the process of making. In the past several years, we (like many others) have tried to integrate hand built or hand drawn stuff often incorporating this with the use of our photo studio and wood workshop. Sometimes we have to throw away the result because it doesn’t look good with all the elements combined, even if one of the components is a nice object or something.
What do you think makes for successful design- or what’s your philosophy behind your approach to creating work in general?
Some years ago I thought having good design skills would be enough, but I was wrong. Besides having the skill to be a good designer, the most important thing is that you have the ability to touch the emotions of the “consumer”. When I look at hip and stylish design, fashion magazines or corporate label designs I often have the sense that there are a lot of designers and photographers with impressive skills but in the end seldom have a concept that really surprises or touches me. I am often really surprised that every (lifestyle) magazine looks the same (for example).
In today’s design books, I often see just a combination of hip styles, but what about the content and the message and what about humor or something else? The message seems to get overshadowed by execution.
I really loved the illustrations you did for the magazine “Neuland,” they have such a playful, iconic feel to them that calls to mind everything from the experimental compositional organization and symbolism of Miro to 1970’s children’s books- can you expand upon your thought process with these works?
I was really influenced by the aesthetics of the seventies (my childhood). I still have a clear memory of the colors and style of furniture my mom would decorate our apartment with at this time. If I see those colors and décor from this period I instantly have a warm and good feeling. They make me happy. I’ve noticed that a lot of people feel this way. Another influence of mine is the magazine Neuland presenting a new region of Germany in every issue. The current issue is about lower Bavaria. If you think of lower Bavaria you think of folk art, traditional stuff, and the clear basic colors white, red, blue and green, which are often used in Germany’s traditional folk art (costumes, flags etc.).
Speaking of children’s illustrations—the posters you did of a pink gorilla monster holding bananas and the orange donkey are adorable. That’d be a hip kid with these poster’s in their room- actually I wouldn’t mind them either, haha! Can you talk about why you wanted to make specifically children’s posters?
In the past we often were not happy if people said that our designs/illustrations looked like children’s stuff, because we wanted to be accepted as serious designers. Haha… but we accepted it and have done children designs. We are so happy when there are groups of children that stand in front of our shop window and are really enthusiastic about the figures, monsters, etc and sometimes there are old people who say – “ohhh … do you remember … there was a time when we had a similar looking…” in general we don’t want to focus on the hip cool stylish aspects. The most important thing is to make people smile. I think that’s it.
You’ve also done some awesome designs for albums. I love the cover for Delbo—using cardboard bricks to form letters, and Dutch Uncles—where you built an actual wooden head. A similar tactic was undertaken for Click Click Decker—vintage animal postcards into cubes again. The sculptural elements in both of these give it a sort of hand-made, more organic vibe. Can you talk about both of these projects, and also your decision to include handmade objects within them?
I think the actual boom of 3d/handdrawn/haptic designs is finally a reaction of the huge influence of computers and the Retro boom. In the late 60s and seventies you would often find designs that integrated photos, built fonts etc..
Designers tried to escape from this aesthetic in which was being used for advertising and commercials. They wanted to do authentic works that wouldn’t just scream: Buy me! I am the best! I am the cheapest! These are aspects that are comparable to the arts and crafts movement and William Morris’s reaction on the industrial revolution since 1850.
I love the screen print you did for Early Griffin Press—the limited color palette and simplicity of form is really great. What was your process for this design?
It is influenced by surrealism and constructivism a little. You often find the influence of cubism in graphics from the fifties. It looks very old fashioned and you will never find these things in advertising, which is a good reason to use it. Haha… I tried to combine a simple and bold result by using warm and organic shapes. I think it is hip to draw by hand and use watercolors etc. but not because of the style, because it is a cause or reaction to the cold and clean vector aesthetics you find in illustrations a few years ago (and now today).
I was interested in developing forms and shapes that give “vector aesthetics” a warm and contemporary look.
Your poster work for Nouveau Casino Paris seems to hold some of the same iconography as well as the print for Early Griffin- hand drawn owls, boxes, little monster men, etc—where do these characters come from, how were they invented?
I like iconography drawings since I was a child because my mother was a master in painting and drawing iconographic things and we (my sister and I) learned from her and was very much influenced by her. When we found old drawings of hers in our basement, we fell in love with these figures immediately. I think many of the figures and monsters etc. are a memory of a perfect childhood. Today we have realized that the reality on this planet is not as nice as we believed. I think the main reason why people like childish things is that they can try to escape from their stressful life at least for a short time.