[Tom Biederbeck] Collaboration and improvisation are hallmarks of the posters Nick Butcher and Nadine Nakanishi have been producing the past six years in their Chicago studio. Warp and Weft: Poster construction by Sonnenzimmer presents their distinctive work in an elegant package. It’s one of my favorite art and design books of 2012, so I was excited to speak with them about their process, influences and intent.
In the introduction, you talk about developing your own visual language. It’s both representational and abstract. Where does it come from?
Nick Butcher: It comes from both of us mixing our interests. Nadine has more of a typographic background. I have more of a fine art background. Through that and working out solutions in collaboration, we’ve uncovered a language we can visualize with. We work by hand, so we developed this language outside the computer. We try to explore the intersection of typography, abstraction, drawing, representation… .
Nadine Nakanishi: Pop culture is something we constantly have our feelers out for. It’s an ongoing dialogue: Image making in pop culture is a foundation we reflect and work from. In our working process, we are interested in a form- and technique-driven core, where we start by employing techniques that drive the form.
You print in your own studio, and you get unusual textures and tones that aren’t typical of screen printing. How do you do this?
Nadine: By nature, if you print something with many layers—most of our posters are more than five colors—you get variations through the pigments overlaying each other. While I’d like to think that’s a bit unusual, it’s also in the nature of our interest in painting—building up the image as an object. We always try to balance flatness and texture.
One thing about having your own press is you can tinker with color. We often change the inks several times on press until we get the right tones and mix. That’s pretty standard for us, and not very cost- or time-effective. But it results in our being able to fine-tune the image as it builds itself.
I don’t know what to call what you do. It’s not representational, it isn’t pure abstraction. I wouldn’t call it postmodern. It’s definitely innovative, and that’s to your credit.
Nadine [consulting with Nick and laughing]: We’re often asked where we see ourselves. We jokingly call it “graphic abstractionism.” But you can’t put yourself into a box. Sometimes our voice can be whimsical. Maybe it’s yet to be determined.
That ties in with your interest in improvisation. You’re also involved in Chicago’s improvised music scene, right?
That’s Nick. He’s in a couple of groups. I just enjoy the music. It’s a really important tool that’s kind of been cut out of visual creativity.
Do you listen to music as you work? Is there music in the Sonnenzimmer [the word is German for "sun room"]?
Nadine: When we’re working on music posters, definitely! It’s a way for us filter through pop culture and form. How is a melody evolving? How does it become fragmented or deconstructed? It’s very similar to image making.
There are parallel trajectories. We never modeled our studio on design or printing. We’ve modeled it on the idea of a music studio: You make music, you perform it, you tour it. We do that with our music posters. We tour our posters by going to Flatstock and other events.
Coming back to the book: Why did you do it?
Nadine: We wanted to document what we’ve done so we can move forward…not abandoning posters, but creating a milestone for the studio, to start doing other things. Publishing the book was a way of looking ahead.
The other motivation was from our satellite shop for the MCA last summer [read about Sonnenzimmer’s installation at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art here]: we learned that people don’t hate abstract imagery; there’s a lot of curiosity about abstraction. But we couldn’t get a publisher to pay attention. Maybe people weren’t going to be interested! Kickstarter was a perfect way to gauge that.
We sold almost all the initial run. On another level, we realize how small the project is. But we think the future of design publishing isn’t about pretty pictures. We spent a week printing each of these posters, and we didn’t want to just show a bunch of posters with some casual blurbs. We wanted the book to be about the making of the work.
Copies of Warp and Weft—and lots of other great stuff, including posters and music—can be purchased at the Sonnezimmer store. A new exhibition, Object Is Image, Image Is Object: Graphic Abstraction by Sonnenzimmer, runs Jan. 18–March 3, 2013, at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Here’s a video visit to the Sonnenzimmer, courtesy of Threadless:
All images and photos © 2012 Sonnenzimmer