Typography and beyond with the Minneapolis-based gent

Of all the individuals to grace the hallowed centre pages of CRACK, few have provided such continued and unbridled enthusiasm as Mr. Erik Brandt. His vibrant typographical style delightfully embraces the practice’s dual objectives of conveying information while providing striking and memorable pieces that can be described as nothing other than art.

Brandt’s artistic remit stretches far beyond his physical output. As a university lecturer, his energy and vibrancy can be passed onto willing students and based on our interview with Brandt, lecturers carrying this level of passion and intelligence are not likely to come around too often. You could well imagine his tuition being quite a delve into a brilliant mind. His answers to Crack’s questions are intelligent and puncuated by continual gratititude, albeit via e-mail, for the opportunity to be featured in the magazine.

Having studied philosophy, art, history and literature his qualifications take him into an area of academia that provides him with an exceedingly firm base for furthering and exploring his artistic capabilities. With knowledge and understanding as the platform, Brandt is level placed for shooting his brilliant typographical ideas at the wider world.

Living in Minneapolis, he resides in a country he is somewhat critical of when it comes to accepting his poster-based artwork. He is vocal about America’s obsession with quick-fix celebrity culture and quick-fix transportation methods, something which frustrates a man who celebrates questions, identity and idea exploration within his work and the work of others. He wishes more were exposed to these questions he puts forward in his work. You have to look outside the box to explore these questions and in the commercially saturated culture that drives America, this is a hard thing for some.

With a range of work spanning an incredibly wide variety of styles and subject matter, the one constant is Brandt’s ability to take typography into areas one could never predict. Charming and effusive, learned yet curious, Crack’s involvement with Erik Brandt has been an utter pleasure from start to finish.

Could you explain briefly how you view what you do? What do you aim to accomplish with each piece of work?

Every piece is different, though I like to think that my work strives to capture the eye and then address the intelligence and imagination of the viewer. This does not mean that I weigh (or judge) the relative cognitive abilities of my audience, on the contrary, I try to create a space in time where viewers might find themselves in relation to the work on their own terms. For myself, I isolate, focus, estrange, and extend simple things.

What is your own artistic history? How did you come to where you are now?

In a very backwards way. I actually completed a degree in philosophy during my undergraduate years, in addition to studying art, history, and literature. After a brief stint teaching in Germany, I travelled to Japan where I drew a comic for an English monthly. This led to some freelance reporting and copy-editing, and I was eventually hired on as the editor. After abusing type and image for some time, I returned to the US and was lucky to be accepted to an M.F.A. program at Virginia Commonwealth University in 1996, where I “got religion,” as they say. I owe everything to my teachers there, especially one Akira Ouchi, my great mentor and friend.

Is it just you who works under the name Typografika? If so, what were your reasons for creating an alias to work under?

It is just me. I worked under ¡ü16.øäk! for many years, which was a typographic conglomerate of some of the various languages I have grown up speaking. I really liked the visual strength and the contradiction of anonymity in that term, and sometimes think of reviving it. I think it was in 1999 when I came across the word Typografika online, an old name for Czech typographic unions. That seemed perfect. I’ve never thought of it as an alias, but I very much like that idea. To me it refers to a body of work, and, appropriately I think, to the largely typographic focus of my tendencies.

Who have been your biggest type inspirations and influences over the years? What are your current favourite typefaces?

Learning tracing paper and a pencil are powerful tools for typographic composition and, around the same time, learning how to use a letterpress. Handling both wood and lead type made the moral and physical obligation one had to these letterforms crystal clear, and I started thinking about typography more as an act of pure caring for, not necessarily expression. I think Futura has always been my favorite typeface for that reason. We had loads of wood and lead in varying weights, and I actually think I learned more from sorting and cleaning than anything else. It’s perfect training for the eye, seeing those characters reversed. Akzidenz Grotesk and Univers are a close second, but I am also fond of free fonts like XTrude and big, fat slab-serifs. It’s impossible to list really; I love all typefaces great and small.

While much of your work has a distinctly modern feel, do you look further back in time for inspiration?

Of course, and with great frequency. I think that as designers, we all share that continual fascination of being a student, the endless possibilities of the future, but also the simple power of convention and tradition. My early work celebrates those, it has taken some time to find a voice, and I really feel I am still in training.

People will recognise your work from the centrefold poster a few issues back. In that piece you referenced quotes from Blade Runner and Radiohead’s In Rainbows. What influence are those individual works on you, and what role does music and film in general play when it comes to design?

I am forever grateful to CRACK for that opportunity, sincerely, it was a joy. That piece developed very organically. I focused first on a formal play of elements and colour. The combined phrase came almost accidentally but completely naturally, though for a while I worried that it may seem trite. It’s funny because I actually got to interview Ed O’Brien when I was in Japan. I discovered years later they actually included the venue they played in Fukuoka in their film, Meeting People Is Easy. That was a hugely influential time for me in general, but hearing them play left a massive impression on me, much like Blade Runner. A perfect combination really; elemental questions of life and meaning resonate strongly with both. They create more questions than answers. I think I am a bit obsessive- compulsive in that regard as I tend to find one album or sequence of songs which I play over and over again while working on something as it helps with concentration and finding the emotion of things; developing a sincere relationship with it. If I am feeling particularly pleased with something, I switch to Clonesfrom Ash’s Glastonbury performance, all the way to eleven. It’s like the old Beastie Boys line, “I love it when you spaz out all alone”.

What media do you feel most comfortable applying your work to? Do you prefer your work to convey information, as with things like instructional posters and maps, or to be viewed simply as works of art?

I am most comfortable with print media, though I have experimented with time-based environments, for example some short films. It’s such an intriguing question; I like to think both are possible, creating both efficient communication vehicles and something that might be called art. I really believe in the inherent intelligence and wonder within people. I’ve always been wary of the claim that designers somehow hold the secret to ‘perfect communication’, or that, let’s say, the International Style somehow holds the key to both simplicity and clarity. I often talk that way in discussions with my students; I think we are ‘question makers’ more so than any kind of authority.

While much of what you do focuses on the aesthetic presentation of words, how do the words themselves bleed into the work? How do you go about conveying the words’ meaning through style?

It’s always different, depending on the message, but I always start with pencil and paper. I look to understand the words themselves and then try to see them in isolation; this can be helpful in experimenting with hierarchy and creating a formal narrative of words, beyond the sentence or the message. Though my work is often about colour, I always start in black and white, trying to become comfortable with a structure, a sequence. This orientation comes from working on the letterpress as well as it’s a wonderfully slow process that lends itself to analysis and experimentation within severe limitation. Obviously this is possible with the computer, but maybe I am old fashioned in that way. As I love to tell my students, limitations are limitless.

Even though you are Minneapolis-based, there is the influence of other languages, cultures and nationalities in your work; what exactly is your national background?

I was born in Montana, so I am an American citizen, but my family lived abroad throughout my youth. We spent many years in Malawi and Cameroon, where I learned French, then moved to Northern Germany where I attended several German elementary and middle schools. We then moved to Cairo, Egypt where I completed my secondary education before finally returning to the US for University. I don’t think I have an American identity, more of a conglomerate orientation that is probably more European than anything. I’m a classic ‘third-culture’ kid. That would explain the black and white mohawk in the mid eighties, which, sadly, was more Duran Duran than punk.

Would you say your multinational identity is tied in with a fascination with language, hence words, hence typography? Is it something that’s always struck a chord with you?

Without question. I think that’s how I found my way to studying Philosophy as well. It was the perfect preparation, even if I couldn’t foresee entering the world of design one day. Learning several languages was also a key. My friends and I used to speak this delightful mix of languages, which flowed easily, and seemed to carry so much more meaning.

How about literature? You’ve worked on projects involving poetry, and waxed lyrical on the work of the great Argentinean author Jorge-Luis Borges; presumably literature is a big part of your life and work?

It’s everything, really. Borges in particular was and is an important influence, especially Tlön UqbarOrbis Tertius and a favourite, The Book of Imaginary Beings. I am especially fond of reading to my students from the latter. The Fauna Of Mirrors holds a special secret I like to share with them. More and more, however, I notice that these literary references do not resonate with them. The life of the mind cannot compete with the rush of information we are now exposed to, or flooded by. My wife and I found each other through words as well; she is a poet with an inspiring contemporary twist which is a constant influence and irreplaceable companion.

How does working as a lecturer work alongside your creative output? In terms of practicality can it be a strain, or do you think it keeps you on your toes, to be constantly working with exciting new minds and talents?

I love teaching as it is always a challenge, but exactly as you say, a priceless and rewarding opportunity to engage with young minds. It’s a time- warp, really, you never know when something you try to pass on truly sinks in. I think that’s the frustration many educators feel today, given the distractions now at hand. But nothing can replace the feeling when you receive a message from an old student who took the time to write with some reflection on our time together. I am fortunate that this happens, and am always moved and grateful.

How do you think the internet has affected current designers?

It is an exceptional resource, and obviously a welcome extension of what our tradition has always engaged in: communication. I love the internet, it’s perfect for a news-junkie like myself and has offered a wonderful opportunity to truly engage with people on a global scale. I sense that with my students, it can sometimes be a burden. Global trends and styles spread like wildfire, and it is ‘easier’ now to feel that one is somehow contemporary or cutting edge, without having tested those aesthetics in the field, so to speak.

You’ve exhibited all over the world, are there any parts of the world where you find people more receptive to what you do?

Anywhere but America? It’s funny really, but I think it’s because most of my public work, posters, etc., don’t resonate as much with Americans because the cities here are not pedestrian based as they are in most of the world. Everything here revolves around the car. Don’t get me wrong, we have a wonderful community of designers, obviously, but the do-it- yourself mentality, which is essentially American, seems to play a part in downplaying our role in society. Look at American film posters, if you can bear it; they are all about the impossible dream of celebrity, and hardly ever devoted to ideas of beauty or questions. Those posters don’t believe in people, or their intelligence and imagination. The gig-poster scene here is a beautiful response to that, and Minneapolis is home to some of the masters, Aesthetic Apparatus and Burlesque. Chicago-based Sonnenzimmer is another beacon of hope. Truly inspiring people and artists.

2011 seemed to be an incredibly prolific year for you; is there a sense of creative momentum around your work at the moment?

I feel that very strongly, it was a pivotal year. I am trying the best I can to build on this momentum. I am still really hungry; it’s wonderful playing with the big toys.

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Words: Geraint Davies

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