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Double Standards: No Nonsense Design

03.02.15
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On entering the Double Standards studio, tucked away at the end of Wrangelstrasse, one is immediately struck by the intensity of the interior: White, hard, arranged, more white, clean, minimalistic, white again. The studio looks like a cross between the spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey, a concrete bunker and an art gallery. This is a good thing.

The space is uncompromising – you must accept the design ethos imposed upon you, or reject it. There is no middle ground, nowhere to transfer your gaze to the bland and everyday. The outside world is full of indifferent aesthetics – walk down any given street and you’re likely to see a lot of bad design. Garish signage, uncomplimentary font choices, badly-photoshopped posters, clumsy photographs or thoughtless council planning on a one-way road system, the list goes on. None of this is acceptable in the world of Double Standards. When you step through the threshold, past the graffiti, rubbish and hubbub, you enter another realm, one where every decision is a very conscious one. You are now entering Chris Rehberger’s head, and design just got political.

Chris strongly believes that being a graphic designer is not simply a job, it’s also laden with social responsibility. You as a designer are making a choice every time you create something. How relevant is it? How forgettable? Who do you target it to? What colours do you choose, if any? Perhaps most importantly, how clear and accessible is the message? Chris says, “When you are talking about social responsibility then you are also talking about sending a political message. Even if it’s a flyer for some department store, if it’s badly designed then you are sending out the wrong message. That’s political.” What I think Chris means when he tells me “design is political” is that every choice we make has a consequence. If you are making lazy, inarticulate design choices then you are making a statement that you do not care. This way of thinking can be applied to most, if not all, lines of work. But perhaps it is in design that poor craftsmanship stands out most, as we are forced to confront it everywhere we look.

Chris grew up in a small town near Stuttgart, and studied at Fellebach, the local university. Fellebach was a small school, with only 75 students while Chris was there. The course mostly focused on the technical side of design, leaving students to seek their own inspiration when it came to concepts. After graduating in 1990, Chris almost immediately jumped into the world of work, first trying his hand at a product design company before taking over the reins of art director at one, two, eventually three magazines simultaneously. Although this no doubt gave him an excellent grounding and education in design, it was also exhausting. “You must remember that back then you didn’t have computers to help you do everything. It was much more hands on. We had the layout sheets come in, and then you were on the floor fiddling around with Pritt Sticks and whatever.” With one magazine’s turbulent print week directly following another, Chris was essentially left without any free time whatsoever. “I was literally being sick after each issue came out. It was so stressful, I was really young still, and could not deal with such constant pressure.”

Chris left the editorial world, and his home region of Swabia, to move in with his older brother – acclaimed artist Tobias Rehberger – in Frankfurt. There he took up work in advertising, as well as making his first foray into teaching at the Frankfurt School of Art, quite something when you consider that he was now at the grand old age of 23.

"People talk these days about 'authorless design'. What is this? There is no authorless design. Something of yourself is put into everything that you do, even if you don't mean it to"

I ask if the students were hesitant to take instruction from such a waifish youth. “Yeah, they were all older than me, mostly between 25-30, and they were kind off stand-offish at the beginning. They looked at me like ‘what could you possibly teach me?’ So I had to start working on the projects to let them know them that I could show, as well as tell. It was fine after that, but to get them to trust me I really had to get down on my hands and knees on the cutting room floor!” Chris is now a part-time professor at HFG Karlsruhe, but he works in a more conceptual, abstract capacity. “I don’t have to get down on my knees so often anymore.”

Although consistent and well-remunerated, the advertising work was quite dry; Chris feels that, particularly in Germany, advertising agencies are often afraid to take risks – even if the client might not be. He decided to leave advertising and launch himself into the uncertain terrain that is freelance work. Initially he started working through Start Advertising, a Munich-based creative agency who didn’t involve themselves in the design process, but found him work and looked after the planning and administrative side of things. This was a good arrangement for Chris, as not only could he focus himself on designing without interruption, but it also enabled him to meet and work with other designers in their stable, including luminaries such as Terry Jones of i-D magazine and John Warwicker, founder of design collective Tomato. In 1995 Chris moved to London, due to his wife landing a place on the City of Westminster’s photography course. He was always interested in England, in part because of the thriving design landscape, but mostly due to the London and ‘Madchester’ music scenes that were bubbling up at the time. The work he did for the British advertising agencies was more interesting than their German counterparts: “With BBA, Mother, Saatchi, the big agencies, it was good work. They were brave then. There was wit; it wasn’t like the irony-free zone I was finding in the Frankfurt agencies.” Chris worked non-stop from their small London apartment and barely got to see daylight, while the upmarket London opticians that his wife was working at attracted musicians like Noel Gallagher and Massive Attack, inducing no small amount of envy.

Starting a family and living in stuffy expensive London were not compatible desires for the Rehbergers, so after five years they packed their bags and set off for the city where many of their design friends had started to head to: Berlin. Chris had been there already once, on a college trip before the wall came down, and his memories of East Berlin were not fond.

“I was 16, and the field trip arrived in the buzzing, artistic liberal West Berlin”, he recalls. “One of the days we took a trip to East Berlin, past the deathstrip, the barbed wire, the stone-faced soldiers. It was horrible. Everything was grey, the people looked grey, there were only two types of cars. I couldn’t wait to get out of there. Our money went so far that we couldn’t actually spend it all in the day. So we gave it to some guy near the border as we weren’t allowed to take it back. He was happy of course, but it seemed to me afterwards such a disgusting, patronising Western thing to do. I had never experienced depression before, but for about three weeks afterwards…” Post-Cold War Berlin was very different however, and Chris found a thriving and ambitious city with a much more upbeat atmosphere. He knows and socialises with the rest of the design crowd here, but doesn’t let work and pleasure mix too much. “I cannot think of anything more tedious than going to some designer’s party and spending the whole night discussing design. It’s boring! What’s to discuss? Everybody has their own opinions, and it’s not for me to influence that.” I posit to him that to a certain extent he does that with his students. “Yes, but I just talk to them about concepts and ideas, I don’t judge their work, whether it is good or bad. They are about 20 years younger than me, they have a different approach. I just want to let them know that they design with a personal history, that they need to put something of themselves in their designs. People talk these days about ‘authorless design’. What is this? There is no authorless design. Something of yourself is put into everything that you do, even if you don’t mean it to.”

One of the most interesting projects that Double Standards have embarked upon recently was a collaboration with Red Bull and publisher Gestalten celebrating 15 years of the Red Bull Music Academy. The book is called For The Record, and is a series of curated conversations between seminal musicians, elegantly presented. Sample conversations include Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry talking to Adrian Sherwood, and Erykah Badu chatting with young New York rap duo The Underachievers. “I thought, usually music is written about in magazines, but I was going to create a book, so how could I make a book that was representational of a magazine, or vice versa? I had these huge stacks of NME, you know, so I was looking at those and then … we ended up designing every single conversation completely separately, so that each musician had their own ‘feature’. We had different photographers flying all over the world for each artist, and I still think today that we really chose the perfect photographer for each one.”

Chris doesn’t only design though. He also co-owns the hugely influential record label Perlon, synonymous with Ricardo Villalobos but also releasing the likes of A Guy Called Gerald, Shackleton, and Pile, Chris’s audio-visual collaboration with fellow founders Markus Nikolai and Thomas Franzmann, aka world-renowned DJ/producer Zip. The label, Chris keeps telling me, really sort of happened by accident: his wife’s old boss in the optician she worked at in Frankfurt (judging from Chris’s experiences, I should probably hang out in opticians more) was really into some designs Chris brought in to show her one day, and asked if he could put some music to them. Chris, slightly bemused, accepted, not realising that the guy was the aforemtnioned Nikolai, an influential player in the Frankfurt music scene. One thing led to another and eventually they formed Pile, and later signed by Sony. Sony did basically nothing for them except take ownership of all the music Pile put out for three years, so when they finally managed to get out of the contract, suitably disillusioned with the industry, Chris and co. were keen not to repeat the experience. “We gathered in a local Apfelwein bar and decided that the best way to make sure our music was put out and advertised in the best possible way was to do it ourselves. Slowly, without any real sort of plan, we met other musicians and started releasing their stuff too.”

Double Standards itself was also kind of accidental. Chris was quite happy doing his freelance thing, but one of his students at the Merz Akademie in Stuttgart asked him, quite persistently, whether he would take her under his wing when she graduated. Chris eventually caved and gained his first employee. “Back then, for her it must have been really frustrating; since I had been working alone for eight years I had no idea how to delegate so I didn’t really give her anything to do at all.” Eventually Chris was persuaded to hand over some of the work, and they started getting more, and bigger, projects together, slowly adding more designers to the fold. A decade later and Double Standards is 12 designers, plus Chris – and he no longer has issues with delegation: Slightly to his chagrin, one feels, he hardly designs at all any more, but rather sees himself as “the conductor of a band”, gliding sporadically through the room dispensing tips and wisdom, but more or less trusting his designers to work through and complete the projects themselves.

Chris has a separate studio across the courtyard of the building. “I didn’t want my designers to have the feeling of ‘the boss’ always around, leaning over their shoulders, pressuring them. I want them to be feeling more or less autonomous and free.” In
his own arena he has a play area for his nine-year-old daughter, which, typically, is also immaculately designed, but a bit more colourful than the rest of the space – a sort of ‘My First Studio’, if you like.

What’s next for Double Standards? A lot of interesting projects, it seems: Designing the visual identity of an exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum called Making Africa, as well as work for the Munich Kammerspiele Theatre, and a colour way for Lacoste trainer, to name but a few. Many of Double Standards’ clients tend to come from cultural institutions, again, by chance, rather than design. If it’s a pigeonhole, then it is one that many design studios would be happy to be crammed into.

Chris asserts that there is no masterplan for the future of his businesses, no grand scheme, but rather that he is taking things as they come, letting events happen naturally. I can’t help but think he is adopting a slightly laissez-faire nonchalance when he says this, but he says that although he has dreams and ideas, he holds onto them, and doesn’t try to force them. He is confident that everything he wants to achieve will be achieved, but at its own pace. Looking at what has happened so far, you’d have to believe he’s right.

For more information about Chris Rehberger visit doublestandards.net

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