July 24th, 2005


An interview with Åbäke

Åbäke is a graphic design collective based in London. The four members—Patrik Lacey, Benjamin Reichen, Kajsa Stahl and Maki Suzuki—have been together four years. They're from Wales, France and Sweden (Maki is of Japanese origin, but was raised in France). Åbäke is a Swedish word meaning "something in the way, something clumsy". Åbäke are part of a tendency for young designers to work as part of collectives and groups rather than struggle (and pay rent) individually. They did their Royal College of Art degree show together, graduating in 2000. They have their own magazine, Sexy Machinery (a collaboration with two architects and a textile designer), and their own record label, Kitsune. The label releases records like "Kitsune Midnight", twelve songs about midnight with a sleeve in which pinhole lettering is illuminated from behind by getting an entire audience at an IdN conference in Singapore to flash their cameras at the same time. Another ongoing Åbäke project is to make lettering with bits of human bodies stuck through card. They also like anagrams: on a T-shirt they rendered "Industrial Light and Magic" as "Diagram & Licit Sunlight" (an improvement, I think).

I did this short interview with Åbäke after meeting them at a gig in London earlier this year. The gig took place in a library, and Åbäke later used video of it to illustrate a lecture they gave at a library-less Swedish art school about the unusual things you can do in libraries. The next time I met them was in Berlin, during DesignMai. They were preparing food. It was conceptual food, food-as-design, but it also tasted great, very wholesome.

Would it be right to say that your work is like a jellyfish sitting uncomfortably (or comfortably) across several disciplinary boundaries: design, art, teaching, research...
Thank you, we like the jellyfish analogy. One of the reason we chose our name, beyond a democratic gesture of national representation (swedish name, british location, french e-mail address) is the 'jellyness' of it, in terms of sound ('o-beycker' say the swedes, abaqué for the french, a bake in english etc.) but also in terms of definition. This obsolete word means 'something in between', 'a hulky rusty car which still functions but is not pretty', 'something clumsy', 'very large thing', 'monstrosity', rather negative definitions but they somehow loosely describe what we do.

We have the feeling design, art, teaching or research are not so different. It is an interesting point to consider disciplines as building sites which can be developed in parallel. Although we feel quite optimistic about how 'disciplines' should collaborate, collide or open up, we are happy with being defined as graphic designers instead of any hybrid denominations. We are four and most of our activities involve other people. The 'trattoria' you came to in Berlin was in association with furniture designers and friends Martino Gamper and Rainer Spehl. The former with whom we work closely in London and the latter being the catalyst for the event to happen in a different town than the one we live in.

Is there a relationship between unemployment and experimentalism — in the sense that you’re finding your own problems rather than having them defined by commercial clients?
We hope there is no such thing as a clear dichotomy between employment, i.e. money and 'experimentalism'. Most of our work—probably all of it—is defined by commercial clients or commercial contexts. We produce postcards as a result of what we call pretourism, which is to visit embassies of countries before we eventually visit them physically. What it provides is a reason to visit places we wouldn't normally go to and even the journeys to get there have always proven to be of interest. In the end, when the postcards are printed (on off cuts of 'commercial jobs') they make us save money in postcards we would otherwise buy. The reasons why we associated ourselves with other people to start our own record label (www.kitsune.fr) or magazine (sexymachinery.com) is mainly to be involved in the content we 'design' but they are clearly commercial ventures.

None of you are from London, and London is an expensive, commercially-oriented city. Why base yourselves there?
This started as a decision by default. We were too scared to go where none of us had gone before and it felt too strange to go BACK to Wales, France or Sweden. Today, we combine working quite locally, with our local film rental shop, for example with enough traveling to feel welcomed home there. Although we think the proportions of interesting commissioners is higher than any place we know (or think we know). Correct us if we are wrong. This being said, nothing is set in stone.

Do you recognize a distinction between creativity in the service of a specific goal and creativity for its own sake? Is there any sense that becoming “experts in the creative process” is a consolation prize for some lost chance? (I ask this because it’s a question I ask myself: I seem to have become an “expert in the creative process” as a consolation prize for not being popular as a popular music artist... so all that’s left is the “artist” part!)
We have never succeeded in not working for a specific goal. Yesterday we met two curators organising a series of conference in the St Bride Library, a sacrosanct place for anything related to typography. We came up with a proposal to give a talk in order to access the archive and the other conferences for free. Would you consider Godard or Radiohead to have achieved 'critical AND commercial' acclaim?

What kind of work do you imagine Åbäke doing in ten years’ time?
Our ambitions do not include expansion in terms of members but in a way, we meet more and more people we start things with. Only, not everybody is sharing the open plan office. We do wonder whether graphic design is a job for life. Could it be that we are anticipating graphic design visual obsolescence by cooking, teaching, editing, owning (a record label) etc.?

All at åbäke