On a renovated second floor studio in an old factory building in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood, there’s a thick, steel pipe table on top of which sits a bright yellow Letraset storage drawer. Inside, there are stacks of dry transfer letter sheets: blocky sans serifs, tried and true Helvetica, and pages of silhouettes of people, animals, and trees. There are the occasional blank spaces where one of the letters has been rubbed-off, but almost everything in the drawer is carefully preserved.
This box belongs to Stefan Gandl, founder and director of Studio Neubau, a design agency known for its precise, space-age-y, and heavily typographic style. Even its line of homemade, natural popsicle sticks look as if they’ve fallen from the Discovery One cafeteria of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
It makes sense that Studio Neubau should have a Letraset drawer in its office. In many ways the studio is dedicated to collecting and meticulously archiving pieces of design history. It’s even produced books filled with every kind of pattern or vector imaginable for other designers to use and edit—it’s almost as if Studio Neubau monographs are contemporary versions of Letraset. This is probably why Gandl keeps the Letraset box sitting in the room like a shrine (or a Kubrickian monolith).
After moving to Berlin in 1995 and working as a designer for various agencies, Gandl founded Studio Neubau in 2001. “When I started, I wanted to have a publication that was a manifesto for the studio,” he explains. First, though, Gandl needed a name. “Neubau means ‘new build’ in German,” he explains. “But I also felt the word had a lot to do with the city.”
As Berlin has been destroyed and rebuilt so often, and because Gandl always had the feeling that everything around him was under construction, the name suited the time, place, and outlook. “I wanted to connect the studio with the city and I also wanted the name to convey how we work. It pretty much comes down to this: we often use things that exist already, but we try to put them in a new context.”
Growing up in the 1970s, Gandl often made his own sleeve designs for cassette tapes, using dry transfer sheets to create moody, experimental, black-and-white covers with overlapping type and mysterious silhouettes for his favorite David Bowie albums. With a new studio of his own, finding a new context for the vector shapes he’d be drawn to as a kid felt like an especially interesting way of building on the old. Gandl approached Gestalten with his idea for Neubau Welt, an extensive encyclopedia of vectors of everyday objects. The project would be useful for other creatives, as each pictogram would be editable and downloadable through the accompanying CD-ROM.
Producing the book took nearly five years. “When we started I was working with my mouse,” Gandl remembers. “Then tablets came. They could trace hair or fur within seconds. It was so much better.”
Because of the changes in technology as well as the growth of the design team, the book “is almost like a studio diary… We never tried to illustrate the whole world—it’s Neubau’s world,” Gandl emphasizes. To select the objects for the book, everyone on the team brought in items they liked or felt represented them in some way. That’s while you’ll see vectors of an intern’s well-worn trainers, a leftovers from an office lunch, and half-empty bottles from a party.
In many ways Studio Neubau is the ultimate problem solver. It finds something that can and should be more efficient, and then creates a new system to make it so. After finishing the popular Neubau Welt, Gandl decided to turn his attention to creating a book of greyscales and patterns he called Neubau Modul. Then the studio decided to tackle its most complex challenge yet.
“We were at the Neubauism exhibition opening party in Eindhoven party and it was like, what’s next?” remembers Gandl. “We’ve done typefaces, objects, patterns. Perhaps it was drunkenness, but I suddenly said, the next book is going to be about trees. We found out with Welt that trees are the most difficult thing to illustrate because they’re so intricate and need so many anchor points.” Since Studio Neubau works with a lot of architects, Gandl knew that producing a variety of full-color tree vectors that could be blown up to any size would be particularly helpful—even more so if there was a summer version and a winter version for every species of tree. “We were incredibly naive thinking it would be easy,” he laughs.
The first problem was how to capture the trees in high-res. First Studio Neubau thought they’d photograph the trees in front of white canvases, but as Gandl explains, “then we’d have had to run around Berlin with huge white sheets.” Then, while riding the train to Hamburg and watching blurry trees speed by, the solution suddenly struck him. “We could take several pictures of one tree’s elements and then re-match them together using panoramic software—a bit like a puzzle. Then zooming in to sketch would be easier.”
Problem one solved. Now came problem two. Berlin is one of the greenest metropolitans, so how would Studio Neubau determine which trees to include? As the studio had become well-known for its typography as well as its silhouettes, the team decided to write the studio name over a map of Berlin using one of their latest typefaces with the geographic location of the studio placed in the middle of the map. “Wherever the construction points of the typefaces landed, we’d find the nearest tree,” explains Gandl with a sparkle in his eye. Creating order from chaos with healthy dose of play seems to be his specialty.
“We ended up in all these areas we’d never visit, random streets you pass a million times but never actually go down,” he says. To accurately represent the seasons, the studio would capture a tree in the summer, begin illustrating, and go back again in the next winter. “Sometimes you’d revisit and the tree would be gone. I liked that though. The book took so long to produce, so it’s also a documentary of time and space. That’s what I like about all these projects.”
Neubau Forst, the collection of ready-to-use tree vectors, was released in 2014. The studio’s monographs are now the tools it regularly uses for commissioned work: you can see the greyscales at work on its poster series, the vectors on its record sleeve designs, and its not unheard of to see tree branches cascading over minimal book cover designs.
The studio’s connection to its home town plays a large part in its work. After spending so much time collecting and closely archiving its surrounding environment, it stands to reason that the design team feels intimately tied to Berlin. Most recently, Studio Neubau’s posters for the NB Youth International Party were purposefully ripped alluding to the scrappy poster culture of Berlin’s streets.
Studio Neubau create modern tools for a modern studio, yet it’s also drawn to the timeless, giving classic systems a modern day facelift.