Only through the filter of technology can most of us retreat to an analog life. Itinerant designers like Stephanie Specht, in particular, owe so much to the rallying powers of Instagram and Twitter. When the Belgian graphic artist lived in Cape Town, Princeton, and New York, she sold her “modern vintage” style—a reinterpretation of Matisse-inspired shapes in washed-out primary colors—to clients she’d never met. Like many freelance designers, it was common practice to conduct meetings via Skype with people from L.A. to Stockholm; Specht even distributed a book from afar through a print-on-demand vending machine at McNally Jackson.
Specht may not have eschewed technology entirely—her work travels as widely as ever—but those days are over. This spring she returned to her native Antwerp and launched Specht Studio, a workspace and gallery in a former warehouse converted by local architect Nicolas Pétillon. There she leads a life that, by her account, is much “more offline.” On the gallery side, she exhibits books and illustrations by friends and colleagues around the world. And on the studio side she enjoys a calm and stability she’d forgotten existed on the road.
“It’s been a great experience going analog,” she tells me from her all-white office divided by breezy full-height curtains. “For the first time, I can invite clients to sit down and show them things. It’s a whole different way of working.”
It’s quite a revelation for a modern creative that “added value” can mean as little as simply meeting in person. That’s something Specht has known for years but could rarely act upon while she was still with her bicoastal boyfriend. “When I meet people for the first time I have a very good instinct for what that person needs. That’s my strength. If I tell a client in L.A. she should use a certain type of paper, she has to trust me. Here we can touch and feel it and discuss print sizes together. And when the client is here, it’s all about them.”
Rounding out her portfolio of corporate identities and book designs is the recent branding of a new documentary-style music television show in Belgium. And she’s even expanded into homewares after the New York bedding company Divatex acquired six of her works to transfer onto a line of duvets and decorative pillows (see some of those prints below). But New Yorkers might have discovered Specht through her association with kindred spirit Alex Proba. The two designers were Instagram friends for a year before finally meeting face to face and sharing ideas for what became two poster designs, on display now at Picture Room at McNally Jackson in New York City.
“It was a nice collaboration,” says Specht, “because it started on a professional level and turned personal—I think maybe because we’re both from Europe [Proba is of German descent] and have influences from America. We also listen to the same music and that’s a big plus.” The obvious similarities in their work can be found in the palette of primary colors crossed with pastels, and the strong foundation in geometry. But to Specht it’s more. “We like the same almost-Japanese simplicity. We’re very careful with what we use.”
The timing of her new Antwerp studio was impeccable. The past 15 years have been a period of intense creative growth for Antwerp, a small city long known for its outré fashion that has lately incorporated contemporary architecture and design. “It’s becoming more and more inspiring,” says Specht. “It’s a city that behaves like a village and keeps on getting better.”
Certainly better than before. “In Belgium I used to feel everyone was looking at each other as competition, whereas the people I met in New York always wanted to combine forces if they saw you were good at something.” Her initial reluctance to settle down back home was unfounded in the end. In an interview she did after first opening her studio, Specht voiced her desire to collaborate more with Antwerp designers. “I got a lot of emails from local people after that,” says Specht. “That enthusiasm was the first thing I felt when I came back.”