“A long-term relationship with a client is a bit like a marriage, in that you can get in a rut where you stop challenging one another. It can work both ways,” so says Ian Warner of Berlin design studio State. Since 2011, the small design consultancy has been working closely with Berlin’s Komische Oper opera on annual design renewals, and its seasonal publications are a great example of what when longstanding client relationships built on shared in-depth research and knowledge are paired with being kept on your toes.
In 2011 Australian artistic director Barrie Kosky joined Berlin’s Komische Oper creative team, an appointment that necessitated a reimagining of the theater’s complete visual identity. Under Kosky’s direction, many of the institution’s traditions were maintained, but the director also showed works that hadn’t been staged since before the second World War. By looking backwards to bring a new energy to the opera’s programming, Kosky hoped to cultivate a broader audience while maintaining loyal fans.
Many Berlin studios pitched their identity concepts to Kosky, but it was State’s presentation that secured the coveted five-year contract. “Kosky expressed a love for Russian Constructivism in the initial meeting, and this resonated with me aesthetically because as a student I’d been drawn to the work of Rodchenkco and the Stenberg brothers,” says Warner.
For the pitch presentation, State focused on Kosky’s notion of revitalizing tradition and historical forms; its three-lined logo referenced a handwritten, three-tiered one from the opera’s early years, for example; and its overall palette and decorations were inspired by early 20th-century art movements, Constructivism, and Broadway posters. State paired these details with the newly released Brandon Grotesque for a sense of geometry and warmth. The identity fit with the era Kosky was interested in, but also expressed playfulness. One of the most charming winks in the design sits to the right of the bright red logo: a small beauty spot, like that worn by an opera singer.
“The hardest part of the design process for that pitch was narrowing down our options, because we’d produced a large body of ideas,” says Warner. “But the pitch presentation itself was actually quite joyous after some initial nervousness. In these situations, I always find its important to follow ideas that get you excited rather than those that seem safe or more easily rationalized. I also think that good things come of having the courage to offer candid outside critique.”
For the next five years, each season State would mix together new patterns for the program booklet—bringing in zigzags and ornate swirls, and adding in new color contrasts and textures. After half a decade the decoration was growing ever heavier, and without a system to constrain it, the studio was getting dragged into details. Therefore when its five-year contract was renewed for a further five, State refreshed the visual system in order to standardize the use of patterns.
There’s a fine line between getting in a rut and remaining systematic.
“We wanted to reflect a deepening commitment to the in-house mentality of continual re-invention,” says Warner. “‘Everything stays different,’ was a phrase which took hold. But at the same time it was necessary to establish a more systematic approach to the design assets. This helped avoid the paralysis of choice and the risks of arbitrariness.”
With long-term systems of this nature that sit across various applications, there’s a fine line between getting in a rut and remaining systematic. “A rut shouldn’t be confused with consistency, which is beneficial for designer and client,” says Warner. “But if a design system which allows for moments of free expression isn’t being fully stretched, you need to find out why and address the problem together with the client. Are designer and client just ‘playing it safe,’ or are economic factors at work? Is the design system too flexible to be practical?” These were some of the questions guiding the direction of the renewed design system. Now, each season’s brochure consists of only six patterns and six colors—combining variety and flexibility with solid structure.
“The other major step for the renewal was going back to the idea of recycling through history,” says Warner. “We decided to recycle Brandon Grotesque, for example. When we started using it, it was a new font, and then by the end of five years, it was a best seller. We got in touch with [its designer] Hannes von Döhren who designed us 12 new characters. We call it Brandon Comique.”
Perhaps the most striking new element that State was adamant about introducing is the brochure’s open-spine binding. Although some opera-goers were startled at first—thinking it a production mistake—the new spine has become on the most defining elements of the new brochures, as it lays the content bare like curtains opening up across a stage. “For us, it references the relationship between the set-pieces and the backstage are,” says Warner, “It’s about the illusion of theater.”