Berlin’s Studio Pandan, a young graphic design practice helmed by Ann Richter and Pia Christmann, describes its approach as dedicated to “mehrwert.” This knotty German word translates—very loosely—to the idea of giving additional value to something. That means the pair is interested in that special kind of graphic design that doesn’t simply fulfil a function, but adds a new voice or layer of meaning to an identity, a poster, a website, or a piece of print.
I meet the two women in a small German bistro near their co-working space in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district. They’re carrying a heavy stack of colorful papery specimens to show me of varying textures, weights, and hues—gallery guides, catalogs for German museums, electric blue exhibition leaflets, and pure yellow posters for local theatres.
Richter, originally from Stuttgart, was interested in fine art before discovering graphic design: she was drawn to the profession as it connects several creative fields together, spurring tight collaborations with authors, writers, artists, architects, and more. “I never questioned the decision to become a designer,” she says. For Christmann, an avid reader who dabbled in photography growing up a small town in Bavaria, graphic design instantly connected her love of storytelling with her urge for visual interpretation. “Both are about shape,” she says.
The pair studied graphic design together at Leipzig’s Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst, one of Germany’s oldest art schools with a tradition in book arts related to the city’s unique history as a publishing center. There, they naturally began experimenting and collaborating, forming Studio Pandan in 2015. Theirs has always been a “ping-pong” process and a collaboration of “counter-balancing.” “We have the same vision,” says Richter. “But then different ways of approaching it—Pia is intuitive, with visual ideas, and I’m into making a system.”
Pandan has now garnered an enviable list of open-minded art and cultural clientele, who are drawn to the studio’s “mehrwert” and its eye-catching, often heavily typographic and conceptual results. The 2015 design for Sternberg Press’s Publishing as Artist Practise clearly articulates the studio’s interpretative, typographic thinking. A staple selection of essays for anyone interested in contemporary publishing, the book explores what it means to publish today in the face of a changing media landscape, institutional upheavals, and discursive shifts in concepts of ownership, authorship, and accessibility. Given the book’s topic, the editor was open to Richter and Christmann folding their own perspective into the pages.
“We created a series of ‘visual quotes’,” says Christmann, flipping through the cumbersome book. “Some reference the essays loosely, others add an additional layer of meaning to what’s written.”
Poetically—at times beautifully, at other times mischievously—these spreads explore the visual experience of a block of words on a page. They ask the reader to engage with the physical and formal nature of the book that they’re holding; it’s difficult to get too lost in the words, as Studio Pandan’s contributions jolt your concentration, reminding you continuously how and what you’re engaging with. One spread repeats what’s written on the previous page but with all words removed except for “artist,” “practise,” and “publishing.” Another spread redacts all the sentences from the previous page, creating a silent typographic composition.
There’s also a hushed black spread sprinkled with asterisks; and another inky black page acting as an homage to the infamous blank page in the classic 1759 novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. The original famously alludes to the horror death, and takes the inexpressibility at the heart of that sentimental rhetoric “words cannot convey what I then felt” to its limit. Finally, quite wonderfully, there’s a spread that layers all the text in the book on top of one another, “to emphasize the book’s density,” says Ann.
“We’re of course drawn to this kind of freedom,” she adds. “To projects where we’re the designers but where we also play a role as contributor.”
This focus on connecting written content with visual elements extends to Studio Pandan’s work on Edit magazine, a literary quarterly from Leipzig that’s been published since 1993. Recent contributions to the journal have included artwork by Kate Cooper, and segments from the first German translations of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick. When Pandan began art directing and designing the magazine two years ago, it changed the cover layout and overhauled the image concept to encourage the kind of interplay between text and image that the studio is so drawn to.
“Every issue has a mood, so we invite different artists to contribute related artwork that we spread throughout the issue,” says Ricther—a rejection of the typical portfolio organization in a literary magazine. “We also use different typography for title pages. The pixel font that we combined with a grotesque in Edit 72, which had a digital mood, was meant to articulate the issue’s ‘remix’ theme.”
While publishing and print are spaces that Studio Pandan is comfortable in, its approach to identity work is also interpretative, collaborative, and spun from hours of intimate discussion. The studio’s identity and poster for an exhibition at the contemporary art museum Haus am Waldsee near Berlin this year, which brought together contemporary artworks ruminating on a missing 1913 Franz Marc painting called ‘The Tower of the Blue Horse,’ goes beyond functional advertisement in the way that Pandan added their own spin and distinctive way of thinking to the brief.
“The curators invited different artists to respond to Marc’s missing artwork, so we decided our poster should be a visual response to it, too,” says Richter. “As the painting can’t be on display at the Haus am Waldess, we decided we’d give the visitor a small fragment or glimpse of it, to show them what the art world is on the search for. It led to the idea of a peephole shape which reveals a part of the painting, which we then derived from same form as the eye of the horse in the original.” This expressionistic diamond shape formed the template for a series of books, a catalog, and other print paraphernalia tied to the exhibition.
“We approach graphic design as an expression in our own voice,” say Richter and Christmann. “We like to create something bold and clever: give it a strong sense of visuality, but then it’s important that it’s vigorous and intelligent, too.” I think back to that page in Publishing as Artistic Practise that gestures to Tristram Shandy’s overflow of ink, and its ironic play on the sentimental notion of emotion bursting from the seams of a sentence. Pandan, too, plays with ink and on that fine line between what words can express and what they cannot, in a way that’s both playful and with a hint of whimsy, yet also fiercely clever and direct.