Imagine an ice cream truck rolling down the streets of Brooklyn that’s been patch-worked together from tattered cardboard, discarded wood scraps, and chicken wire scavenged from a dumpster. Strange, grinning faces and colorful cityscapes are painted in graffiti-bright colors across its side, and a raucous jingle plays from its speakers. Oh, and instead of ice cream the truck hands out cardboard masks, chunky snowboards, and risograph-printed paraphernalia to passersby.
Step on up to the truck and you’ll be greeted by the smiling ice cream van drivers, Julio Rölle and Sebastian Bagge, the designers behind Berlin’s idiosyncratic 44 Flavours.
Okay, Rölle and Bagge don’t actually hand out their designs from the cardboard window of an ice cream truck, but if they did this is exactly what that crazy truck would look like. And it’s not such a far off idea. Though they work in the attic studio of an industrial building built in Berlin in 1881, tucked away amongst the more anonymous stretches of the neighbourhood of Kreuzberg, the image of a ramshackle van serving 44 flavors did inspire their studio’s name. They loved the impact of the alliteration, and felt it evoked a hand-painted menu sprawling on the side of a van listing the many possible variations and combinations of design, illustration, and haphazard sculpture that their studio could serve.
As a studio that prides itself on being multi-disciplinary, having more than three or four “flavors” in its name made sense. 44 Flavours designs snowboards, adventurous architectural installations that look like tree houses, hand-painted commercial identities, editorial illustrations, and murals for major brands like Converse. Their chock-a-block aesthetic draws from the sketchy scrawls of Basquiat, the collages of Rauschenberg, and murals spotted on the streets of Berlin and Sao Paulo. Committed upcyclers, 44 Flavours is founded on a kind of graffiti instinct, painting and rebuilding the things they find around them that people no longer want or use.
“We like finding fragments and thinking about the stories that they tell,” Rölle explains. The process of reconfiguring objects from the past into new, skeletal installations is a deliberate reference to 20th-century artists and the idea of the ready-made.
In the spirit of artistic recycling, 44 Flavours isn’t sentimental about its past projects and commissions, and sometimes a scrap of wood from one installation will find new life in another. “We did an exhibition in Cologne where we built a city out of cardboard. Later, we did another for ARTE–Tracks that used the same material. Eventually, we used it again for a third installation for a festival in Brandenburg called Sacred Grounds.” Even though it weren’t supposed to, the festival ended up burning all the cardboard and wood in a delirious, Burning Man-style ritual. Rölle found out about it via a text message that read, “Here’s your sculpture burning.” He shrugged it off with a smile. There’s not enough room in the studio to fit the larger commissions, anyway.
“When we build something outside it can hold for a year, but then it often breaks into pieces, and we love that” says Rölle. “We like that the work is living. We build something new out of the old, and one day that new thing becomes scraps again.”
Rölle and Bagge first met while studying communication design at FH Bielefeld University. Bagge studied under typographer Gerd Fleishmann and Rölle focused on visual communication, especially collage and illustration. Today, 44 Flavours still tends to divide up its work in similar categories, with Bagge focusing on the graphics and layout of print projects and typographic posters, while Rölle often paints, illustrates, and builds.
“Our working relationship is like a ping-pong match,” they say. “Someone starts something and the other reacts to it. It’s special to find someone you can work with in that way.” In the studio, 44 Flavours don’t actually have a ping-pong table, but they do have foosball, which they play while kicking ideas back and forth.
They’ve divided their work up the same way since their very first, self-initiated project, a magazine they produced at Bielefeld called 44 Flavours. “We invited photographers, screen printers, and graffiti artists to contribute submissions—it was meant to be a selection of different tastes. That’s when it all began.” They matched their eclectic list of contributors with a mix of screen prints, risograph, and lino, and experimented with different folds and cuts. The concept behind the magazine was “Utopic;” Rölle and Bagge wanted to know whether it was possible to combine many different disciplines and styles in a way that still looked aesthetically pleasing, something they’re still working through today.
Looking around the studio—a treasure trove of prints, wood scraps, skateboard stickers, masks, puppets, T-shirts, and layer upon layer of paint—it’s safe to say that it doesn’t look like the conventional, often minimal studio you usually find designers working in. Instead of a store-bought trash bin, they have a cardboard box taped together with a hole cut in the top. “Before it was a box, now it’s a design object,” says Rölle with a child-like glint in his eye.
It’s not like Rölle and Bragge don’t like being in a clean, simple room, “but we really don’t need it” the pair emphasize. Downstairs is their workshop, where an explosion of wood, random materials like denim and doorknobs, and barrels of acrylic paint lie ready to be transformed into the next 44 Flavours’ scene or editorial commission.
The layout of the main studio is an expression of their own tumble-down sense of design. “Inspiration always comes from the contrary,” says Rölle, who believes ugliness, mess, and mistakes are vital. If everything was beautiful, he notes, then no one would know what beauty was. For example, an installation designed to sit amongst sleek buildings (like their Circles commission for ARTE) will look all the more whimsical because of the contrast. Architectural mismatch is a constant source of joy to 44 Flavors. One of their favorite ways to procrastinate or spend downtime is by clicking through the hilarious Tumblr Ugly Belgian Houses.
This jumble of visual references suits 44 Flavours multi-disciplinary approach, too. “It would be sad for us to be reduced to one discipline, as it would cut of our work flow,” says Bagge. “Today, it’s not as simple as working in either design or art, it all soups together,” continues Rölle, who’s fittingly seated beside Bagge amongst the impressive clutter of junkyard paraphernalia that cascades around the room like a giant tidal wave of visual inspiration.