When I arrived to Berlin at the start of this year, Prem Krishnamurthy’s collaborative residency had just come to a close, but I still heard about it everywhere. A procession of designers had made their way to the city over the course of the year to take part in a new workshop/exhibition space supported by KW Institute for Contemporary Art—Na Kim, Karel Martens, Esen Karol, Fikra’s Salem Al-qassimi, among them. Christoph Knoth and Konrad Renner designed the project’s website, and Dinamo created the typeface for it. Find a constellation of smart designers, a cluster of design-centered exhibitions, and trail of truncated consonants, and Krishnamurthy is likely at the center.
The residency project, called K, was an outgrowth of P!, the gallery that Krishnamurthy ran out of a storefront in New York’s Chinatown from 2012 to 2017. Over those five years, the exhibitions at P! centered around artists, designers, architects, musicians, curators, and writers. And it seemed to hold a special significance for graphic designers, not least of all because it displayed the works of designers like Elaine Lustig Cohen, Klaus Wittkugel, and Martens in a gallery setting.
Find a constellation of smart designers, a cluster of design-centered exhibitions, and trail of truncated consonants, and Krishnamurthy is likely at the center.
Krishnamurthy ran the gallery alongside the design studio Project Projects, which he founded along with Adam Michaels, and which was known for its web, print, exhibition, and identity work for cultural clients (it also won a Cooper Hewitt Design award in 2015). In 2017, the studio splintered, with Michaels opening up IN-FO.CO in L.A. and Krishnamurthy and fellow Project Projects alum Chris Wu founding Wkshps in NYC. With the opening of the new studio, Wu and Krishnamurthy took the opportunity to restructure how their team works on projects, with a focus on collaboration, conversation, and a more open-ended, evolving relationship to clients.
Krishnamurthy now works with Wkshps in both Berlin and New York, and recently finished curating the Fikra Design Biennial. We paid him a visit to talk about supporting fellow designers and preserving design legacy; how the industry has changed to be more process-driven; and how he’s thinking about design in terms of generosity.
What have you been up to? What brings you to Berlin?
I’ve had a long relationship with Berlin. I lived here in the 1990s, I studied here, I had my first internship here, and I’ve been back and forth for the last nearly 20 years.
What was your first internship?
It was for a graphic design studio called Leonardi.Wollein, which doesn’t exist anymore, but it was a fantastic place. I interned there when I was in college and then worked for them as my first full time job. I met my now life partner, Emily Smith, there, and I’m still in contact with a lot of the people I worked with there, like Franziska Morlok, Jona Piehl, and Florian Brendel, among others. Many of them have ended up running their own design studios.
You studied at Yale, where you got a bachelors in fine art. How did you find your way to graphic design?
In college I was really focused on photography, literature, and philosophy. But I also had this great love for typography, and at some point I had this “aha moment” where it was like, “Oh, graphic design is the thing that combines text and image.” I realized that maybe they were all one thing, and I can kind of try to do them in parallel.
“Graphic designers, as a profession, as a group of people—their whole job is to triangulate other people and other ideas, and try to translate and communicate those ideas.”
My final project at Yale was essentially a set of performances: I gave public guided tours through people’s personal spaces, describing only the objects in their apartments. I took a series of large format photographs and I designed all the printed matter for the tours. I remember in my final review, somebody on the panel saying, “What are you doing? Are these performances, graphic design, or photography?” And another professor on the panel said “It really doesn’t matter what it’s categorized as.” So I think that gave me the license to see those things as being all one in the same.
That mindset seems to have stuck with you; I get the sense that you think about design pretty expansively. Your projects span curation, archiving, writing, editing, as well as designing.
I keep realizing it’s less about what you’re called and more about how you can be involved in a project in a holistic way. Graphic designers, as a profession, as a group of people—their whole job is to triangulate other people and other ideas, and try to translate and communicate those ideas. And nearly every graphic designer I know also sometimes wears the hat of an editor, or writer, or a curator. Often times, those categories seem most important when they’re being applied by other people.
Brian O’Doherty, who’s a dear friend and mentor, used to say, “Every person is actually many people.” I think that that’s definitely true. For better or for worse, I’ve always been interested in lots and lots of different things. I’ve tried to not close down those different parts of my interests, and have been very fortunate that people have trusted me to do things that were outside of my explicit job description.
Did you go back to school for your MFA?
No, I only have a bachelor’s degree. After I graduated, I got a Fulbright to study East German design history and I ended up in Dresden for a year, traveling around former East Germany, interviewing industrial designers and architects, and other designers about their work. It was a fascinating experience. But then after that I immediately started working at a design studio. When I started working professionally, I very quickly realized all the things I hadn’t learned in school.
You mean technical stuff?
Technical stuff, aesthetic stuff, discipline stuff. I had to learn how to work in a studio. In my experience, design education was taught in this way that was very much meant to create singular graphic authors. You worked on your projects alone, you developed your own ideas. Then you enter into the professional world and actually design is pretty much exclusively a collaborative activity. You’re not prepared for that in school.
You moved to New York from Berlin in 2002. Did you start Project Projects right away?
No, I started freelancing in New York when I moved. It was a tough period; it was about a year after 9/11 and people weren’t hiring. I worked freelance for a couple of designers, and then I got a job working at the The New York Times Magazine as a freelance art director for about a year.
“I’m often suspicious of formats or approaches that claim to be naturalized.”
I met [my Project Projects co-founder] Adam Michaels through David Reinfurt, who runs O-R-G. This was 2003, and David had this studio in Midtown where people were always stopping through for lunch. I remember this one day when David picked up the phone and it was Wim Crouwel on the line—it was just a really exciting time to be in that constellation. David is exceptionally generous: He called me an “O.R.G Resident Guest”—he loves things that are recursive—and he basically just let people like me and Adam work from his studio for free. Eventually Adam and I decided to start a studio. We basically thought that if we opened something and we had an address, people would think we were a real graphic design studio. And that’s more or less what happened.
Speaking of recursive, I wanted to ask about your own naming conventions and the way you play with language. Project Projects, P!, K-Komma… you seem to have a thing for repetition and alliteration.
I like language, so it’s fun for me to be playful with language. But it’s also a way to defamiliarize a studio or a gallery or a residency and to make other people notice it. I also think constraints can be interesting, and I’m often suspicious of formats or approaches that claim to be naturalized. Georges Perec and Oulipo are big influences. It’s like training a muscle, when you suddenly make yourself write in a way that’s not the way you typically write.
You ran K, [or K-Komma] as part of your residency at KW gallery in Berlin, and you call it a “workshop in exhibition making.” There was a public facing element to it, where you would hold talks and show work. Do you think of what you were doing at K, as distinctly different than what you were doing at P! gallery in New York?
I think of it as the opposite, but like a dialectic—you can’t separate the two. P! was about presentation, it wanted to make almost like perfect, polemical presentations—one after another, in a kind of narrative sequence. K, was really a way to take a break from that. From the beginning it was about production, not presentation. It was never about showing the finished thing.
“I was always interested in time, and in design as a thing that unfolds over time.”
That reminds me of something you and Chris Wu, your partner at Wkshps, said in an interview with The Creative Independent. You were describing the shift from Project Projects, where you were primarily thinking about projects as a “product” (website, book, exhibition, etc.) to Wkshps, in which projects became more open-ended and collaborative, more of a conversation.
For as long as I’ve been working—for the last 20 years—I’ve always thought about design as being a process-driven and performative discipline. Even going back to the work I did in undergrad, I was always interested in time, and in design as a thing that unfolds over time. But, for sure, running a design studio in New York of all places, you do start to fetishize the object and the final product.
I don’t think that that’s always bad. It’s important to make things, and in fact I think one of the best ways to create in a process-oriented way is to continually produce a thing that you can then look back at and reflect on, and that other people can also respond to. I think that there’s something lost when you fetishize the process to the point where everything you do is immaterial. I’m more interested in this in-between state where things are still being made, but they’re never final.
In one of the first events that we did at K, the designer, curator, and historian Emily King and I coined this phrase: “Every event is a rehearsal for the next event.” You can really apply that to anything: Every exhibition is a rehearsal for the next exhibition; every client project is a rehearsal for the next client project. With a rehearsal, there’s still something at stake. It’s an opportunity to test an idea both for yourself and for other people. But it also assumes that there’s always going to be another version of the thing.
Do you feel that this is reflective of a shift in the design industry as a whole?
When I was first designing professionally in the 1990s, we were approaching design by thinking primarily about systems and static media, whether they were things like books or identity systems. Even in those days, the studio I worked for in Berlin was really interested in variable and flexible identity systems, and we did some interesting things with that. But they were still seen as systems that were established from a foundational point, and then were iterated out from that point. Change was seen in an extremely controlled way. By contrast, most of our experiences of graphic design now are through variable media that are constantly changing. An interface changes, for example, and there’s no way to go back to that thing again. It’s hard to even talk about them as discrete moments.
When I started Project Projects, most of our projects were for clients who wanted us to make a book, for example, or a website. So we would deliver a website: “Here it is.” On a practical level, that’s not how most of our work is organized anymore. Most of our work is organized so that you make a thing, then it exists in the world, and then you come back in two weeks or a month or six months, and you think about how it’s performed and what should happen with it next.
“Design is inherently a facilitating discipline, in how it works personally and relationally and socially.”
Something that Chris has said, that I think is really true, is that you can see this reflected in the way a lot of startups bring designers in-house now. Chobani, for instance, instead of hiring external designers to design their identities, they bring the designers they want to work with onto their payroll. And that makes sense because, rather than keep design as a commodity, rather than thinking of it as a finished thing that you buy from somebody else, you think about the process. You bring someone in who will continue to grow with it and think with it.
I was interested to see that you kicked off K, with an exhibition on Klaus Wittkugel. You did an exhibition with Karel Martens at P! and another with Elaine Lustig Cohen, both of whom seem to have become friends of yours in the process. It reminds me of something Steve Heller wrote about Lustig Cohen for AIGA, which is that she was “a living link between design’s modernist past and its continually changing present.” I wondered if that’s something you think about. Are you intentionally preserving these designer’s legacies, or are you just following your interests?
On the one hand, it’s something that just kind of happened along the way. I’ve been really lucky to have had the opportunity to meet and work with people who were foundational for my thinking. Whether that was Elaine Lustig Cohen or Brian O’Doherty or Karel Martens. Or the Turkish designer, Esen Karol—she’s been an essential figure in the Istanbul cultural scene since the late ’90s, early 2000s. Or Céline Condorelli, who was the last show at P!, and has been so instrumental as a thinker, but also a collaborator. She edited the book Support Structures, which explores all of the invisible structures that allow for people to make work.
All of these figures whom I’m interested in have both made work that is important, but they’ve also contributed to the ecosystem in some other way. Elaine spent so much of her life as an archivist, both of Alvin Lustig’s legacy but also of the early 20th-century European Avant-garde. She was really instrumental in how that work ended up in the U.S. and its reception. Brian O’Doherty’s day job from the 1970s through the 1990s was working at the NEA; he gave many of the first grants to alternative spaces in downtown New York. And when I think about someone like David Reinfurt, he’s a person who is both incredibly important as a designer and incredibly important as a collaborator, and has supported so many other artists and designers, including myself. It’s the same thing with Karel Martens, who has taught so many generations of people.
I’ve been trying out a new phrase: it involves thinking about graphic design as a “generous discipline.” On the one hand, we often approach art in terms of authorship. But graphic design is inherently a facilitating medium, in how it works relationally and socially. It is collaborative. Almost any piece of graphic design requires multiple agents involved in it. So rather than approaching graphic design in terms of “problem solving” or “functionality,” which are by now pretty outdated frameworks, how might graphic design work as a kind of positive excess? How can it be generous, going beyond whatever is required in a given situation, giving more than it takes, as an act of love. This is something that seems more or more necessary today.