I’ve never been in a studio that so clearly reveals the mind of its maker as when I visited the home office of German graphic artist Henning Wagenbreth: to navigate the corridors of his studio is to see the world through the illustrator’s eyes. The view is a seemingly chaotic vaudeville, but look a little harder and order begins to take shape.
Wagenbreth is that rare kind of graphic artist who can combine emotional storytelling with the meticulous instinct of a graphic designer, and he does this whether creating album artwork, music posters, editorials for American clients like The New Yorker, or illustrated sets for local performance artists. His striking ability to condense complex ideas into simple signs has led to him working on limited-edition German postage stamps for several years now, yet his imagination can meander fantastically, lending his riotous graphic novels a tantalizingly absurdist edge. Informed just as much by the fables of Hans Christian Andersen as he is with classic punk strips from Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s ’80s comic mag Raw, Wagenbreth’s love of traditional and comic folklore is one he combines with a fascination with modernity and technology. Cry for Help, for example, is his illustrated collection of scam emails from Africa, and in recent years, Wagenbreth has also been constructing a robot called Tobot that draws its own exquisite corpses.
Restless and curious, the polymath artist even plays in a band of illustrators called The Mazookas, who put on shows of folk music from Eastern Europe to West Africa and perform with a tumbledown troupe of dolls.
Whether an everyday stamp, a large poster, or a series of songs, Wagenbreth has a resounding basic philosophy—which he says makes his work distinct from fine art—namely:
“It should be easy to decipher as a form, but the content can still be complicated. It has to communicate clearly at the first moment, but it has other layers of meaning too.”
I’ll set the scene for Wagenbreth’s studio. To get into the apartment, you enter through an ornamental wooden door in Berlin’s now gentrified Prenzlauer Berg district. When Wagenbreth moved here following the fall of the wall, the former Communist East area was a shambolic retreat of ruined palatial homes at attractive low rents. He lives on Kollwitzstrasse, named after the expressionist Käthe Kollwitz. He’s easygoing and soft-spoken when he lets you in to his high-ceilinged abode, which he shares with his partner, illustrator Sophia Martinek. A miniature three-legged piano stands in one corner, and in another, an old, frayed dentist’s chair is being used as a magazine rack. In the cavernous kitchen, reams of sequined cloth, African puppets, paintbrushes the size of pumpkins, and grinning Mexican masks adorn every wooden surface. A bespectacled intern—a former pupil from Wagenbreth’s illustration class at the Berlin University of the Arts where he’s taught since 1994—is barely visible among the mess; she quietly sits and sews a punkish flag in the corner.
There’s no clear division of where work begins and home ends. It’s all mixed up together. Prints are stacked on top of the TV, pens and notepads on the couch.
“It’s good and bad,” says Wagenbreth. “I don’t have to move far, but then I never stop working. It all combines—work and life—and I cannot even call it a divide. Sophia just saw a Frank Zappa documentary and apparently he said the same—there’s no difference. Maybe what I do at the University is more like work.”
This lack of a separation attests to why Wagenbreth’s artwork is so compelling. Illustration is not a hobby or a job for him; it’s a lifestyle and an obsession. “Every job has to be a pure statement of myself,” he asserts. And because Wagenbreth is not just an illustrator but also an illustration historian of sorts (the artist is also chief curator at Berlin’s Ministry of Illustration), an interest in history seeps into all of his designs. Above a desk, hundreds of hardback art tomes reveal the works that inform the sketches that take place below: there’s a dense volume on the history of anthropomorphism in drawing, for example, contextualizing why so many of Wagenbreth’s characters are humanish animaloids: “You can communicate power balances so well with animal heads,” he says. He also shows me a catalog of EC Comics covers from the ’40s and ’50s, explaining that this is where he discovered his own understanding of how to draw typography and balance it with an image.
Just as the unruly energy of his illustrations should not deceive you (each section of his pictures is carefully organized to maximize impact), Wagenbreth’s vibrantly decorative studio home has a definite logic to it. The room where most of his equipment is kept, for example, is less the site of artistic randomness but actually a purposeful print laboratory filled with inky experiments. Sturdy antique tables hold up reams of paper, plastic, and paint, the results of tireless trial and error.
His impact as an illustrator, then, comes not just from a study of history but also from a careful study of printing techniques too. Before going to study at the Berlin Weissensee Art School in the former East Germany where he grew up, he worked in a print shop, thinking carefully about scale, alignment, and color mixing. This is where he discovered his “sense of color”.
“I learned that if you put one color on top of the other and then do the reverse, they will work together, because both of them have a part of themselves in each other,” Wagenbreth explains, characterizing paint as if he were writing a fable, and through this making sense of why his clashing colors collide with such intense harmony.
There’s a lot going on in Wagenbreth’s studio, and that inevitably spills over into his illustration. Work and life collide here like the colors of his posters. Zoom into any corner or wall, and there are a lot of stories being told, mirroring his dense, absorbing compositions.
It all exudes positive, inquisitive energy, but “something like meditation comes with arranging all the components,” says Wagenbreth. There is method in what might seem to be madness, and the medley of imagery in both his studio and work is not unhinged chaos but a composed reflection of a unique and inspiring mind.