Marcus Kraft doesn’t do things by halves; for Novum magazine’s March ’17 issue he created 12,500 unique covers using an elaborate printing procedure; he once risked felony by defacing 100 individual dollar bills to create an art exhibition; he sent the founding partners of Freitag on tour with a photographer to document the countries their apparel was produced in and make a newspaper. Each of these adventures resulted in beautiful printed materials which embraced a bold style and singular idea.
Youthful in both appearance and demeanour, Kraft is a German born designer, now based in Zurich. Having studied at Basel and worked at agency Raffinerie, he set up his own studio five years ago. He specializes in books and branded magazines that are refined to a simple core idea. He’s as much involved in the content as the design.
Stylistically, Kraft is remarkably consistent. An advocate of grotesque fonts, he uses typography sparingly, but with great impact. He loves to use photography showing people at their most intimate, and if a client requires it, he’ll draw illustrations in a charming line-drawn style.
Back in 2011, stranded in a Laotian hut by a week-long tropical storm, Kraft took to his iPod for consolation. Staring up at a ceiling fan and shuffling through songs it struck him that good advice was abundant in popular music. He jotted down 200 song titles which offered guidance, and borrowed 200 more titles from the iPods of fellow travellers.
The list served no function until he returned home to set up his own studio. With little client work, he took to hand writing those 400 song titles with a bamboo brush and ink. Six years later and now in its seventh print run, Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow has sold over 20,000 copies. Its sequel, on love songs, Don’t Talk Just Kiss, was released this year and is on course to surpass its predecessor.
It’s a lesson in how personal projects can so often be the catalyst for more client work. Having since applied the style to postcard books and bottles of German organic wine, Kraft often gets approached for jobs from people who’ve seen the book. “I don’t see myself as a handwriting guy,” he says, “but it became a bit of a signature. I often get asked to do hand writing stuff.”
Beyond this parable, the book also demonstrates Kraft’s true core skill: his penchant for pushing an idea to its limit. This tendency harks back to another formative time in his career, studying at Basel school of Design, home of Swiss greats like Emil Ruder. “If you ask me about true idols, they’re all dead,” he says.
I see myself very connected with those people and Swiss design in general, but somehow my projects don’t look like it. But the mindset is still the same.
That mindset is one engrained into every Basel student. Specifically, it’s the dedication to creating a strict set of rules for a project, and exploring them to their absolute limit. All designers work within parameters, but for Marcus it is the central pillar of his approach. From one design, he’ll iterate with many more, creating very minimal changes with each step. In “Don’t talk just kiss”, each spread is near identical, showing only subtle differences; boxy text on white space, set opposite centred large hand-written type. The effect is hypnotic.
Kraft is very much aware of this tendency. “We work a lot with parameters, so you set your own rules and you work inside those rules. This is very much Basel style.” At their simplest, these parameters mean using the Swiss grid system, as pioneered by Joseph Muller-Brockman in Zürich. But at Basel these ‘parameters’ go further, and run to a whole set of rules, defined and tweaked for any project.
You set up the rules then you can play inside them. But the rules have to be good rules, not stupid rules.
In this case, the idea of song titles, personally curated, was refined and refined until the final product emerged as a hymn book (complete with rounded corners and debossed spine). In other projects he’ll strip away superfluous elements, and enhance the core idea until what’s left feels super-focussed to the extent that you wonder if it’s made just for him. That’s fine with personal projects, but bringing this approach to client projects comes with more responsibility.
When asked by a Swiss pharmacy to create a branded magazine, called Hä, for 18-25s, he narrowed the focus down to just one element of the human body—tattoos and piercings. Twenty-three issues later and Kraft and his editorial counterpart have covered topics including muscles, hair, eyes, kissing, ears, and skin. They’re still finding new aspects of the body to investigate, although there are some issues they can always fall back on. “Of course sex is always important. We’ve done four sex issues.”
The art direction of Hä is directly inspired by punk fanzines. There’s a chaos employed in each page, enhanced by the use of polaroid photography, sketchy illustrations and disjointed typographic layouts. With the style predetermined, there’s more room for the exploration of themes around the human body. The irreverent content results in a youthful energy, which is enhanced by deliberately low-fi printing.
It’s clear that print is where Kraft’s passions lie, and that comes back to purity. “The pure purpose of print is to enhance visual aspects. For novels that’s not as relevant as art books, and commuter newspapers are like printed blogs; they’re a waste of paper.” With digital work, because he isn’t skilled in the latest techniques, he understands this is not where he’s going to excel. He speaks from experience when he complains that “if you make the wrong choice and learn the wrong technology, you’re fucked”.
Kraft’s refreshingly honest approach mixes an appreciable acceptance of change in the world, whilst remaining true to his school’s roots. The result is a slew of mischievous personal publications and innovative solutions for brave private clients. His next project mixes the best elements of both, and is perhaps his most high profile and extreme so far. Watch this space.