Berlin’s HORT has managed to retain the best of both worlds; the small studio prides itself on its close-knit, collaborative team and laid-back, playful approach, yet it also works with a range of large, international clients including IBM, Volkswagen, the New York Times, and Nike. Founded by the charismatic Eike König in 1994, the studio first began by producing bold and distinctive work for the independent music industry.

HORT’s rise to global recognition was sudden and unanticipated, thanks to one surprising project that launched König’s studio to new heights. It also proves that making an international splash isn’t necessarily a science: a good idea, a well-conceived aesthetic, and a commitment to your own distinct vision and approach can be the all-important factors that draw in the attention of prominent clients.

Eike König, photograph by Cat Garcia

“I started HORT in 1994 and the main focus was the music industry. At the time we concentrated on record sleeve design, art direction for bands, label identities, and even music videos. One day we got a message from the Walt Disney Company, asking if we could work on a worldwide campaign for ESPN. At first we thought it was a joke, one of those emails that informs you that the daughter of the king of the country X wants to transfer 22 million to your account. So our reply was: is this a joke? However, their answer contained more details, and explained that they saw some of our sleeve designs in a book and generally just thought it would be great to work with us.

“The brief was to develop different puppet scenes for the activities skateboarding, snowboarding, skating, skiing, and surfing. They wanted us to do the character design, the design of the clothes the puppets were wearing, the sets, and the photography.

“There were so many memorable aspects to the project. For one, we had to figure out how to make snow. I remember when we shot the very first scene and proved to ourselves that we could actually do it. We were kind of naive at the point when we accepted the job, since we had never done anything similar or on this scale. It was amazing how great the results were.

“It was the first international job we were ever involved in. It was surprising at first that someone trusted us enough to offer a good amount of dollars without having met us in person. We learned a lot about a new culture, about the way businesses was run in the U.S. (we worked for two months on Los Angeles time—nine hours later than normal), and about selling our rights to a company. We figured out that working internationally challenged us on a new level. There’s a lot you can learn from this kind of situation and from then on it seemed like everything was possible–we were prepared.”