For the playful yet provocative Studio Mut, everyone is equal when it comes to work, so as soon as an intern arrives they’re automatically thrown into the deep end. “Everyone does everything. We all make the coffee, we all do the ground work, and interns get a commission the moment they step through the door,” says the studio’s exuberant co-founder Thomas Kronbichler. It’s an approach he and Martin Kerschbaumer adopted from their time spent (separately) interning for Fons Hickmann in Berlin, who similarly plunges new talent into high-profile projects from the get-go.
The duo has a very particular approach to poster design, and in order to show me how they work they decide to talk me through the process behind a poster that former intern and current Mut co-collaborator Adèle Hurbault made during her first two weeks at the studio. It’s become a favorite amongst the rest of their bright and bold portfolio of prints that seem to combine the sharp vigor of Hickmann with the otherworldly colors and shapes of the internet. As Kronbichler says, they want posters to be “In your face!” and their most frequent catchphrase in the office when it comes to design is a resounding “Make it big!” When Hurbault arrived, these two slogans became her daily mantra in an office that’s just as bright and excitable as the work it produces.
In March, Hurbault moved from France to Bolzano in Italy, the small, idyllic town nestled amongst the snowcapped mountains where Studio Mut is inconspicuously based. Her first commission was for a poster for the Technical University of Berlin (TU), a project that Kronbichler secretly wanted to do himself but had too much work to complete that week. Studio Mut have worked regularly with TU, and this brief was to design a series of posters for a lecture series entitled “Thinking Architecture.”
Every poster commission begins with a blank 70x100cm page in InDesign—they see this as the “ultimate” poster size. They don’t ever make initial sketches on paper. “We try to be economical with our time,” says Kronbichler, “so we try something out as if it were going to go to print; we start right there on the screen. It’s better not to start with concepts, but to look at stuff when it’s on the page. We learned this from Hickmann.”
It’s vital to have a great concept, of course, but what matters first is the form. Along the way, Studio Mut save every single one of their designs so that they can then watch it develop from its start to finish, and can pinpoint the exact moment that the idea begins to shape.
During her first week, Hurbault was renting an apartment sans furniture, sans internet. “The first night I slept on the grass!” she laughs, and after that Kronbichler and Kerschbaumer kindly gave her a fork, a cup, and a sleeping bag. She came to the office early every morning to make use of the coffee, stove, and wifi (“Now that she has a better place, she’s never early,” moans Kronbichler.), and to tinker with her TU design. She started with an illustrated cityscape melded with a face to evoke the idea of thinking and architecture, but it felt “too nice,” so instead she started playing around with the idea of a spiral.
“The spiral was good, but visually it still wasn’t sexy,” says Kronbichler. The form evoked thought—the way you twist and turn an idea round in your mind until it crystalizes and becomes perfectly precise.
Hurbault then began to play with photographs of buildings, distorting them to fit into the “thought” spiral so that it abstractly visualized the concept of “Thinking Architecture.” She spent a lot of time finding the right pictures, but in the end decided that she liked having the blue sky in view. “The sky is a metaphor for thinking, the idea of looking up and dreaming,” she explains. “When you think about architecture, you think about a building amongst the sky and its surroundings.”
The rest of Studio Mut liked the spiral, and reminded Hurbault to “make it big!” But after she’d done that, there was still something missing—some kind of structural tension. That’s when the white slashes came into play.
“We called these slashes ‘The Idea’,” says Hurbault. “They’re the moment that lightening strikes, the shocks that happen when an idea clicks.” These emanate from the center, capturing the explosive moment when a thought suddenly hits you.
The final buildings that Hurbault selected for the poster were photos she took in Copenhagen, random buildings on random streets, as anything too iconic would distract from the design. “The clients asked me if they were Berlin buildings, and I said yes,” Kronbichler whispers. “It was a complete lie!”
By the end, there were 80-100 InDesign sketches for the poster, which is normal for Studio Mut. Hurbault found the method an exciting new take on the design process. Instead of focusing too much on the concept, she enjoyed the emphasis on form—allowing the shapes and colors to organically cumulate—just as Kronbichler and Kerschbaumer had enjoyed the same approach when interning for Hickmann.
Looking through the meticulous catalogue of Hurbault’s design, the methodology of Studio Mut’s process becomes apparent. Like the final poster, their technique is about spiraling out and around, honing in on a thought until it crystalizes. With each step of Hurbault’s process, you can see how her initial idea has reduced and reduced until it’s at its most heightened and visually striking. It was the perfect poster for Hurbault to be working on for Studio Mut during her first week—a visual metaphor for the studio’s own lively, idiosyncratic practice.