To make it as a guest speaker you’ve got to have that magic combination of experience, humor, and a compelling message. Irish designer Annie Atkins, who’s forged a career overseeing graphic props for the screen, has all that and more, to say nothing of her recent, much blogged-about work for Wes Anderson.
Atkins boosted her IMDB listing as well as her cult cred when she spent six months in Germany channeling Anderson’s singular style on The Grand Budapest Hotel. And her anecdotes from the set made for the most entertaining half hour in a brilliant line-up last Friday at Here London, the annual design symposium curated by the creative website, It’s Nice That.That’s saying a lot in a day that showcased multi-million-dollar rebrands, word coinage (#Mumfordization), and at least one epilepsy warning due to the omnipresent flashing lights. Photographers, stylists, and creative directors climbed down from the pinnacles of their fields to discuss their successes, failures, and how to parlay both into fruitful careers.
We heard the wonderfully kitsch stylist Anna Lomax discuss the merits of hoarding (fairground art, in her case) and saw how her ersatz style has inspired a generation of London creatives. Lomax wasn’t the only collector of the bunch. Graham Linehan, the writer behind the cultish TV comedy Father Ted, expounded on the virtues of collecting stuff. “It’s part of the process but it doesn’t feel like it is… Editing is easier than creating from scratch.”
You could blame Hjalti Karlsson of New York design studio Karlsson Wilker for the seizure-inducing lights: a ravey music video that incorporated some trippy post-production effects. And then there’s Mike Alderson of Man vs Machine, who had his team experiment with classic film imagery for a series of station ID islands for the progressive UK broadcaster Channel 4. Their results incorporated 116 film references, took the person-power of a feature film to produce, and blew our collective minds. As for Atkins, she opened our eyes to a metier few of us even knew existed. Her no. 1 rule for designing the newspapers, maps, handwritten notes, stained glass, and even the tattoos appearing on film is this: “If it was made by hand at the time [in which the film was set], we make it by hand now.” That means fonts with Victorian flourishes are hand-drawn and neon letters are kerned without the help of Adobe (makers of the hotel’s distinctive electric sign had to reinstate the awkward spacing between letters after Atkins made her case).
The pressure to keep continuity—“the most boring part for the makers but the most fascinating for the audience when we get it wrong”—is relentless, and Atkins has dozens of raps by “extreme continuity-watchers.” Of 30 telegrams she designed for a scene (see one above), each identically blood-stained, torn up, then taped back together, one had a wrongly folded corner, and that one ended up in a take noted on IMDB.
But this being a Wes Anderson film, Atkins redeemed herself several times over, and in the most surprising ways. “Prison scenes are like sex scenes in terms of graphic volume,” she told us. And yet this Budapest prison delivered perhaps the most gratifying prop of her career: a map sketched on the reverse of brown postal paper. Here’s the scene:
Gustave: “Who drew this?”
Ludwig: “What do you mean, ‘who drew this?’ I did.”
Gustave: “Very good. You’ve got a wonderful line, Ludwig! This shows great artistic promise.”
It’s what those in the business call a “hero prop.” And with it, we found a new design hero of our own.