A Breath of Fresh Art

The graphic design duo called Yokoland just published their first monograph. And you thought Mozart was a prodigy.

Maybe it’s because I love bright colors and eccentric scribbles, or because my first crush was a Norwegian girl, or because I’m a sucker for anything with an early ’70s feel and a Japanese name, but earlier this year at my favorite design bookstore, Zakka on New York’s Grand Street, I was attracted as if by instinct to a big paperback book entitled simply: Yokoland. The cover showed four cheerful artificial trees standing among pines. At first glimpse the trees looked drawn, but closer inspection proved them to be flat wooden shapes on stands—playground decorations set down upon the soft floor of a Norwegian forest, then photographed.

As I flipped through the lushly illustrated matte pages, I saw more of the features evident in that image: a doodly, childlike quality, lots of snowy Nordic landscapes, groovy organic shapes and colors, a sense of friendly approachability, an infectious appetite for scribbling, and plenty of fat cutout letters wading across quirky found photos.

Here was a sophisticated series of games with layers and levels of representation: photos combined with pencil drawings, letters made from Legos, colored coffee mugs, cars dressed up in prison stripes. With effervescent graphic inventiveness, cultural kitsch was made to coexist happily with nature: Paul Klee–like spirit figures flitting across Jim Lambie–like tape-and-bead installations. I jotted the Japanese-sounding name down in my notepad and resolved to Google Yokoland when I got home.

Yokoland, it turns out, is two Norwegian graphic designers, Aslak Gurholt Ronsen and Espen Friberg, who live and work in Oslo. Both born there in 1981, they went to school together then studied graphic design and illustration at the National College of the Arts. I sensed that a lifetime in Norway had planted some sort of Nordic mysticism in their work.

"There is maybe a lot of mysticism, but not much of it’s Nordic," they reported in a single voice, via email. "One of the things we enjoy most is to create small worlds or stories. These worlds are built from a lot of different influences and references, and most of them don’t have anything to do with Scandinavia. It’s a bit weird to hear that people see our work as typically Nordic. Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish graphic design are quite different from each other, and we’re certainly not a typical ambassador for design from any of these countries."

Among their influences are the Norwegian designer, artist, filmmaker, and musician Kim Hiorthoy; films and music videos by Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, and Mike Mills; the Sampler books by Intro; a ’70s Swedish graphic designer named John Mehlin; and theoretical design writing, like Adrian Shaughnessy’s texts on record covers or Bruce Mau’s "An Incomplete Manifesto for Growth."

Two years ago, just as they were finishing their B.A. degrees, Yokoland decided to venture out in the wide world. They sent out small packages of sample work and waited for answers. One response came from the German publisher Die Gestalten Verlag, declaring its intent to put out a book cataloguing all of Yokoland’s projects.

For two 23-year-old college students, it was an extraordinary breakthrough. Someone wanted to make a monograph, the kind of retrospective usually accorded designers with decades of experience and a consistent and recognizable style. At this point, Yokoland had done most of their work for their own indie record label, Metronomicon Audio.

"Of course this was too good an offer to refuse," the pair tells me. "But we decided to hold it for a year to finish some of the projects we had already started, because we didn’t really think it had the basis of a whole book yet."

Not quite able to believe their luck, Yokoland was wary of pitfalls. "Making a monograph so early could mean that people would want us to do the same things for the rest of our lives, which is not necessarily what we want," they say. Rather than be typecast, they decided to stress their work’s eclecticism. "The variation has to do with our way of working. We work very closely and are editing each other all the time. Espen might do a drawing, then Aslak rips it all in pieces, Espen adds some new elements, and Aslak replaces it with something else. In fact, we designed the book twice. At first it didn’t have so much text, but that didn’t feel right. It became too abstract and monotone, and it just didn’t tell anything about the context of the work. So we did it all over again."

In the second version they broke up the flow of images with a series of emails from a friend named Fredrik, writing home with impressions of his first trip to Japan (a country Yokoland have yet to visit).

"Our book is quite different from a lot of other monographs," they explain. "A book about a person who has worked as an artist, designer, illustrator, or typographer all his or her life will often show a clear philosophy and be specialized in all the details. Our book is a lot more unpolished. We have a pretty clear philosophy in our work but it probably will change and evolve."

And what is that philosophy?

"Most graphic design is about making things clearer, so that people get what you’re saying. But we often do the opposite. We make things more complicated. So we’re not problem solvers, but problem makers!"

Not all of their problems are creative ones. Now that they’ve graduated, Yokoland are renting a studio in Oslo, which recently overtook Tokyo as the world’s most expensive city. For the first time, they’re facing hard commercial realities. Despite the book and a commission to decorate some local department store windows, they still mostly work on their own projects, like sleeves for their label. "In the last two months we’ve designed seven or eight new record covers—a job that has probably taken us around 400 hours. We realize that it will be hard to continue in this way. We haven’t talked about moving elsewhere. I think we’ll wait and see how things turn out here first." Yokoland describe their book as "maybe not so much a ‘heavy last statement,’ but more a loose idea of what will come." No matter where they end up, the young designers’ remarkably strong aesthetic will doubtless grow more provocative the more experiences they have to dice up and reassemble. Or, as they put it in their epigraph, "This is not the beginning."

Nick Currie is a Scottish musician, artist, and writer based in Berlin. Last year he appeared in the Whitney Biennial as an "Unreliable Tour Guide," released a record called
Otto Spooky, and worked on a novel called Lives of the Composers.

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