Design Couples: Rudy VanderLans and Zuzana Licko
By: Caitlin Dover | June 10, 2010
How did you first meet?
Rudy: Zuzana and I met at the University of California at Berkeley in 1981. Zuzana was studying architecture as an undergraduate, and I was in the graduate program studying photography. Both of these departments were within the School of Environmental Design, and all were housed in the same building. So we often ran into each other in the hallways, and it didn’t take long before we realized that we were two odd ducks, because our real interest was graphic design. Besides that, we were both born in Europe. So we had a lot in common.
At the time that you first met each other, were you both working in design?
Zuzana: I had been studying architecture, but when I met Rudy I was in the process of switching to visual communication. When I got to know Rudy during that summer, I learned that he had already completed a very traditional education in design at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague, Holland, which included an emphasis on typography and type design. I was intrigued by the projects he showed me. His work was much more structured than anything I’d been taught; UC Berkeley had a more theoretical approach.
Where do you work now, and where do you live together?
Zuzana: We work together and run Emigre Inc. Just the two of us. We work out of our house in Berkeley, and also have a small warehouse from where we ship out Emigre products such as books, T-shirts, ceramics, prints, etc. Every Monday we go in, roll up our sleeves, and ship out orders that have come in during the previous week. It provides a pleasant diversion from sitting behind our computers the rest of the week.
Did either of you influence the other in your choice of discipline?
Rudy: The way we ended up doing what we do was the result of a number of serendipitous events. We started our design careers at the same time the Apple Macintosh was introduced, and unlike many designers at the time, we both loved it! We used the computer in very different ways, though. Zuzana has a rather methodical, almost mathematical, approach and she was immediately interested in the possibility of creating type. I was more interested at the time in chance encounters and computer glitches and how those would influence a layout. The computer was able to accommodate us both. So it wasn’t so much that we influenced each other, but that the computer provided a working environment that allowed each of us to do work that complemented the other perfectly. Neither of us ever imagined that all this would lead up to us running a type foundry, though. But that is the mainstay of what we currently do.
What work do you do together?
Rudy: Zuzana designs and produces typefaces, and she does most of the administrative chores, and I design the type specimens and other related design projects and I handle most of the writing and promotional work. It’s a match made in heaven, really. When it comes to design, we both initiate our own projects, work on them for a while, and then when or if we get stuck we ask the other for feedback. But we never sit down together to design something, if that’s what you’re asking.
Zuzana: The kind of design work that we’re involved in is very individualistic. We don’t work for clients, so we’re not following any particular assignment or brief. We don’t do market research or focus group testing for our products. Everything we create has to originate from within ourselves. And that part of the process is always individualistic. There’s little or no collaboration during the germination stage of a project. We have to motivate ourselves and impose our own deadlines, which sounds easier than it actually is. In that respect we work more like fine artists would. But we’re always there for each other to provide feedback and encouragement.
What’s your favorite thing that you’ve done or created together?
Zuzana: The dinner we made last night. But our favorite thing must be our company Emigre and what we’ve accomplished with it. It’s been a 25-year-long project, and it’s still going strong. It requires a lot of hand holding and hard work, but it has given us a level of independence and self-determination that we would have difficulty ever relinquishing.
How do you each think your partner influences your practice?
Rudy: We keep each other honest. We know each other’s work and abilities so well, it’s easy for each of us to recognize when the other is not working up to their potential. You can’t pull a fast one on your spouse.
How are your working lives and home lives integrated?
Rudy: Our working and home lives are fully integrated. There’s no time clock to punch after we climb the two flights of stairs in the morning to the top floor of our house where our offices are. We may be working while the laundry is spinning. Zuzana may be busy with some tricky kerning issues while she has a cake in the oven. The work we create, our photos and ceramics, are all over our house. I often have a basketball game on in the evening while I’m working on my type specimen booklets.
How do you approach design-related decisions that you make as a couple in your daily lives?
Zuzana: Luckily our taste in home furnishings is similar, so we don’t find much disagreement. However, we do find that our taste is different from the mainstream. Finding anything (door handles, faucets, floor covering) usually entails a long search. A couple of years ago, we drove some 400 miles to Whittier California to pick out ceramic rocks for our gas fireplace.
What’s the best thing about being a couple working in design?
Zuzana: I enjoy having our work integrated in our daily lives, and sharing the experience. Design is one of the few fields that allows for this. I look forward to our retirement, because I imagine it won’t be much different from our life today, except somewhat slower paced.
Rudy: Whenever a design magazine is doing a special on couples we always get invited.
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