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Before graduating, artist Tom Sachs and sculptor Andrew Kromelow didn’t realize they’d follow their friendship at Bennington College to jobs at Frank O. Gehry’s Santa Monica furniture fabrication studio in 1989. Or that Kromelow’s knack for creating order out of chaos—evident every time he cleaned up the fabrication shop—coupled with the angularity of the Knoll furniture they were building, would inspire Sachs’s million-dollar art idea to “always be knolling.” (Yes, the phrase is also a Glengarry Glen Ross “always be closing” obfuscation.) “But that’s what happened,” Kromelow says with a smile, “and it’s still happening.” Knolling, the name Sachs gave to Kromelow’s instinctive arrange­ments of materials, tools and objects into orderly, surgical table–like displays, would become Sachs’s obsession artistically—as a mantra informing his sculptures and as one of ten shop rules streamlining production in Sachs’s studio. “Tommy absorbed it and made it his own,” says Kromelow, who personally thinks of knolling as an organi­zational technique, “not just in a visual sense, but also hierarchically.” He has recently knolled for painter David Hockney and singer Norah Jones, among others. Meanwhile, knolling has resurfaced internationally as the photographic phenom known as “flat-lay.”

“People keep sending me links to photographers using knolling, or what you call flat-lays, in their layouts,” says a bemused Kromelow. “I’m glad it has become such a universal system. It makes sense, because as human beings and artists, we all crave making order out of disorder.”

There are flat-lay photos of food, fashion and fragrance, online and off. There are cameras and coffee cups, seashells and shoes, leaves and twigs, bonbons, bras—even bicycles. Those last three together … ? It could happen, if there’s a story to make it work. Traditionally, flat-lay and knolling photos have been composed on a flat surface. Objects are squared off to each other, with equal spacing between them and with objects placed next to like objects. There has also been some hierarchy to the layout, with the most important objects more prominently displayed. More recently, flat-lays have morphed into something more playful. All are still shot straight down from above, with the camera lens perfectly parallel to the surface being photographed, but they may now include fewer objects or more objects nestled closer together democratically. Items may curve or spill across a variety of surfaces, rather than having surgical table–precision, and compositions may include more whimsical, random-seeming selections.

For the Goulet Pen Company, photographer Sarah Mattozzi shot these three flat-lay photographs, detailing both the pen brand’s fountain pens and inks, which are surrounded by items similar in color and characteristics.

Several progenitors of knolling/flat-lay photography have become well known for it, adopting it as their signature expression over the last few years. Styles range from the deconstructivist flat-lay work of Toronto-based photographer Todd McLellan to the imperfection-celebrating, outdoorsy/antique-y displays of Portland, Oregon–based Christian Watson to the avant-garde splashed-with-color tabletop shots of Stockholm, Sweden–based photographer Olivia Jeczmyk. The technique’s popularity with Instagrammers has also made knolling a highly successful sales tool for companies such as the Goulet Pen Company, as shot by product photographer Sarah Mattozzi.

When Mattozzi started making flat-lay product arrangements, it was for a single picture on Instagram. “I was just having fun with it, and we got a huge response. After some evaluation, we realized that with the amount of work that goes into the art direction, product planning and time, we could get a lot more use out of it.” Arrangements with flat-lay themes are now used for a weekly blog post that’s syndicated on all of Goulet Pen’s social media channels, a shopping guide on the website and a section in the company’s weekly newsletter. The images are also used in marketing materials and web banners, including Facebook cover photos and a website homepage slideshow.

Like Mattozzi, most photographers say they naturally gravitated to the style on their own. “I’ve been doing this my whole life,” says McLellan, who remembers collecting stuff from a grade-school field trip to make his first composition. “I never really labeled what I do as flat-lay or knolling, only being organized,” says McLellan. “I love that each person takes something different away from the viewing. I think everyone likes the discovery aspect, finding something meaningful that someone else might not notice.”

McLellan’s current project, a series of shoots for Popular Mechanics magazine on the inner workings of a variety of objects, enables him to photographically “explore the more rudimentary findings of the mechanical side of each object”—a process he finds very satisfying—while the accompanying text takes readers deeper.

For Watson, composing flat-lays is therapeutic, a relaxing escape from the more stressful aspects of his branding and logo-design work. “It takes hours to do a good flat-lay,” says Watson. “I can lose myself in it. It’s almost like working on a puzzle. You fit a few pieces together, step away from it, think about it, come back to it, and then when it’s finished, it’s just so satisfying.”

So what makes a good flat-lay? “Intentionality—with a dash of whimsy,” says Mattozzi. “Thinking first of the ‘for whom’ and the ‘why’ when you’re arranging items makes the impact much bigger than if it’s a completely random assortment.”

Watson agrees. “A lot of my clients—Leica Camera AG, Le Labo Fragrances, Michter’s Distillery—found me through my flat-lays and want me to include flat-lay photography as part of the branding work I do for them. Because of that, I spend a lot of time thinking through who the company is before shooting so I can translate its voice through the imagery.”

Watson’s latest example is the photography he did for Le Labo’s soon-to-launch website. “I spent weeks with them in New York absorbing their culture, and then, for the shoot, they shipped me every single raw ingredient—leaves, flowers and petals—in the perfume, plus all of the objects used to make it. I even had a blood orange tree in my house!” Watson says with a laugh. “It was a really, really fun process, taking these products down to this almost inorganic level for the flat-lay shoots.” When flooding in Watson’s home destroyed original files of the work, Le Labo shipped a completely new set of ingredients, and Watson reshot all 36 product flat-lays a second time. “I think that made the finished work more meaningful,” says Watson. “There were four or five layout shots for each product. It was intense.”

A mouthwatering flat-lay photograph of a roast chicken dinner and wine (left) for Plaza magazine by Olivia Jeczmyk, which shows her playful, curvy approach to knolling. Todd McLellan takes an old camera apart (right) and flat-lays its component parts for a highly detailed photograph.

Beyond providing meaning for each flat-lay, intent helps avoid clutter, says Mattozzi. “Without intentionality, it can be easy for the flat-lay to quickly go from organization to clutter. So sometimes it’s an act of subtracting until only the essentials remain.”

But although knolling takes a very strategic mindset, Mattozzi adds that successful layouts are also about playfulness. She keeps images fresh by not preplanning the layout too much, and she creates flat-lays based more on intuition than on rules. “It’s helpful for me to start by selecting all of the products and props, laying down a focal point and then building in 90-degree angles around that. One of the best things about this type of image is if it doesn’t look good, you can just start over and rearrange!”

“Some things work better than others,” says McLellan about analyzing specific arrangements. “I prefer creating flat-lays with one object taken apart into many pieces, such as a disassembled rotary phone. One object provides everything you need for that scene.”

In contrast, Jeczmyk loves to work with a mix of objects in her flat-lays, such as those of food and china on tabletops she’s done for Plaza magazine. She likes “different sizes and heights … some objects that are transparent, and some that are made of a solid material.” Jeczmyk says, “I work with a lot of different magazines that give me the creative freedom to compose this way. My goal is to create a composition where the objects catch the light in different ways and create shadows.”

Jeczmyk’s early work with flat-lays was for Origo, a teachers’ magazine in Sweden. “Composing photographs for an article about math outside, I used rocks, grass, dirt and so forth for the images,” says Jeczmyk. “I loved seeing things from this perspective, so I kept a sketchbook. The coffee and tea images for Plaza came straight out of that.”

All of the photographers interviewed for this article say reactions to their flat-lay photographs have been overwhelmingly positive. “I find that customers respond to this type of organized image much better than other types because of the instant gratification,” says Mattozzi. “Everything is laid out and can be absorbed in one take, which is ideal for platforms where the audience might be scrolling through the feed very quickly.” All are equally wary of trendiness. “I do my best to compose a photograph I find beautiful and satisfying that communicates the client’s brand,” says Watson. Mattozzi adds, “One thing I’ve learned is to not get too wrapped up in trends and hashtags to the point where they make the work have a shorter expiration date. It’s great to let trends inspire the art direction, but it’s better to compose the final image in a way that can be evergreen and classic.” ca

Monica Kass Rogers (monicakassrogers.com) writes and photographs from her home base in Evanston, Illinois.


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