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In a Polish-Italian-German neighborhood in Ridgewood, Queens, New York—you can tell it’s heavily Polish by the signs on the funeral parlor and the corner groceries—a lot of activity surrounds a three-story attached house with pointy dormers. Burly guys hoist a mattress from a moving truck parked in front of it. Next to its wide-open front door, carpenters frame a window, building what looks like a bar facing the sidewalk. Is this the right place?

Hjalti Karlsson and Jan Wilker
© Elisabeth Smolarz

Walk right in and find out. At wide white tables, designers in black jeans and T-shirts are working at iMacs. Doors and windows open to the street? This could never happen in Manhattan, where even small office buildings have security cameras and a lobby desk where ID badges are issued to visitors. Yes, this must be the new home of karlssonwilker inc.

“It will be a bar, a coffee bar, and a tiny store selling artifacts we are making,” confirms Hjalti Karlsson, bearded, smiling, pointing to the hole in the front wall. “We want to be friendly and get to know the neighbors,” adds Jan Wilker, taller, more serious. They offer a tour: the ground floor is the design studio. Out back, a thriving garden offers, in addition to vegetables and sunflowers, views of other attached houses and their occupants’ laundry. Downstairs is a photo studio, model-making station, library, storage. Up a steep staircase is the newly renovated apartment where Wilker and his wife, Elisabeth, are moving.

Queens was traditionally an immigrant, blue-collar (cops, firefighters, Archie Bunker) address. Not the ZIP code of fashionable, hip people—unless you were there to catch a Mets game, watch US Open tennis, dine on the authentic cuisine of one of the more than 20 ethnic groups that form the borough’s population of 2.3 million or just pass through on your way to the airport via one of the expressways (a misnomer if there ever was one). karlssonwilker is helping change all that (but alas, not the traffic). A prediction: other design firms, sidewalk bars and shops will follow, and Queens will become the new Brooklyn—but perhaps slightly less expensive.

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The partners’ backstory is well known. They met at Sagmeister Inc. in 1999. Karlsson, from Reykjavik, Iceland, had been working for four years at Sagmeister’s West Fourteenth Street studio, mostly on music-related projects, after getting his BFA at Parsons School of Design and freelancing at Arnell Group, Comedy Central and Pentagram. Wilker, from Ulm, Germany, a former architecture student and communication design graduate of the Stuttgart State Academy of Art and Design, was the new intern at Sagmeister. In 2000, when Sagmeister decided to take his first “year without clients,” these two guys knew what to do. They opened their own studio around the corner, in a bare-bones loft above the Dunkin’ Donuts just north of the intersection of Sixth and Fourteenth.

In a few years, Karlsson and Wilker were almost as famous as their former boss. In 2003, Princeton Architectural Press published their first monograph, tellmewhy: The First 24 Months of a New York Design Company, now a collector’s item appreciated for its honest revelations about the studio’s beginnings. In 2009, they followed up with 20 Projects in 5 Minutes (for Fast Readers), which showcased work for such clients as MTV (a new branding system and portal, The Orb), PUMA (the design of the shoe itself) and Time magazine (coediting, cowriting, art directing and designing the cover and a twelve-page feature in “The List Issue”). The work felt a bit Sagmeister-ish, but had its own strong, distinctive vocabulary. Two vocabularies, actually: black-and-white infographics with outline boxes, sans-serif type and little icons and explosive, metallic, pointy figures and shapes.

“Yes, boxes are one of our dialects, one of the languages we speak,” says Karlsson. “We still do orderly type in boxes, but we’re doing it much less.”

“We’re doing the explosion much less, too, fewer explosions of shapes and color,” Wilker adds.

In 20 Recent Projects, their newest monograph—112 oversized pages of lush full-bleed images of environments, installations, products, interiors and fashion stories—karlssonwilker describes what it’s doing like this: “Our collaborations are direct, honest and personal, to allow for a meaningful process that leads to relevant work.”

Many projects in the book feature a client quote, such as this comment by Marybeth Shaw, chief creative officer at Wolf-Gordon, a company that provides wall coverings and textiles for contract interiors: “We have been collaborating with karlssonwilker since late 2011 on a complete range of 2-D, 3-D and digital projects that have effectively elevated our brand across all product categories … [its] design response is consistently excellent, energizing and provocative.”

Yes, boxes are one of our dialects, one of the languages we speak. We still do orderly type in boxes, but we’re doing it much less.” —Hjalti Karlsson

The more I read, look and listen, the more I realize that collaboration is the key word. karlssonwilker projects don’t happen when a typical client is looking for a typical design—or heaven forbid, a low price. “We very rarely get called in for pitches,” the pair asserts. “We attract clients who have done their homework,” Karlsson adds. “They’ve looked at what different designers have to offer, but they don’t know exactly what they want. They’re willing to take a risk. They want to go on a little adventure with us.”

That is where the collaborations begin, designer-client relationships that last from six months to two years or more. “We listen. We go visit. We take it all in. We don’t come back with one or two ideas,” Wilker explains. “We give them a lot of different paths in a not-very-polished format, then we figure out together which makes the most sense.”

And then there are the projects—more like experiences or experiments—that stretch beyond the parameters of any client brief. Not surprisingly, the studio’s client work has led to invitations from countries and art groups and museums. Not to give a speech or a workshop, but for the pair to sink themselves into the culture for, say, twelve days of going behind the scenes, hanging out with the locals, eating the food. All in all, having a “real-time artistic adventure” that includes making a calendar or booklet about it. This has taken place three times: in Serbia in 2004, South Africa in 2007 and Israel in 2011. “We were a big media spectacle in Serbia,” Karlsson recalls. “It was after nearly two decades of bombings and violence, and no one wanted to travel there. The people were still traumatized, so the purpose was to give hope through artistic expression. There were TV and radio interviews with us, posters, banners, billboards.”

The project created during those twelve days generated another level of admiration, both from the hosts in Belgrade and from other design organizations. “The calendar brings fresh, provocative visuals in both design and advertising concepts, worth inspiring the most jaded creatives in America,” wrote the director of The One Club in New York, where the work was shown. Indeed, karlssonwilker has been the subject of ten solo and group exhibitions around the world, including one during a 2013 trip to Iceland, where Karlsson accepted the Torsten and Wanja Söderberg Prize, awarded annually to an influential Nordic designer or craftsperson.

We listen. We go visit. We take it all in. We don’t come back with one or two ideas. We give them a lot of different paths in a not-very-polished format, then we figure out together which makes the most sense.” —Jan Wilker

Experimental travel adventures, international prizes and design programs of the magnitude of the new work recently created for the Remai Modern, a contemporary art museum that opened in Canada in October 2017, usually require the efforts of more than two people, no matter how talented. “When we started, it was just the two of us plus an intern,” Karlsson explains. “All we did was design. Now that the office has grown, I’m more in charge of finances and new business as well as specific projects, and Jan is more in charge of running the studio and overall creative direction.”

Although that sounds a bit traditional, the people working there are anything but. They all follow the partners’ credo: “Be vulnerable, be brash.” Art director Sandra Shizuka, a native of Portugal, came to karlssonwilker six years ago from the San Francisco Bay Area, where she designed the Berkeley Symphony’s website and marketing materials. “I met Hjalti and Jan at a conference in Lisbon,” she says. “Big rock stars! But when I sent them my résumé, they said, ‘Can you start Monday at 10 am?’” She now lives in Bushwick, Brooklyn, a five-minute bike ride from the studio, and worked on the Remai Modern project, explaining the thinking behind its iconoclastic typography like this: “We are open to being unpredictable.”

Designer Kenny Batu, who was the intern while completing his MFA at the School of Visual Arts, is now the full-time master of infographics and site plans. “I love creating vector visuals,” he says, “but I’m getting involved in strategy—how a campaign functions and is implemented.”

Project manager Moya Annece, from Jamaica, who studied marketing communications at the Fashion Institute of Technology, keeps everything on track. She crafts proposals with every line item delineated; from building signage to websites to shopping bags to buttons, it all has to work together. “I make sure the designers meet their deadlines,” she says with a smile. Designer Connor Muething, from Ohio, a graduate of Maryland Institute College of Art—in between engineering massive, complex Wolf-Gordon showroom installations—is putting finishing touches on Bimsi, the studio’s 3-D mascot. On the pages of projects ranging from Time’s “The List Issue” to digital education company Amplify’s math games, there’s a minute silhouette of a man, standing, sitting, hanging out. In Muething’s hands, Bimsi has become a sculpture, a small, elegant artifact to be sold in the “tiny store” in karlssonwilker’s front window. Alongside books and T-shirts, of course, and perhaps newly redesigned bottles of Brennivín Icelandic schnapps.

Ah-ha. Tiny silhouette. Big plans. Smart, brash, friendly designers. Changing the block, the borough and the neighborhood. Changing design. Maybe even changing the world. Let’s watch and see what happens. ca

Ellen Shapiro (visualanguage.net) is a graphic designer and writer based in Irvington, New York. The author of The Graphic Designer’s Guide to Clients (Allworth Press) and nearly 200 magazine articles about design, illustration, photography and visual culture around the world, Shapiro has been contributing to CA since 1991.
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