It shows. Forms and rhythms are evident in everything he does: film and concert posters, logos and annual reports, children’s books. His intuitive, hands-on approach doesn’t force clients into a particular graphic style; it infuses the client’s persona—whether a record label or a bank—with graphic wit and virtuosity. In Kiko’s work you see squiggly pen-drawn lines, bold brushstrokes, whimsical characters and faces, hand-lettering, undulating patterns of geometric shapes, photography and illustration (his own). And color. He works in bright primary hues, in stark black-and-white, in all kinds of subtle tonal ranges.
“I developed a personal lexicon of graphic solutions, which includes working with my hands—drawing, painting, cutting with shears, tearing paper, collage, scanning things I find on the street,” he explains. “Many designers don’t mix their ‘artistic’ and ‘commercial’ sides. I can be corporate when needed, but I’m never afraid to be naïve or primitive. So, naturally, with time, most of the studio’s clients are tuned into this philosophy of work.”
One of those clients is Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo, which has kept Máquina Estúdio—consisting of Kiko, his longtime design assistant Elisa Cardoso, intern Caio Campana and administrative assistant Andréa Giminez—busy with concert programs, tour programs, kids’ programs, institutional brochures and posters. In 2003, to promote the orchestra’s weekly and monthly concert programs, Kiko created 67 elegant, visually complex—you’d never call them naïve or primitive—limited-edition posters for display in the foyer of the Sala São Paulo Concert Hall.
Last spring, he was honored with a solo exhibition of those posters at São Paulo’s Instituto Tomie Ohtake, the museum and cultural center named for the Japanese-Brazilian woman painter. At the opening, more than a few members of the international design community “discovered” Kiko (the same way Columbus “discovered” America—it was there all along). Imagine the scene: 100 or so designers, from almost every country in Latin America, and from Japan, India, Australia, Denmark, The Netherlands, Lebanon, South Africa, Canada, the U.S.A. All, speakers or attendees at the ICOGRADA (International Council of Graphic Design Associations) Design Week, mingling in the airy, Modernist space, sipping white wine, nibbling cheese straws, making small (and large) talk; in Portuguese, Spanish, variously-accented versions of English. And stopping dead in their tracks in two galleries lined with Kiko’s virtuoso symphonies of color, form and line. Hints of Albers, Vasarely, Franz Kline, Matisse, Op art and Abstract Expressionism, hand and technology, yet with a totally original sensibility that ranges from wide black brushstrokes to intricate, layered patterns of kaleidoscopes and butterflies. Exulting in total graphic freedom, Kiko had made the cadences, harmonies and emotions of classical music—from Mozart and Tchaikovsky to Berlioz and Villa-Lobos (of course) to Tan Dun—come to life on paper.
Kiko! Who is Kiko? asked the gringos.
Kiko is that slight, unassuming guy with curly hair, everyone soon learned.
“Brilliant!” “Amazing!” “Wow!”
“I consider myself, above all, a technician,” says Kiko modestly. “That’s why my office is named Machine Studio.”
His clients seem to appreciate his non-machine-like talents, though. Maestro John Neschling, the orchestra’s artistic director, explains: “I wished to reach a true symbiosis between the musical production of our orchestra and our graphics. The music we play could be called square, but I wanted a younger, more modern image unconstrained by classical traits. Designer Kiko Farkas understood my intentions perfectly. I hope that the viewers of his beautiful creations will come to Sala São Paulo in search of the music behind them.”
It’s working. The posters—three of each design are printed on a Lambda press—are in demand in the concert hall shop, and a whole new series, with even more richly-layered patterns, was completed in 2004. More than 120 have been produced in total, and they keep coming at the rate of 4 to 8 a month.
Kiko is driven by what he calls his “paixão por papel”—passion for paper. “My love for paper began at the very beginning of my career when I worked for a newspaper and magazines,” he recalls. “Those jobs forced me to do work that was clear and precise, to be subtle and delicate, to value the content.” He is a book lover, an avid reader, a book designer. He’s designed books for corporate clients like Alcoa, and nearly 40 art and trade books on such subjects as glassmaking; Sephardic (Spanish-Jewish) cooking; the Corinthians, Brazil’s popular soccer team; and the life and music of jazz guitarist Antonio Carlos Jobim. He works for as many editors and publishers as he can, and is currently designing a Martin Scorsese book on film history.
His most notable illustrated children’s book, Uma Letra Puxa a Outra (One Letter Pulls the Other), was published in 1991 after he decided to downsize his firm, which had grown to eight employees. “Fed up with administrative duties, I fired every-one, closed the doors!” he exclaims. “I went out and showed my portfolio to all the people I admired. Everyone said the same thing, that my drawing was a differentiation from other designers and that I should make it more present in my work. One of those people was the editor/art director at a publishing company who invited me to make this book. But book illustration, rewarding in some ways, is so much work, with so little financial return, I cannot totally dedicate myself to this craft.”
Yet he keeps doing it. Uma Letra Puxa a Outra sold a very respectable 40,000 copies and won a major prize in Brazil. It was followed by Um Número Depois do Outro (One Number After the Other), an equally delightful volume with a green, clock-faced individual on its cover, and Um Passarinho Me Contou (A Little Bird Told Me), whose cover image is a parakeet yakking on the phone.
As much as Kiko loves books and other works on paper that serve “institutos culturais,” he isn’t a specialist in any sector or medium. His most ambitious project right now, as a case in point, is a mural that will hang in the lobby of the São Paulo headquarters of international consumer-goods conglomerate Unilever. “It will be magic surrealism with soap packages at the bottom of the sea,” says Kiko. “It’s going to be cool!”
For Kiko, visual communication is a multi-generational, family affair. One of his most charming identity projects is for “Infanteria,” a boutique toy store. With the youngest of his three sons, Guilhrerme, in tow, he hand-painted a giant clown-face logo on the shop’s window. His grandfather Desiderio Farkas, founder of the 50-store chain Fotóptica, a purveyor of cameras, film, developing, etc., was a photographer, and so are his father and two brothers. “I always had an artistic ambience at home,” he explains. “My parents had an amazing library and archive of music, full of wonders. All kinds of images covered the walls of our house, prints by Vasarely, originals by Edward Weston and many other treasures. At home I had my first encounter with Saul Steinberg, who was a huge influence. Steinberg’s books, All In Line and Passport, were just waiting on the shelf for someone to read them. My father collected Graphis magazine since the ’60s, and photography and advertising annuals. At home I also encountered American jazz, which, along with MPB (música popular Brasileira), was my audio companion. I love Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, the covers of Blue Note, the wonderful jacket Paul Davis did for Solo Monk.” Other influences ranged from Push Pin Studios, to R. Crumb’s dirty girls, to Miró, whom, like Steinberg, Kiko calls “an illusionist,” and Van Gogh, “who could make a chair purple and green, yet look absolutely natural.”
Kiko’s formal artistic training began at age six at a local museum school of art. “As a kid I was always drawing and painting,” he says. For him, family vacations were road trips spent soaking up the sights in places like Ouro Preto (“baroque/rococo”), Brasília (“street fairs, colorful and yet poor and minimal”), the Amazon and Brazil’s coastline and beaches. “The beach summarizes the soul of Brazilians,” he muses. “There you see beautiful women, drink beer, take in the sunshine, play soccer or beach tennis, get tanned and do nothing, just observing.” As a high school student he was already designing posters, inspired by the personalities and locations he encountered while accompanying his father’s documentary film crew on location.
He attended Faculdade de Arquitetura e Urbanismo (FAU) at the University of São Paulo. “There was no design school here at that time, so most graphic designers studied architecture,” he says. “FAU was a center of cultural effervescence, with courses in visual programming, product design, landscaping, architecture and urbanism. It also had a photography lab, a typographic studio for wood and metal engraving and a 4-color press we used to print materials. Most students did not end up as architects but became filmmakers, designers, photographers, musicians, dancers, cinematographers.”
Kiko was halfway through the course when he came to New York in 1979 to study life drawing at the Art Students League and live in the East Village. He says it was great to be “in the heart of the Western empire,” and he dug the jazz clubs, museums and changing seasons, but missed Brazil’s warmth and “improvisational” culture. Back home, he got his start in the layout departments of local periodicals, then headed up in-house design at his family’s business, Fotóptica, which gave him the opportunity to redesign the corporate identity and the store interiors, furnishings, lighting and signage—and provided a steady stream of invitations, holiday cards, calendars, event programs and posters to promote its photography magazine, gallery and annual VideoBrasil multimedia festival. In 1989 he spun off Máquina Estúdio as an independent entity, which continued to serve Fotóptica but soon began attracting other clients. “Nobody comes to me for signage for bus stations,” he says, “but they do remember me for a museum identity or an arts festival.”
Work for Fotóptica remains a major theme in Kiko’s portfolio. His 1987 VideoBrasil poster is still one of his favorites: “This was the first time I used a computer. I had limitations to scan and process, everything got pixilated. The final image we chose was an old village man with missing teeth, a typical figure from Brazilian folklore, which contrasted strongly with the computerized language.”
Today, he is still soaking up the sights and sounds of Brazil and using them for inspiration. He likes to spend weekends with his wife, Carla Caffé, an artist and architect, in a mountain cabin where “there are no written messages in view,” a respite after a work week in an enormous city he characterizes as “visually polluted”—chockablock with billboards, neon, handpainted store signage, graffiti. Using typically flowery, Latin language, he describes the mountain light: “Crystal light of the winter and the ferocious summer where everything becomes saturated.” Other weekends are spent walking around São Paulo and environs, checking out what some of its 18 million inhabitants are doing: “I like the streets, the markets, the food, fruits.” He admits to frequenting garage sales, called “família vende tudo” (family sells all)—their books, music, silverware, furniture. “Eventually I’ll buy a book or a cheap but special household item,” he says. “One Sunday I found a vinyl record with an amazing cover by Saul Bass.”
According to Kiko, being a designer in Brazil is not too different from being a designer anywhere—except for the political and economic climate. “The difference is being a Brazilian,” he maintains. “Here, we have to improvise constantly. Often you have to create from nothing, do things without money, just putting ideas at your service. Being creative here means being able to solve problems in an emergency: the constant changes in our economy, the changing laws, the high cost of computer equipment, problems like power outages and, of course, the fact that few people appreciate what we do. ‘A propaganda é, mas o design não é,’” he says. (Advertising is important, design is not.) “Being a designer in Brazil means working for the minority, the very few. Once you understand this, then it’s OK.”
Things are more than OK these days at Máquina Estúdio. Everyone works side by side in one large room. “We work with lots of art materials, books and all kinds of stuff, so there is usually a big mess around,” Kiko admits. “But all the work is in clear view and there can be a lot of interaction. All day long we talk about ideas and what is going on. We listen to music and have fun. The neighborhood, Pinheiros, is lively, with bars and restaurants. We go out for lunch or sometimes like to cook on the wood stove,” he says. “But when the atmosphere turns tense with deadlines, things get harder. I don’t get too crazy about the demands of clients any more, and that’s one of the advantages of being 46 years old. I can be more relaxed at this stage of life.”
What’s ahead for Kiko? He would like to build a bigger team; add one or two creative people, to be able to do more interesting work and be more selective with projects. He would like to teach more, to mentor younger designers. He would also consider living outside Brazil—working, studying or teaching in another country. “Or maybe doing everything together.”
Why not? At this rewarding stage of life, tudo é posível (everything is possible). ca
Author’s note: Many thanks to Tyler Littlejohn Johnson and Flávia Sanches Johnson of NomadInk.com, Curitiba, Brazil, and Washington, DC, for their assistance with research and translation of quotes in this article.