Profile: Grandpeople

Inspired by the famously arresting Norwegian outdoors, Grandpeople's design and illustration interprets natural processes into graphical forms. Always engaging, occasionally psychedelic, for them, design is more than skin deep, as Mark Penfold found out...

"The name Grandpeople comes from the two words - 'grand' and 'people'," explains, Magnus Voll Mathiassen, one of this sharp Norwegian studio's two Magnuses. "Put together they start to get comfy. Quite the opposite of how the words work in isolation." This sort of observation, along with Grandpeople's work, grows on you at quite a speed.

This amalgamated term is characteristic in another way, too. "It's almost, but not precisely, a description of how we solve visual problems," says Mathiassen. "As a company we take pride in producing illustration and design with depth - we believe that surface is the reflection of what lies beneath." Or at least it should be.

This belief in the substance of design makes for interesting results. It gives the designer room to think, to evolve concepts and to link his or her work with the world at large. With Grandpeople, this translates into fluid shapes, clever colour use and hand-crafted communication with a growing international appeal.

A matter of contrast
Grandpeople believes good design should be just a particularly attractive part of the world. "When graphic designers make stuff that makes you think 'graphic design', something's gone wrong," says Mathiassen. Design shouldn't draw attention to itself as design, he believes, but instead by simply being a beautiful example of the thing itself - a book, a poster or an advertisement.

So if you don't draw people's attention by design, how do you get anyone to notice your efforts? The answer, it seems, is all about colour. "We like contrasts," says Mathiassen. "We've never been afraid of colours." However, the team believes an absence of colour can be just as powerful.

The bold trio of Christian Strand Bergheim, Magnus Helgesen and Magnus Voll Mathiassen met, as is so often the case, while studying. Still based in Bergen - home to the National Academy of the Arts - the three fell together quite naturally. It is, says Mathiassen, with a typically Nordic lack of frill, "Just the standard story of some students who share the same interests."

Collaboration followed as the three discovered skillsets that fitted neatly together. "Magnus represents strange ideas, Christian is the clever, detailed illustrator and I am the one who says 'No'," says Mathiassen.

Survival of the fittest
"We have different skills when it comes to software, so we are quite dependent on each other," says Mathiassen. The division of labour is a marvellous thing when fully exploited. "It more or less became the consensus that we would start business together after graduating," he says.

"First of all we just wanted to get jobs," says Mathiassen when asked about the initial aims of Grandpeople. A kind of hand-to-mouth period is an essential stage for design itself, it has a weeding out effect. Only the most creative will survive. It brings them closer to nature, which is something of a theme for Grandpeople.

Having evolved some sort of stability, the next phase of development began. "We wondered if it was possible to get jobs abroad," says Mathiassen. And given that Grandpeople was already being whispered about in the stylish clubs and bars of downtown Bergen, it's no surprise to discover that this worked out.

What is surprising, however, is that Grandpeople has never gone in for self-promotion. The group's rise has been entirely organic - a word of mouth phenomenon: "It's probably because of how different we are compared to fellow designers in Norway," Mathiassen admits.

"It's not that hard to get noticed," he continues. "Just put some colourful polka dots, some gradients and some other stuff in unexpected places. But obviously it's not always that easy. We always work hard and have never liked to use easy solutions. For us it's more about creating our things parallel to the zeitgeist."

Grandpeople has certainly developed a fashionable reputation, but, as Mathiassen puts it, "We just want to be the 'geist'." Keeping your finger on the pulse like this can be difficult - you must pay constant attention to changes in visual culture - but if you manage it your work won't be following trends, it will be an integral part of the natural ebb and flow of design.

This has implications for workflow. "Overseas clients often know exactly what they want - and they want it fast," says Mathiassen. "This is how we like it. Fast and furious." In this type of environment you have to hit the ground running, and Grandpeople can do this because they remain in step with the times.

This approach has its downside, however. Living life in the fast lane, having achieved notoriety, designers can become distracted by lofty ideals, such as 'creative fulfilment' and even, in some cases, art. But it's not a problem for Grandpeople. "Creatively, we have achieved all our goals for now," says Mathiassen. "But we're never satisfied."

"Our goals for the future are of the more internal type - to be more effective and more business-minded," Mathiassen continues. "We want to do the same thing as our neighbours do - to go home from the office at a decent time every day."

This type of pragmatism needn't stop Grandpeople from growing creatively. In fact, if this approach keeps you in business it's likely to be the key that unlocks your potential. It will allow for a more rounded exploration of your field. "For me it would be nice to do something that is not naive, not colourful, not happy - but black, serious and experimental," says Mathiassen.

You can search out the seeds of almost any of Grandpeople's styles. Psychedelia is a clear influence, but that, they say "just happens". The closest thing to an established aesthetic for Grandpeople is "the organic abstraction of nature's forms".

"We all live very close to nature. It's one of our main sources of inspiration," explains Mathiassen. "We take an abstract approach to this theme - like the letters and forms of the poster for the first Varoom exhibition. Instead of friendly and commonly known floral forms, these shapes resemble decay, roots, osmosis and fluidity."

To this is added the power of narrative. "We make our graphics subject to a sort of conflict or struggle," says Mathiassen. "Instead of basing a design on mere representations of nature, we are more into mimicking the organic aesthetics of nature.

"We try not to recognise each form as a representation of an organism, but focus more on the movement and metamorphosis seen in biology," Mathiassen continues. As such it has chosen a path with a huge number of branches, and to negotiate it successfully will require, if not a map, then certainly a good compass.

Aside from nature, its great to hear that Grandpeople has always been inspired by music trends, youth and fashion subcultures. "I find the rawness and fuck-you attitude of many subcultures liberating," says Mathiassen. "Black metal, punk, techno - it's concise and to the point."

If there's a typically Norwegian aesthetic about Grandpeople, it's also fantastic to hear the trio are equally disposed to what they class as a strong "very positive 1970s aesthetic" - something the team admits it needs to lift the mood occasionally. "When we're working all these long days, there's not always a smile on our face," they say. But with its mix of influences, strong Northern European aesthetic and sky-rocketing reputation, it certainly looks like the insular world of Grandpeople will continue to flourish.