Eleven years ago, Eike Koenig fell in love with record label design. But as Graeme Aymer discovers, now there's much more to Hort's creative mix.
German design: clean? Efficient? Minimal? Inspiring? No: it's dull. So says Eike Koenig, the founder of art direction and graphic design firm Hort. Of course, he's allowed to say that because he is German. "German design is boring," he declares. "But I really like Dutch, British and Scandinavian design."
Koenig believes that in the Netherlands there's a willingness to be "out there", to try new things - something that's missing in German design: "Dutch design is very conceptual and really strange," he says. "They try a lot of things, and sometimes it looks ugly, but it's great that they print it regardless. They do a lot more in this field than Germany does."
So who is Hort to judge? Well, the company began life 11 years ago, as Koenig's Grafischer Hort. "Hort is a really German word," says Koenig. "It's a place where you can leave your children while you're at work." Koenig started the company after 18 months working for a record label in Germany. He had been studying communication arts at the University of Graphic Design in Darmstadt, near Frankfurt, when work experience beckoned. First off, he tried advertising, but soon knew it wasn't for him.
"Advertising was frustrating," he remembers. "It wasn't design, and it was different to what I wanted to do. Design wasn't really the focus, so I decided that advertising wasn't the right job for me."
But Koenig's second internship at a record label was more successful and he was soon offered a job as an art director, which he accepted, dropping out of his course. "It was fantastic," he says. "The record label owned a club and we designed our own fliers and record sleeves."
Koenig has no regrets about cutting short his formal education. "I got frustrated about the university," he explains. "It wasn't old fashioned, but they tried to teach you a certain kind of design, and during this time a lot of new designers were breaking through who broke with normal practice, such as David Carson. So I got interested in how much you can do, which was much more varied than what the school was trying to teach us."
For about eight years, Koenig's Grafischer Hort designed record sleeves for a number of record label clients. Koenig was even joined by a business partner, Ralf Hiemich, who eventually left to work in Berlin Koenig sought out a replacement, and found one in the shape of Martin Lorenz.
"I'd met Martin a couple of months before [Ralf left], interviewed him and gave him a piece of wood and asked if he could make something out of it," Koenig recounts. "When he sent it back it was no longer one piece, it was 20 to 30 pieces, with illustrations on them and I said, "Okay, let's talk about working together"."
It was also at this time that Koenig relaunched the company under the shorter title of Hort, to make it a less personal project, and the company name less of a twister for non-German tongues.
The old name lives on, particularly among the company's older clients, but as Hort, Lorenz and Koenig have worked for the likes of Disney, Volkswagen, Mercedes Benz and countless magazines. Hort's music label clients also include music heavyweights Universal Music and Virgin. "We don't really design for the web," says Koenig. "If the client asks us we sometimes do it, but it always accompanies printed stuff. We also create websites, but we are 98 per cent print based."
At Hort it's all done with Macs, using Photoshop, Illustrator, FreeHand, Softimage, Painter and QuarkXPress. For the company's rare bouts of web work, there is also Flash and Fontographer.
"Martin was educated in the Netherlands, where he studied corporate and font design," Koenig explains. "He taught me a lot and got me into typography."
At the ripe "old" age of 37, Koenig has noticed many changes in the world of graphic design. "When I started, I was on Photoshop 2.0 and our machines had about 256MB RAM, and just 1GB hard drives," he says. "So when you worked with images at 30cm, the machine really slowed down. It's got faster over the past few years. I think the possibility to redo things is very good for the design process."
However, for Koenig the increase in computer power is not without problems. "Jobs are cheaper now," he says. "But for us designers the pressure is greater because our clients think we can design something in one day. They don't even consider that the idea has to develop first before we even get on to the computer." Koenig also believes that there are further drawbacks to computers: "A lot of people think they can design because they can use a computer, but that's not true," he says. "The internet has also created a perception. You can get in contact with a lot of design companies so you've more influence around you. When I started there was no internet, just books. But now the internet is full of nice images, and no content."
Despite an age gap of nine years and completely different training backgrounds, Lorenz and Koenig work well together. "He's got a big brain and knows what I'm talking about, and I know what he's talking about, so we communicate well," says Koenig of his business partner. "We have the same ideas about design so we make a really good team. And if you are a good team, and you understand each other well, you don't need to be the same age. To me, he seems to be a bit older than he is!"
Booking for the future
For Hort, the next big thing is an upcoming book, which will feature reworkings of the company's 20 best record covers. Readers will be presented with photographs of the original artwork, followed by new interpretations of the concepts. "We didn't just want to show off what we did; we wanted to give the reader more than just designs printed in a book," Koenig explains. "We thought it would be great if the readers could get something new they haven't seen before. And also, we wanted to show that we're not just about designing record sleeves; we're about following a concept and translating it to new dimensions."
In the meantime, Koenig is keen to give budding graphic designers a bit of advice. "Try to be authentic," he says. "I think it's very important that designers are very personal, that part of your personality comes out in the design. So don't try to be someone else; just be yourself. Secondly, share your ideas and talk about them with colleagues to gauge their opinion and get their input - other people's opinions are invaluable. And finally, never stop learning."