Computer Arts

Profile: Kapitza

Having chosen London's East End as the home for their design studio, sisters Nicole and Petra Kapitza are bringing a fresh new approach to book design and typography.

James Brown may be many things, including a septuagenarian, the hardest-working man in show business, an expert on the effects of PCP on a fugitive's perception, and the godfather of soul. He also knows that this is "a man's, man's, man's world." It's as true of Mr Brown's showbiz world as it is of London's design scene in the year 2006.

"It's a boys' network, isn't it?" says Nicole Kapitza matter-of-factly in the East London studio she shares with her sister Petra. "In college, it's probably more like 50/50, or more women, and the same applies to freelance," adds Petra. "But if you go to companies, the design world is so male dominated. I don't know where all the women are - I think it's difficult for women to even climb up the ladder."

Don't get them wrong, the Kapitzas are certainly not bitter or disaffected stirrers of discontent. They are simply making an observation built on their time spent training and working in London and Berlin at a range of companies including the BBC, MTV, Berlin's PixelPark, London's Oven Digital and, now, their own company, Kapitza, located just a stone's throw from the famed Brick Lane.

"It was one of the reasons we started the company," Nicole explains. "We thought, you can't get the good jobs. You're running up against the wall. It gets you down."

Family ties
The decision to set up on their own was not taken lightly. Both sisters had been collaborating together for years before the company kicked off in 2004. In the early 1990s, as Nicole was studying in Stuttgart, Petra was enrolling at Hackney's Cordwainer College, one of the few places on earth where you can study shoe design. But Petra found the field restrictive, so she moved on to Camberwell College of Art.

Having attained the equivalent of an MA at Stuttgart's Academy of Art and Design, Nicole arrived in London and also studied for a year at Camberwell. "Camberwell was very influential," she says. "The education I had [in Germany] was very rigid. I had to learn everything from scratch and it was very technical, whereas Camberwell was just about ideas. It freed up my way of thinking, and my work completely changed. I did illustration again."

"I really liked that, especially when you had to do a project in a day," adds Petra. "Sometimes it worked out really well, and other times you had a nightmare," Nicole continues: "For me it was a revelation - really inspiring."

It helped that both studied under Tomato's Dirk Van Dooren. "He would just do stuff," Nicole remembers. "Like Petra said. Just do it, whatever comes out. Do it first and then think about it. So it was very freeing for me."

After graduation both girls ended up at Berlin's influential PixelPark interactive design firm. "We were like pioneers," explains Nicole. Then, interactive design referred to CD-ROM rather than the internet. It was 1995, not long after Apple first introduced the PowerPC chip. "You could just try things out; no-one knew how to do it. You just had to figure it out," says Nicole.

A winning combination
But London beckoned. Petra was offered a job at MTV's design department, while Nicole began teaching new media at Camberwell College of Design. Then, during the early part of the decade, a flatmate of Nicole's asked her to design a book for a friend. The sisters decided to go ahead with the project, which in turn led to further work together.

"We have different strengths," says Nicole. "I'm the conceptual person. I really like thinking about different research and things, and typography as well, and Petra is more the illustrator. We talked about setting up together for years, and we always said, it's no good, we're sisters, we would fight all the time. But we didn't meet anybody else along the way that we wanted to work with so we gave it a try. In terms of work we don't fight at all."

There are other differences. Nicole, the more talkative of the two sisters, describes nature and natural history illustration as well as classic typography as major influences, although she also cites Jean Michel Basquiat and his "just do it" attitude as an important influence.

Petra, more reserved than her sister, has a different set of influences altogether. For her, it's John Maeda, Newstoday.com and k10k.com. Where Nicole chooses forms derived from nature and classic font shapes, Petra is more given to working on abstract forms, loading up FreeHand or Illustrator and throwing caution to the wind.

This two-pronged approach has served the duo well. Kapitza currently works with a number of artists on book design and exhibition projects. They regularly collaborate with names such as David Mabb and Volker Eichelmann. Nicole and Petra have also recently worked with artist Janet Hodgson on a book entitled The Pits. The book documents the process of an archaeological dig that took place at Whitefriars, Canterbury. Essentially, the developer, Land Securities, was about to build a shopping centre, but the site turned out to have major archaeological interest. The Pits features Petra's illustrations, based on the shapes of the excavations, in addition to her recreations of elements of the archaeological drawings used by the scientists themselves. "A book isn't just one thing," says Nicole, talking about what makes good book design. "It changes as you go through, and that's what I find interesting."

"We try to think of a concept and how fully that concept stands up," adds Petra, "and usually at some point it just falls into place." "We don't think about the visuals as much," says Nicole.

Keeping it simple
The two also maintain their interactive design skills, with work for, among others, web applications developer Kitsite. Noticeably, Kapitza favours a very simple type of interactive design, with no Flash and plenty of white space. To an extent, this is influenced by Petra's time spent designing content-driven websites for the BBC. "Once you've finished designing, the producer takes over and has to update it," she explains. "If you give them something complicated, it just kind of dissolves."

This is no problem for either Kapitza or its clients, because the sisters have noticed that simple is better these days. "It's almost like going back to the beginning where you're thinking about the user," says Petra. "Now the knowledge is there as well, with usability and accessibility and all that."

Besides, neither is particularly keen on Flash. "There are better Flash sites now, in catalogues and situations where it makes sense," Nicole concedes. "But still we wait for pictures and I don't have the patience!" Petra adds: "I don't like re-learning navigation all the time. We're HTML-based, so we've got our rules. If it's a good site, that's fine, but if it's really experimental it can be quite annoying."

So what does the future hold for Kapitza? There's another picture font on the way, and Kapitza is set to start up a font foundry and shop of its own. Nicole is keen on picture fonts and has found from research that many aren't up to much. "Doing these picture fonts feels like full circle to me," she says. "That's what I did initially at art college."

And, for now at least, their wanderlust appears sated. They find London, despite its previously mentioned shortcomings, inspirational, especially the East End. There's still plenty of work around, and as the majority of the duo's is derived through word of mouth and by reputation, there's not much else to do except to keep on designing good work. "I think it's something to do with the way graphic design is taught here," says Petra. "It's always exciting."

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