From punk rock to real socialism, Polish graphic designer Grzegorz Laszuk explains what stokes his creative fires
While his friends eyed up girls and looked in shop windows, the young Grzegorz Laszuk was fixated on lettering. Street names, signage, posters: it became such an obsession, he wondered if it was the symptom of a strange illness.
Growing up, Laszuk played in bands. It was his bandmates who persuaded him to join them in studying law. He was the only one who passed his exams, but soon realised the legal profession just wasn’t for him.
While visiting friends in West Berlin, in 1989, he stumbled across an offset printing course – the perfect opportunity to indulge his passion for typography. When he returned to his native Warsaw, he joined a similar programme, where classmates turned him on to the first version of Adobe PageMaker: “Okay,” he thought. “Now, I’m home.”
Soon after, Laszuk bought his first computer, before landing a job at the newly opened Centre for Contemporary Art at the Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw. Here, he began producing flyers, brochures and, finally, the posters that would become his trademark.
You’ve worked across numerous media. Why is that?
The answer is simple: I don’t like boredom in my life. I like the music of John Cage and The Ramones. I like to use photography and pure typography. I don’t close myself in one world. It opens me up to different experiences and forces me to learn all the time. That is what fascinates me in this line of work: every day brings new challenges. Sometimes I finish a project at sunrise. But I like it. And, luckily, graphic design isn’t my only activity. For 25 years, I’ve been a member of the independent theatre Komuna// Warszawa. I also used to design electronic percussion. In my graphic design, borders don’t exist.
Does music influence your output?
I think that music created my taste in graphic design. My favourite music is Kraftwerk, 23 Ski Doo and Throbbing Gristle; Cabaret Voltaire (Neville Brody), Joy Division and New Order (Peter Saville) and the Pixies (Vaughan Oliver): an amazing mixture of punk energy with electric instruments. I don’t remember if I bought The Graphic Language of Neville Brody because I saw a collection of artwork for my favourite bands, or if I was fascinated by Brody’s design. For me it was parallel. Good music and the best graphic design, luckily, often come together.
Tell us about your best, worst and weirdest projects.
One time, I forgot about a project for a big pharmaceutical corporation. They called me and asked, “Where is the project?” I said, “I have just sent it.” I designed it in three minutes: two rectangles in two colours. After 10 minutes they called me again: “Grzegorz, what is this?” I improvised and created an amazing theory relating to colours in medicine from ancient Greece to the 20th century. I gave them a great 15-minute speech explaining what I’d done. They said: “Okay. We’ll buy it.”
Another time, I designed a poster for the premiere of a performance at TR Warszawa, a Warsaw theatre. The director had planned to create a piece with actors improvising on stage. We met in July, two months before the premiere. He described the idea and the theme of the performance. I worked on the project partly on my holidays. I sent my designs to the promotions department of the theatre and they printed it. When I came back to Warsaw I discovered the director and actors had changed their plans and done a performance based on another idea, but the posters were already on the streets. Many people who saw them told me the posters brilliantly illustrated the theme of the performance.
My worst project? Look at my business card: I don’t have a business card!
How do you handle working with problematic clients?
I like to define myself as a craftsman. My approach with new projects is classical: I meet with the client, I listen to what they need, I make it. Like a shoemaker. Making projects is my job. Of course, I have my own opinions and gestures, but the majority of my clients like them and this the reason why they choose me as their partner in projects. So, I’m a lucky man. But sometimes I have to fight for my vision of the project, and I like doing that. Clearly defining who I am, or looking for new ways to work, helps foster self-development.
How do politics and activism inform your work?
I graduated from high school in the 80s in Poland. It was the time of martial law, demonstrations – the beginnings of an anarchistic movement, punk and new wave. Political discussions were everywhere. This is my background. Now I’m a citizen of Poland and Europe and I try to react against violence and injury and create positive, progressive movements on many levels.
Recently, as a member of the Green Party, I stood as a candidate in the local elections, and with my theatre, Komuna// Warszawa, I am creating a new Institute for Performing Arts in Warsaw. I also try to show my political point of view in my posters. Luckily, my most important client, TR Warszawa, touches on a lot of political problems in its performances – lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans law, the war in Iraq, social inequality. I am able to create political posters for an engaged theatre audience.
You have a theory that designers’ lives are cyclical – that they return to their roots within 12 years. How have you changed over your career?
It is not a scientific theory, of course. It’s a joke. But, maybe, as with most jokes, there’s a seed of truth. When I prepared a recent lecture about my cooperation with TR Warszawa, I discovered that my first poster, Hamlet in 1999, was similar to the poster I made for Nosferatu last year. They were both men’s portraits with sky as background. Later I used geometric forms, or pure typography. I like to touch different styles, not be trapped in one technique or way of thinking.
The 90s and the beginning of the 21st century were – and still are – very dynamic. My point of view on graphic design isn’t ideological. I really think posters, and all graphic design, should be nice and useful. But coming back to the cycle in a designer’s life: at Typo Berlin, Neville Brody showed me his very first works and talked about the energy of those early projects. It is another piece of evidence of how important first experiences are. And the last bit of evidence for the cycle-theory: my most recent posters, Romeo and Juliet, from this year, are photographic.
Is there a common theme you have running through your work, something that knits it all together?
I’m not just tied to one main idea or style in graphic design. I try to be open and interested in many sources and influences.
Much more important than the style of the design is the lifestyle of it: to be responsible on many levels, to be active in society, and helpful and friendly.