In conversation with Munich-based graphic designer Mirko Borsche: Around the turn of the year, two variations of the same image began to circulate on the internet, comparing the old logos of a host of vaunted luxury brands with their new, shiny, sans-serif replacements. To some, such homogeneity was proof of a dearth of creativity endemic amongst fashion labels. Others, perhaps more astutely, noted that we now consume and interact with culture – often on the screens of our phones’ – has ensured that simplicity and legibility is of increased importance. Included in the logos presented was Saint Laurent sans-Yves, ushered in by Hedi Slimane and the new Burberry logo by Peter Saville and two, those of German luggage brand Rimowa and Paris fashion house, Balenciaga, created by the small, eponymous Munich-based studio of Mirko Borsche.
There are few graphic designers, operating between the worlds of fashion and contemporary art, who have been quite as prolific as Borsche and his studio in recent years. The cult fashion and art publication Kaleidoscope is led by his art direction, as is Spike, the Berlin-based art quarterly. His studio has created campaigns for Nike, fashion show invitations for Givenchy, websites for the Italian streetwear vendor Slam Jam, and overseen the art direction for its culture and art space Spazio Maiocchi, ran in conjunction with Carhartt WIP. There’s also a free newspaper, Super Paper, which acts as a sort of typographical testing-ground for him and his team to try out ideas in print, as well as Die Zeit Magazin – Germany’s largest weekly newspaper – and regular campaigns for Munich’s State Opera.
When it comes to pleasing clients owned by billion-dollar conglomerates or prim and proper German print institutions, one might expect a certain degree of pragmatism, or even conservatism. But Borsche, who spent his teenage years slapping graffiti onto trains in the early 90s to be seen by grey-suited businessmen on their morning commute, disagrees. “When you did graffiti on a train, and then the train came into the train station and all these people were looking at your work, some people really hated it and some people really liked it, but there was a reaction to what you were doing,” he says of his relationship to print media and what has helped shape his signature incongruous aesthetic.
We speak on a a bright, brisk Wednesday morning, at his studio near the river Isar. They are relatively tranquil surroundings, a far cry from bombing trains or even the fast-paced newsroom of a newspaper. Days here typically start around 10am, first with coffee, then emails. “A really ordinary normal office day,” as Borsche describes it matter of factly. “Some people have to repair cars or sell insurance. We have to have ideas, it's our job. Once you see it that way, it's not that stressful anymore actually.”
You studied graphics at Kingston University in London, having grown up in Munich. What sort of impact did that have on you?
It was the beginning of the 90s. 1992, so the beginning of all the rave culture in London. Bands like Orbital released their first records, also it was the beginning of trance music which isn't something you would listen to today, but at that time it was super famous. For me it was mind-blowing. I came out of Munich, which at that time was a very, very small city. London at that time was the biggest design capital in the world – except for maybe Amsterdam. For me it was really cool, speaking another language, going to other places...it was exciting. And pretty expensive.
I’ve read that graffiti had a big influence on your style and does to this day. Can you tell me a little bit about how these things formed your aesthetic sensibility?
I started doing graffiti back in '89. That was also the time in Germany when the movie Wild Style came out, and like two or three years before that Rock Steady Crew played their most famous breakdance song. I was a little kid but I really liked that kind of flashy colorful aesthetic. I thought it was super radical that you could see it on walls and trains. So that's how I started doing graffiti and then I ended up doing a lot of trains, a lot of walls. I did that for 20-25 years. I still paint sometimes.
You work with a host of magazines and publications – from small art titles to major weekly newspapers. What has always attracted you to the medium of magazines, and print and what do you enjoy about?
I think what I really enjoy about it is that it’s nearly the closest relationship to graffiti you can get. When you paint a train, and then the train came into the station and all these people were looking at your work and some people really hated it and some people really liked it, but there was a reaction to what you were doing. And that's the thing about print as well; if I’m sitting in an airport and everybody is reading Die Zeit, which I’m responsible for the art direction of, for me it's a really cool feeling, I really like that. That people are attracted to the things I’m doing, or to the products we are making, and that they somehow interact with the things we are doing. And that’s the difference to digital media, because I can’t really see that.
Your work has often pushed the boundaries of what some might consider good taste. Do you enjoy sort of challenging the reader and, to some extent, even pissing some people off with how you design?
[laughs] No, I really don't want to piss anyone off. I see it as challenging. We really love challenging people and I think it's very important. But the main reason I do this is because I really like entertaining people. I think graphic design can be super entertaining – it can be super boring as well. And to entertain someone you have to tease them a little bit. Maybe you have to annoy them a little bit, and sometimes maybe people don't like that too much. But I think if you do something that everybody likes or nobody really has an opinion about it’s maybe wrong. I think if you do work which is really interesting you will always have a few people who really hate what you're doing, and some people who really like what you're doing. I think that is the proper response to creative work in the end.
You also do a lot of branding projects. I’m sure you'll have seen that graphics which was widely shared about 2 or 3 months ago, which showed all the high fashion house logos that have changed in recent years, and how they now look the same. What is your take on that?
[laughs] I think basically maybe there's some fashion logos I wouldn't have changed, maybe there's some I would have changed. In the case of Balenciaga I would have changed the logo anyway because it was quite thin and very extended and in terms of social media, it was practically not usable anymore as a logo, so they needed something which was a little bit more bold.
The Balenciaga logo is an interesting one because at Kering, where Balenciaga is based, the typeface they use at the nearest the metro station is actually the typeface from the Balenciaga logo. It's one of the last metro stations in Paris that uses that typeface done by Adrian Frutiger in the late 60s. It's kind of Univers, but it's not really the Univers typeface. This guy, he is a Swiss guy, and Balenciaga also has its design office in Switzerland, so you have quite a good connection.
The Rimowa logo was even better because the logo they had beforehand, the one with the circle around it – everybody was like 'it was so unique, and it was so old, and had heritage and stuff'. I mean, that logo is from the late 80's so it doesn't really have a big heritage, but the logo we did is actually based upon one of the first Rimowa logos that ever existed, using a typeface called Akzidenz-Grotesk, which was shown first in Berlin in 1889 – the same year the Rimowa was founded in Cologne. It has a very close connection.
That for me makes a big difference, compared to the new appearance of Burberry because it’s just a Grotesk typeface somebody just chose in a discussion. That typeface doesn't have any heritage at all. I know it sounds super nerdy, and if you look at all these brands at the same time you could compare them. But if you see the two logos, we did those have a really big heritage behind it, it's not just the idea of changing a logo.
So many of these logos, and changes in design in general, seem too have come about because of how much we now use social media.
I think the basic problem of the whole thing is that everybody tries to generalize or reduce the brand information for social media. For all social media you need something that communicates what it is super-fast. We have a lot of brands calling us and every time you ask them 'do you have an idea of which direction your brand could go?' and every time they say 'maybe something like Rimowa or Balenciaga?’ [laughs]. We joked that maybe we can have a logo generator on our website where anybody can just PayPal us and make the logo themselves.
With Die Zeit, that’s regular, weekly work. Does that mean that you can never let your mind switch off from looking for new and interesting things? How do you maintain that ability to bring in stuff that's constantly fresh on such a regular basis?
I think in the end, I can do vacations yes, but even when I vacation I’m still available, I still have to work because it's weekly and there's things happening all the time. There are things changing inside of that magazine all the time. One of my interns was like, ‘how do you create ideas, how do you make ideas?’ There was a guy in repairing our toilet at the time. I was like, he doesn't have that thought – 'today I don't know how to do it.' So actually I think you have to just see it as normal work. You go there at nine, somehow leave at six or seven. Some people have to repair cars or sell insurance. We have to have ideas, it's our job. Once you see it that way, it's not that stressful anymore actually. If you view it as something you have to do anyway – and in a way that it’s like little fairies kissing you in the morning and then you have a brilliant idea – then it changes completely the way you see your job, and I think in that case it really releases you from stress.