But this is not to say that the pair don’t take themselves seriously. Craig and Karl have spent 20 years carefully crafting their own unique and instantly recognizable design language, working with clients such as Vogue, MTV, Converse and Nike and experimenting in just about every medium you can think of including illustration, fashion, installations, sculpture and music.
Despite now living on opposite sides of the world (Craig is based in New York and Karl in London) they still manage to collaborate daily on bigger and ever more ambitious projects. They even found the time to talk to us about everything from their aboriginal influences to the unwavering optimism that is a constant part of everything they do.
Let’s talk about your earlier days in Rinzen. You said it was hell for a long time. How would you compare the design scene in Australia as opposed to where you work now?Did you both feel you had to leave in order to “make” it?
KARL: [laughing] I don’t remember saying that. We loved growing up in Australia and the legacy of that plays a big part in who we are and the work we make. There’s definitely a great creative scene there, too, but it came to feel somewhat limited for us. The biggest difference between Australia and New York or London is a matter of scope and opportunity – there’s simply a lot more going on and more attention focused on it. Even though we worked internationally when we were with Rinzen, things opened up much more when we moved abroad. It wasn’t that we felt we had to leave to “make it” as such, more so a natural step in wanting to challenge ourselves and engage with the different cities and cultures that we’re in now.
Craig, you’ve mentioned a couple of times the influence of Aboriginal artists on your work, not something you hear in contemporary culture very much these days.
CRAIG: Perhaps it’s not something you hear often internationally but I’m sure plenty of Australian artists working today were influenced the same way. Actually, I saw a show of Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri’s last year at Salon 94, one of my favorite galleries here in New York, as well as a small show of Aboriginal artists at The Met a few years back, it was nice to see the work in a setting out of Australia, it became completely recontextualized and I started thinking about it in a whole different way. We use a lot of simple patterns in our work, and we’re often thinking about how we can tell a story with as few elements as possible – themes that aren’t dissimilar to Aboriginal art generally.
"A woman told me at an exhibition opening in Amsterdam that she hated my work because the colors were horrid. I was thrilled."
Craig on his favourite response to a piece of his work
You’ve worked from everyone from LVMH, Nike, and Apple. Dealing with such big clients, what does the word compromise mean to you both? Also how much of you as artists emerge in the process?
KARL: I think a lot of us, our personality and humour comes through in the work. As much as we’re conscious of developing a particular style or look, honing a unique point of view is very important to us. It’s something that we want to bring to everything that we do and it allows us to work on diverse projects while maintaining a consistent thread and tone. With commercial projects, an element of compromise is inevitable as we’re working with someone to reach a mutually agreeable outcome, though, it’s not necessarily comparative to the size of the client. Usually, we begin with a brief and a conversation to get a sense of what the objectives are, which hopefully gives us some pretty clear parameters. Within those parameters, though, we find there’s a lot of freedom to bring the project to life in a way that works for everyone involved.
Do you think design has to carry more than just style and prettiness, but a sense of politics within it?
KARL: It depends what it is I suppose. Sometimes the objective is purely formal. We do like there to be room for interpretation or multiple readings, though. Perhaps something that requires a second look. That’s probably something that we’re more conscious of during the creative process.
Have you learnt a lot about the world of commerce and retail through your work? Is it mutually beneficial?
CRAIG: It’s a constant learning process, there can be a big gulf between the commercial and creative words and we do our best to bridge the divide in a credible and interesting way. The two worlds operate in such different ways and you need to be respectful of that, one involves huge teams of people in many different departments making decisions, on the other side is Karl and I trying to embody something that appeals to everyone and looks great. We are enormously lucky that most of the projects we work on are people coming to us because they want us and because of that we get a lot of leeway to create whatever we want.
Craig you said once, “we’ve been trying really hard to develop our own specific visual language”. Where do you think you are on that journey so far together?
CRAIG: It’s one of those things that never stops. Every project, every year, our work creeps forward and twists and turns in different directions, it’s a slow evolution over the course of your whole lifetime. It’s the process of creating that triggers new ideas (I find it impossible to sit down with pencil and a blank sheet of paper and come up with something new), it’s the act of doing that forms new concepts and directions. Amongst that we do indeed try to evoke our own visual language, we want to be identified in a specific and unique way and we aim to do that by inserting constants into our work, those being bright colors, patterns, and our sense of humor.
What’s been the best response you’ve had from someone about your work?
CRAIG: A woman told me at an exhibition opening in Amsterdam that she hated my work because the colors were horrid. I was thrilled.
"Even if you do strike gold it doesn’t last long, it’ll disappear in your Instagram feed before you know it."
Craig on how soon his successes are forgotten.
What does a dream brief look like for both of you?
KARL: I guess it’s the things that are unusual and unexpected and maybe freak us out a bit. We love to do diverse things and put what we’re doing in a different context. It pushes things forward and opens us up to new possibilities. An example is For Eyes, a collection of sunglasses we did with Le Specs a few years ago now. We did everything from designing the sunglasses to creating the packaging and directing a photo shoot to promote it. It was great because we got to realise a complete vision and challenge ourselves to work in a new and unfamiliar format. They were also absolute dreamboats to work with, which helps a lot.
When an image takes on a life of its own, is that ever something you can anticipate? Do you have that instinctive feeling that a certain piece of work will really capture the imagination of the public?
CRAIG: Absolutely, when it comes to the work that we’ve created that really lasted out there, you can tell beforehand if it will stick. Or Karl will tell me that it’ll be a hit even if I can’t see it myself, and vice versa. It’s always work that is super simple and tells a clear and direct message in a really beautiful way. That’s hard to do of course and most of the time we don’t reach that level, it’s a rare piece that can hit all those marks at once. I suppose that’s what we’re striving for and why we constantly develop new work, it’s only through the process of creation and trial and error that you can begin to understand what works and what doesn’t. Even if you do strike gold it doesn’t last long, it’ll disappear in your Instagram feed before you know it.
From a sculpture depicting film director Michelangelo Antonioni, to working with the Bayerische Staatsoper and on a Barack Obama New York Magazine front cover, even toilet paper, it’s such an incredible wide variety of projects. How do you decide where your work is appropriate and in what format you should work?
KARL: We just take it as it comes and stay open to different possibilities. Usually it’s our interests that guide us. We also tend to treat everything the same way in terms of our process. Whether it’s a logo, an illustration or a large-scale sculpture, we approach it with the same mindset and figure out what looks and feels right for that outcome at that time.
From top left to right:
Sculpture Michelangelo Antonioni
OPTIMYSTIC – Fox International Channels, Guatemala City
Sweet As One Candy Carpet, China, 2015
Complete rebranding of Hong Kong department store i.t including tram
Your work is so distinctive, fresh, and more importantly optimistic. What are you like as people?
KARL: We’re probably a lot more cynical than the technicolor world of our work might suggest. We are optimistic, though, and our work is where we tend to focus those feelings – it’s the level we want to engage on for sure.
There is a genuine universality to the character Darcel, as well as an innocent humor. Were you surprised at the rapid success of the character?
CRAIG: There are two reason people respond to Darcel. The first is that he was picked up quickly (within the first six months) by Sarah from Colette. If Sarah says something is good then it is and people responded accordingly. I have been incredibly lucky to work with Colette for almost 10 years now which is crazy to say, and because of that amazing affiliation I’ve been able to work on some really insane projects and meet some interesting people. The second reason is that Darcel is relatable, he’s not a character that lives on a rainbow and has a unicorn for a best friend, he is a dour soul who gets lonely, lazy, disgruntled and pissed off with the world around him. It’s a very privileged position that he/I get to judge the world from and creating all the Darcel scenarios over the years has opened my eyes, Darcel has absolutely been an outlet for me to put really personal stuff out there and see how people react to it, for better or worse. Usually the more personal the better the response.
You’ve said your best advice Karl has been – “you can’t polish a turd.” Has the turd changed at all?
KARL: That actually came from a very good friend of mine who said, “you can’t polish a turd, but you can roll it in glitter,” which is even better and possibly more apt when thinking about what we do. Has it changed? I don’t know, a turd is still a turd, I guess. The trick is trying to avoid getting caught up in the turd dressing game in the first place. Sometimes that’s easier said than done.
"Karl and I are high/low culture kind-of-guys."
Do you ever see people like Kanye and just think, “Shit there is so much Karl and Craig popping out of his persona”, or is there a person that embodies the C&K philosophy?
CRAIG: I think because we did one portrait of him seven years ago that people think we’re intrinsically linked and that couldn’t be further from the truth. I suppose one person we continually reference and look up to is David Hockney. He is an absolute master of color, he embraces working in different mediums, he tells a clear story, and there is a simple cleanliness in the themes and subjects of his work, all things we relate or aspire to.
What the best thing a comedian has ever said?
CRAIG: “If you’re gonna reach for a star, reach for the lowest one you can.” Jerri Blank (Amy Sedaris).
Is there is some fundamental reason that you use a lot of reds, yellows and blues in your work?
KARL: I like to think we use all colors equally. There’s not necessarily a logical answer, though. It’s something that’s always been there. We attribute it to growing up in Australia in the 80’s and 90’s with the vibrant beach culture, Ken Done, etc. It was such a bold and brash environment and, visually-speaking, that’s the primordial soup that we crawled out of!
How often do you knock back clients?
KARL: Not all that often. Sometimes the project isn’t the right fit for us or we have too much going on. As it’s only the two of us working on projects, time becomes a factor and at a certain point we need to realise our limits. On the flip side, we tend to thrive when there’s lots happening and we work pretty quickly.
Craig, I keep reading that you’ve been trying to work with Crazy Frog for years. We actually interviewed the guy that invented it, Erik Wernquist. Who else would you both love to work with?
CRAIG: Amazing! He is a true inspiration. Karl and I are high/low culture kind-of-guys, the idea of doing something with Crazy Frog and the following project being a collaboration with Comme des Garçons is the kind of mix we are really into. I guess the comedy of the extremes is appealing, as well as a genuine affection for both.
It’s hard to isolate a specific place as it’s really just the experience of visiting the city. When we were at art college we were borderline obsessed with Japanese pop culture and it was the first place we visited after we started working and making some money. Over the years we’ve visited many times and it sparks endless amounts of joy.
A Bigger Splash - David Hockney
The hard geometry of the building and LA landscape in the background juxtaposed with the simplicity of the wonky splash in the foreground makes for a perfect painting. The chunky flesh/beige border is a treat too.