Ateljé Altmann on working with Acne Studios, building relationships, and the 'new Helvetica'
Working across visual identity, packaging, editorial and environmental design for the likes of Acne Studios and Hermès, Christian Altmann and his Stockholm-based design studio Ateljé Altmann possess a certain knack for elegant simplicity and characterful minimalism. We had a chat with Christian himself to learn more about his two decades plus in the industry.
EM How are you Christian?
CA I am fine, thanks Elliott.
EM With more than two decades of experience behind you, there must have been some steep challenges along the way. What has been the most eye-opening?
CA 25 years to be exact, and counting… when I started the studio back in 2009, I had 13 years of working for others after I finished my studies in Basel. The financial crisis in 09 made me make the jump to self-employment, which was a blessing, in fact, finally being free from people above me making decisions, creatively or financially. Sure, it was challenging to build up a studio portfolio and making ends meet at the same time, but my wife had a steady job, and we lived small, together with our newly-born first kid. Parallel to the studio work, I was taking on teaching commissions, which covered some expenses as well as gave me the possibility to pick the young talents directly from the design schools to help to build our graphic portfolio. Slowly but surely, we built a client base that came through old contacts and collaborators that transferred to new relationships and so on. I guess the most eye-opening thing about the last 25 years was that building relationships with collaborators and clients is far more important and valuable than creating our own visual DNA.
EM And what’s been key to maintaining those relationships?
CA The key is to treat them like you would like to be treated.
The key is to treat them like you would like to be treated.
EM As a studio that’s thrived before the time of social media, how has its rise to prominence affected the way you operate, if at all?
CA Of course, Facebook and Instagram helped us to spread our work to a wider audience. And by now, we only use Instagram (apart from our website) to publicise work or current progress about our studio’s work. So, yes, social media has, of course, a major impact on getting our work out there.
EM How much time and care do you spend on curating your Instagram page? As much as your website?
CA After every printed project, we commission our friend still life photographer Christoffer Dalkarls to shoot it. He brings that special crisp photographic and compository style to it that make our projects look amazing.
EM Can you tell us more about your relationship with Acne Studios?
CA Around 2011, I was asked by then Art Director Johannes Svartholm to join the Acne Paper team headed by Editor-in-chief and Creative Director Thomas Persson to establish the editorial design for Acne Paper no.10 to no.15. Over the years, I became involved in more projects from books to signage to packaging etc. Then we had a break after Johannes left AS and moved to New York. But connected again in the more recent years, when Jonny [Johansson] asked us to help him with the new wordmark.
EM What was the brief given to you for the new wordmark?
CA Jonny wanted it to be more simple and brutal in a way. Away from the two-liner that always complicated application issues on different media platforms. More towards a one-liner that didn’t need explaining as Acne Studios by then has established itself on all major markets. After researching different fonts, we discovered soon that the only way forward is to ‘modernise’ the current wordmark, and to refine all letters, to make it tighter, stronger, quirkier, as well as adding ‘punk’ to it. Jonny followed the process tightly and was heavily involved in making the right creative decisions, so thanks to him and his team, it came out the way it is now, and we love it. This project was done together with Jonny Johansson, Karl Bolander, Tom Speirs, Lotta Nilsson and Ida Walle on the client’s side and Henrik Stelzer and me on behalf of Ateljé Altmann.
EM What do you enjoy about working with contemporary and high-end clothing brands?
CA The brands I am involved in understand the nerdy scientific approach to a graphic or typographic process where the client respects the designer’s position, that I really enjoy. And, it’s always a person behind the brand. If the person/client disrespects that relationship, I get bored and drop out sooner or later.
I always wanted to create our own studio typeface.
EM What makes Altmann Grotesk the ‘new Helvetica?’
CA Altmann Grotesk is a dream come true. I always wanted to create our own studio typeface. And after type designer Janik Sandbothe joined the team, it was clear to me that he was the right designer to take on such a project. Altmann Grotesk should become a working font that is as clean as Univers but as humanistic in its formal language as, for example, Frutiger, that was my brief. We started calling it the ‘new Helvetica’ because we were tired of the current Helvetica and just thought Altmann Grotesk has so much potential that it definitely can become the ‘new Helvetica’ someday. Well, time will tell.
EM What did Janik bring to the table to take the typeface from idea to reality?
CA Janik has the skills and mindset as a type designer. He is not just a ‘maker’, but even has the understanding of quickly evaluating and translating new ideas or details into the constant process of establishing an alphabet. Apart from AG, he is now in charge of all client-based custom-font projects that have become a big part of our service.
EM Do you have a favourite application of the typeface so far?
CA Altmann Grotesk can be used for everything from corporate identities to editorial projects, from packaging design to navigational information. So no, I don’t have a favourite application, but that is the beauty of it.
EM What’s special about Stockholm as a city to work in?
CA After working for many years in Munich, New York and London, Stockholm had the perfect balance between big city vibes and small-town mentality. Of course, Stockholm is a small town compared to the others named above, but life here is more balanced and relaxed, which makes me as a designer more in tune with my work.
EM As the founder and Creative Director of the studio, how much time are you able to actually dedicate to design itself?
CA Haha, good question. The answer is, a lot. As we are a small studio (btw. 1-3 people, which varies depending on workflow etc), on the one hand, I am the jack of all trades (dealing with all normal company stuff); on the other hand, I take my time to design.