Berger & Föhr detail the ever-evolving relationship between graphic design and art in their practice
Berger & Föhr is the ever-evolving art and design practice that brings together the seemingly intertwined minds of Todd Berger and Lucian Föhr. Set in motion after a random meeting in Colorado in 2002, the duo have worked together ever since; producing systematic visual identities alongside a critical and conceptual approach to art. We caught up with them to deep dive into their practice.
EM Hey guys! How are you?
B&F We’re really good. We feel lucky. We’ve been able to parlay pandemic-life into a highly productive time on both the graphic design and art fronts. Staying sane these days can be tricky, but our work enables us to remain pretty grounded. While dark on so many levels, the past year has been inspirational. There’s so much belated, long-coming change afoot. We’re sceptically hopeful and newly excited about the future.
Conceptually, theoretically, and practically, the work has grown richer and more meaningful.
EM How has your work changed since you met back in 2002?
B&F Our whole practice is deeper. Conceptually, theoretically, and practically, the work has grown richer and more meaningful. We’ve gained so much experience and learned lots of tough lessons along our path. There have been many ‘failures,’ but quite a few successes too. It’s important to us to properly take our lickings, process the learnings and always remain positive and optimistic about what’s to come.
While our work remains rooted in its founding principles, an emphasis on simple geometry, intensive use of grid-based systems, a propensity for grotesque typefaces, limited but strong use of colour, and disparate open compositions, it’s evolving and changing with the times.
On the graphic design and identity front, we’re creating much more complex, dynamic systems. We’re thinking more about flexibility, variability, and adaptation over time. In years past, we viewed identity as a relatively fixed thing. That’s no longer the case. On the physical side of our art practice, we’re exploring new materials, mediums, methods, and scale. We’re also embracing a looser, more gestural, expressionistic aim that’s absent from our client/consumer-facing graphic identity work. There’s a lot of ole’ fashioned graphic design happening too, mainly aimed at being output as screen prints.
On the digital side of our art practice, there’s the newly emerging NFT space, predominantly driven by propriety and direct-to-consumer sales. Conceptually, it’s an inspiring space. There’s lots of room to bridge contemporary graphic design with both old and new digital tools and mediums. Transactionally, it’s exciting to be playing in such an aspirationally decentralised arena. Cryptocurrency feels like a piece of the financial future, so we’ve embraced it. We’re experimenting with a handful of new concepts and developing frameworks to translate previously unachievable analogue ideas into appropriately contextualised digital artworks.
EM Despite meeting in 2002, Berger & Föhr didn’t actually form officially until 2010, right? So what were you up to for those eight years?
B&F That’s correct. For the most part, we were establishing our footing in the commercial graphic design space while testing the waters with a fledgeling art practice. We’ll attempt to condense our history to add some perspective.
We met randomly in the middle of a downtown Boulder, Colorado street eighteen years ago, and we’ve been working side x side, shoulder-to-shoulder ever since, at least up until the pandemic hit, when we went remote. It might sound odd, but over those eighteen years, rarely, if ever, has a day passed where we’re not conspiring towards some graphic design or art-centric end.
We’re both self-taught. Very early on, we established a working design and art curriculum to better pursue and inform our craft. Shortly after meeting, we shuttered Todd’s first web design studio to open a new, more full-service boutique brand design agency called Cypher13. We did this in tandem with launching a house streetwear/art brand, multi-editor global blog, and an art gallery/event space called JoyEngine. We ran those two synergistic entities out of the same physical space (gallery in front/agency in back) until roughly 2010.
Most of the Cypher13/JoyEngine time was spent developing our approach to visual identity and interactive projects while promoting art and artists and selling our work and wares. We worked with all sorts of organisations, focusing predominantly on larger, more corporate entities (Fortune 100-500 brands). This, perhaps naively, felt like the thing to do, and we had to cover our increased overhead. At our apex, we had an agency team of a dozen and four employees on the gallery/brand side. It was a lot of fun, crazy at times, and a beast to manage.
By late 2008-ish, it became evident that we not only wanted to downsize but desired to work in a smaller studio environment, on a more interpersonal scale, centred around the two of us and like-minded clients/collaborators. There was just too much happening between the two entities. Having made art together since initially meeting, it became clear that art-making would play a more central role in our practice moving forward. We’ve been operating Berger & Föhr as a dual graphic design and art practice since 2010.
From its inception, Berger & Föhr has maintained a strict identity design practice w/ an emphasis on art-making. Strict in the sense that we only engage in graphic design commissions requiring identity or identity system design. By default, this constraint limits us to working with new organisations or entities seeking to re-identify or rebrand. It’s a healthy constraint. We conceive and plan art projects and integrate them into our planning cycle, very much akin to B&F client projects.
2013 was an informative year in our history. The studio was in a good groove. We were balancing graphic design and art at nearly the level we’d been aspiring to when we veered a bit off-course in conceiving Ello. Up to that point, we’d worked with so many startups and had been around so much fund-raising and all the associated startup shit, we thought we had it figured out. We envisioned turning a conceptual studio project into a product and making a meaningful impact. We had a handful of divergent, culturally-significant ideas related to social media, particularly for the time. The moment felt ripe for us to create a better community platform for artists and designers like ourselves, so we went for it.
Long story short, Ello was a wildly exciting and frequently challenging chapter in our studio history, occupying nearly five years. Coincidentally, we were so overwhelmed and existentially frustrated by the whole experience that we were unable to bring ourselves to make any art from 2013 to 2018. While heads down, grinding it out and working hard to help other creatives connect and build their careers, we had utterly lost our balance.
In 2018 we helped sell Ello and returned to studio life with a renewed vigour. We came back extra-inspired and took aggressive steps towards rebalancing. We committed to practising both graphic design and art daily – at least on some level. We’re now three-plus years into this refreshed cycle. We’re stoked, energised, and feeling very fortunate.
EM Why do you think you’ve both been able to maintain such a close and consistent working relationship over the years?
B&F Commitment, respect, and the immediate recognition of our compatibility. We’re both the kind of people that when we commit, we fucking commit. As individuals, designers, and artists, we have a great deal of respect for one another. This is something that’s only been strengthened with time. It doesn’t mean we don’t have our battles. We do, but they’re grounded in a commitment to our practice. From the get-go, it was clear that we each had a lot to offer one another, and that’s held true.
Around 2008 we began exploring the idea of deepening our commitment, fueled by the concept of working as ‘one’ and focusing on shared-authorship across both our graphic design and art practices. By 2009 we’d settled on the idea of being a duo for the long-term. We formalised this thinking in founding B&F in 2010. We intend to push forward in this fashion and see where our path leads. We’ve experienced few things better in this world than a fully reliable creative partner.
TBI How do you strike a balance between Berger & Föhr, the graphic design studio, and Berger & Föhr, the art practice?
B&F The balance is tricky to strike but rewarding to pursue. We oscillate between graphic design and art fluidly. The two disciplines live at the centre of a sort of cybernetic practice and studio-born dialectic that propels us forward. The graphic design and identity work inform the art; the art informs the graphic design. It’s a self-perpetuating system.
Client graphic design commissions, identity work specifically, drive the studio’s commercial side and fund the art practice. The art is inspired and informed by our identity practice while recursively informing it. On any given day, graphic design and art are happening. Sometimes, it’s all commercial in the form of commissions on both sides of the art/design fence. At other times it’s all conceptual and exploratory, with the intent of discovering new territory.
EM Creating visual identities and creating artworks. How different in the process are they?
B&F Visual identity design and art-making are very much the same to us. Both require a similar sort of original, independent thinking to create works capable of standing on their own. We see the two disciplines as both mutualistic and symbiotic, serving as the pillars of our studio. This perspective results in what we view as a dualistic and simultaneously flattened creative practice.
We employ the same processes for making art that we do for creating identities. With commercial graphic design, we always begin with a brief. In the case of art, it’s often more of a hypothesis. This initial framing is followed by research and discovery, strategy and planning (to varying extents), and design and production, which sometimes involves partners and collaboration. The early conceptual, research, discovery, and planning stages of the process are almost identical for graphic identity design projects and artworks. In the later production-oriented stages, our approaches and methods diverge, yielding more discipline-distinct, nuanced outcomes.
Conceptually, our graphic design practice is very objective. Everything is considered from a measured, rational perspective to meet a given goal or series of client objectives. Our art practice borrows from this desire for objectivity but allows for and supports the introduction of more subjective thought. It’s more personal and centred around questioning the very nature of what is and isn’t accepted or acceptable. In many ways, It’s our means of confronting, challenging, and critiquing the status quo.
While we see our graphic design practice as somewhat meta, we consider our art practice more meta-recursive. Meaning, the artworks we make strive to not only question themselves on a multitude of levels but to question their very existence and their relation to our other work. The intent is to prompt a more profound conversation between the content and context of the work itself. It’s not the same with graphic identity. With identity, we’re focused on categorical definition and creating vessels for emotional attachment. The ultimate aim of identity is a special kind of resonance capable of prompting a distinct sense of belonging.
As a result, we work a lot. If you can call it that.
EM How do you manage the time between both practices? Are you picky in which clients you work with on the graphic design side to allow time to dedicate to art?
B&F Somewhat delicately. As a result, we work a lot. If you can call it that. And, while it is all ‘work,’ there’s inherently lots of room for play in both practices – which keeps the studio feeling fresh.
Yes, we are a bit picky in choosing our clients, and selecting the ‘right’ clients is very important. It’s what enables us to balance both practices and maintain our enthusiasm. When we fail at client selection, something we’ve learned mainly how to avoid, we risk losing the balance. We got to know Massimo Vignelli near the end of his life, and he said something to us once that very much informs our approach to client selection, “Good clients bring better clients. Bad clients bring worse clients. Choose your clients wisely.”
In terms of actually managing our time, it’s pretty straightforward. Monday-Friday, we start with an hour or more of planning. We use this time to check-in with one another on all of our client-facing and art-related initiatives. We prep for what, where, and how we’ll collaborate and recalibrate as needed. We maintain our calendars in a combinatorial way, according to daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly cycles, to ensure we’re delivering on time and taking care of ourselves. Client-side graphic design commissions take precedence, and art gets scheduled around client work. We have to stay on our game to be efficient and effective while managing both sides.
EM Do you create both in the same workspace?
B&F Since COVID, we’ve been working in an evolving sort of graphic design/art metaverse. We have a handful of studio spaces. Our downtown graphic design studio is typical of what most probably envision when they think ‘graphic design studio,’ but it supports some art-making. We have a workshop and a larger, dedicated art studio at Lucian’s home, which is coincidentally a pyramid. And Todd has a small workshop/art studio at his house up in the mountains.
Similarly, we each have dedicated graphic design spaces at home. The same goes for Nicholas Cai, the studio’s graphic design associate/art assistant. For now, we’re almost entirely remote. Our graphic design is currently created independently, with collaboration happening explicitly across digital communication and design software platforms. While much of our art is born digitally, production is very much analogue, requiring both sets of our hands. So, we need to be together to complete physical works in the art studio. We have several collaborators (fabricators, printers, framers, etc.), and we typically have work in various production states off-site.
We like our spaces to feel alive.
EM Do you work better in a messy or tidy studio space?
B&F Tidy. No question. But not necessarily sterile. We like our spaces to feel alive. We believe one’s workspace to be an essential and limiting/enabling factor in one’s output. Particularly for creative types. The embodied energy of a space, coupled with the tools and resources available, dictates the output potential.
EM Do you have different commercial motivations between the two?
B&F Yes and no. We view our studio as equally commercial and conceptual. Client-driven visual identity systems are the studio’s primary revenue source, so currently, they’re inherently more commercial than our artworks. Being said, we produce a high volume of purely conceptual graphic design. By and large, we see our artwork as more conceptually abstract than our identity work, but with similarly commercial ends. Meaning, it’s all for sale, and we do sell work regularly. The recent rise of NFTs has brought a new, more commercial focus to our digital art, and while not massive, the added revenue has been a bonus.
Ultimately, our aim is for the practice to arrive at a place where half of our income comes from graphic design and the other half from art-making. We’re iterating our way towards this goal. The ratio of art sales to graphic design sales is steadily increasing annually. Amazingly, it all seems to be working.
EM Is there a piece of work from either side of the practice that you feel particularly represents the direction you’re heading?
B&F Yes, there are works on both sides. We consider the visual identity system we designed for the ATLAS Institute at the University of Colorado, Boulder, to be evocative of where we’re headed and representative of the sort of dynamic, adaptable identity work we aspire to do more of. The ATLAS team challenged and empowered us to create a system to support genuinely radical, multi-disciplinary thinking and practice. We’re thankful for the opportunity and the trust placed in us.
In art-land, our Reality is Subjective (RIS) series of works on mirrors is a strong translation of our meta-recursive, gestalt-based thinking and approach. The completed works communicate ephemerality and permanence simultaneously while reinforcing the notion that nothing is as straightforward as it seems. The creation of these works is directly analogous to their finished state, in that we make them somewhat blindly. While very much planned, the mediums we use to obfuscate the mirrored surfaces go on opaque and only upon drying become translucent. So, when making the work, we’re very much uncertain of where we’re going to arrive. And even upon completion, when a viewer engages with the work, no two experiences are ever quite the same.
When we consider our practice as a whole, we try to put forth the same thinking and layered narrative we bring to ATLAS and RIS. Specifically, a central idea, surrounded by a constellation of supporting arguments, activities, and ultimately works. All in various stages of development, from differing but related vantage points, orbiting around, extending, informing, and influencing that central idea.
EM What do you love about living and working in Boulder?
B&F If you’re into nature, and we are – Boulder, Colorado can be magical. We love the urban/outdoor dichotomy. We’re mountain people requiring a good dose of solitude, so we’ve taken to living on the periphery of town. This approach enables us to drop into the city and then retreat to our more isolated homes. Graphic design and art aside, we have lots of interests we’re nearly equivalently passionate about, from mountain biking to dirt bikes, fly-fishing to climbing, and all sorts of other outdoor activities that Boulder affords.
We live in a super liberal, open-minded place with lots of arty, atypical people, so we blend right in with little stigma. The counter to all of this is that we arguably blend in too easily. Boulder’s not an exceptionally ethnic or culturally diverse place, so we have to seek that sort of inspiration elsewhere. In terms of striking an urban/outdoor balance within a community that supports free, out-of-the-box thinking, we’re in a pretty good spot.
EM You mentioned earlier your long-standing affinity for grotesque sans serifs. What’s your favourite?
B&F Neue Haas Grotesk, technically a neo-grotesque. To date, we’d consider it our house font. We find it beautiful but love it for its inherent range, rationality, neutrality, and ubiquitousness. We’re big Helvetica fans, but a lot was lost in translation when Helvetica went digital. We appreciate the optical sizes of NHG at both the super small and large ends of the spectrum, and the obliques are a sight for sore eyes, whereas Helvetica’s obliques are simply skewed versions of the uprights. The alternate characters are very pleasing, particularly the capital R, which we employ regularly. The nuanced letter spacing and enhanced numerics make it a joy to typeset.
As an aside, we’re currently working with James Edmondson at OH no Type Company on a pair of new house fonts, explicitly for use in type-based artworks. So, there will be some new/old looks and feels coming from the studio typographically.
EM What is something you’d like to do, but haven’t yet found the time or figured out how?
B&F We want to go super big in terms of scale on both the graphic design and art fronts. We appreciate the challenges of working at scale and the conceptual impacts. In 2009 we produced a sizable typographic mural, and we’d like to extend the intention we brought to that work. Regarding brand identity, this involves securing the right client, historically a transport company, but lots of organisations can benefit from scale today. We’re currently a bit limited by our studio size on the art side, but we’re beginning to scale up our prints and paintings nonetheless.
While the impacts of scale on the human psyche aren’t easy to quantify, it’s hard to argue that the effects are real. When visual work exceeds human proportion and moves into the realm of monumental scale, we experience both our sense of self and our surroundings in new ways. A much more powerful, almost spiritual context is manifest. We like this sensibility and think our work lends itself to such thinking.