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Illustration Design



Cover: Beijing The New York Times (2008)



His work is digital, but looks handmade. Meet Amsterdam-based illustrator Kustaa Saksi from Finland: ‘Computer lines are always quite dead, hand drawn lines are alive.’

Kustaa, can you please introduce yourself? I’m a boy from Kouvola, a small village in eastern Finland, not too far from Helsinki. But there wasn’t much to do in Kouvola. Everybody with even a little bit of intelligence who grew up there wanted to escape the village as soon as possible. When I was a child I always dreamed of being an architect, but unfortunately I was so bad at mathematics that it was mission impossible, and I lost my way a bit. I was afraid I couldn’t do what I wanted. All my grades were fine, except in mathematics. So I decided to do the one particular thing that I am good at: drawing. I went to art school in Lahti (The Lahti Institute of Design) and started out with drawings for some T-shirts. That was at the time when the entire graphics industry moved from paper to computer. I’m thankful that the school invested a lot of money in new hard- and software. Of course the computers were slow and we used PhotoShop 1.5, but at least we learned how to work with computers from the start. And what did you do when you graduated?

Classic Swarovski (2007)

I never expected to become a full time illustrator. After school I worked for a year

as a graphic designer in a design office. I created corporate identities and other really classical graphic design work, but I soon realised it wasn’t the right job for me. Later I worked as an art director for a Finnish magazine, also just for one year. I liked that a lot because it was a more social job, I was able to work with many different people such as photographers, editors and graphic designers. But that was more about management than being creative. So in the end I decided I wanted to create more myself, to create my own little world, and I started working as an independent illustrator within the comfort of a creative collective in Helsinki. But now you’re based in Amsterdam. What happened? After working in Helsinki for some time, I really felt the need to work and live abroad. Finland is beautiful, but also boring. Not much happens there. And most people are not as kind as anywhere else in Europe. That is easily explained if you look at the weather in Finland. From September to May it’s cold and dark, so people get a bit depressed. So my girlfriend at that time (who was involved in the fashion industry) and I decided to move to Paris. We didn’t speak any French – so it was a bit like suicide – but it just felt logical for us to go there. And let’s be honest, I think every artist feels the urge to live in Paris. It has always been, and will always be, the place to be for creative people. It’s this romantic feeling the city evokes. And we had an absolutely great time. We planned to go there for six months, but in the end we stayed for four years.

What influence did your time in Paris have on your work? My girlfriend took me to all these fashion shows and introduced me to the world of patterns. Probably my pattern-like images are inspired by everything I saw in the fashion world of Paris. And, funnily enough, I started to draw mountains when I was in Paris. There’s no mountain in Paris, so I don’t know where that came from, but I just had a mountain theme going on at that time. It might look strange that I went to France when I was such a great fan of Dutch typography, but it just felt like I had to go to magical Paris first. After four years it was time to move to Amsterdam, where I found a great studio, right on top of an old chocolate factory. I’ve been here for three years now, and don’t feel the need to move again. Amsterdam is the city I’ll stay in for a while. I love the kindness of the people and the creative atmosphere on the streets. Everyday life is relaxing here. And since I have international clients and agents, it doesn’t really matter where I’m based. How would you describe your current work? I’m a one hundred percent image boy. I don’t like too much text, especially not in my images. When I draw I feel confident, but when I write I become insecure. Sometimes I try to include text in my work and every now and then it might look nice the first week, but later on I feel ashamed and can no longer appreciate it. And I like it when the images can speak for themselves.

Tree 55DSL (2008)

Lunarglide Nike Running (2009)

There is one successful job that includes texts, and that I’m proud of, but that was a collaboration with a copywriter. This was an ad campaign for Nike that included results of research into the differences between the men and women’s feet. We included texts like: “Did you know that a woman has a narrower heel and less mass in the heel pad than a man?” Or: “Did you know that a woman’s foot is more flexible than a man’s?” How long does it take you to complete an illustration? Are you easily satisfied or do you change it a million times? It depends on my mood. Sometimes it all goes extremely fast and well. But sometimes I have an inspiration-poor week and cannot draw at all. When this happens it’s not smart to keep trying. It’s better to go out and wander around the city hoping to find new inspiration. I don’t specifically search for inspiration in museums. Most of the time it’s better to just relax and do nothing. In my work I am a perfectionist, but in other aspects in life I could, and should, be more of a perfectionist. Your work is made on a computer but looks like it’s hand drawn. How is that possible?

Glamour Swarovski (2007) Next page: Sugar Assault Sticky (2008)

Since my teachers in art school told me how to draw with the computer, I use the computer all the time. But because I like the imperfection of hand drawn images, I use a digital pad and a pen. So I draw on my pad and save the digital document on my computer. It’s actually a new form of art, because you can no

longer speak of the original piece. The original piece is a digital document on my computer that I can print as often as I wish. The lines are hand drawn by me; the coloured surfaces are added in the computer. And most of the time I print on silkscreen paper in order to make it look even more like manual work, more human. Computer lines are always quite dead, hand-drawn lines are alive. And in my opinion small mistakes make the difference, and make everything look nice. Is it still art if there is no limit to the print run? I think illustration is now more or less similar to digital photography. You either choose to make just one piece or you decide to make a limited print run of, let’s say, twenty numbered pieces. But unfortunately illustration is still not a one hundred percent accepted art form. Old style galleries, for example, don’t want to represent illustrators. My type of art is more a pop-art kind of art and being represented by an old-fashion gallery doesn’t fit the image. A gallery that represents classical oil paintings will never show illustrations. The galleries I work with are a bit more underground or progressive. But I have the feeling things in the gallery world are changing as we speak. More and more artists use digital media to express themselves and gallery owners are slowly adapting to that. It was the same with photography in the past. That wasn’t considered an official art form in the beginning, but it’s completely accepted and respected worldwide nowadays.

Left: Captain Personal (2007) Hazes Personal (2008)

Top: Dead Calm Falter (2008) Left: Home Ghost Catskills Records (2007) Right: Herman Smoking Personal (2008)

Do you prefer exhibitions of free work or commercial work with a brief?

How does your work reach the customer?

I don’t really think like that, and never have. And there’s actually no real difference between the two. I don’t want to put people in boxes as a real artist or a commercial artist. If the commercial brief is interesting and challenging the job will be as exciting and creative as free work. As long as the brief is open and the art director is not too involved and demanding, I’m happy. Any creative person can be an artist. The old way of thinking is that artists should suffer (no money, no relationship, no decent apartment) in order to make art, and I think that perspective is completely out of date. But it’s hard to get rid of that old-fashioned idea, because it’s been around for such a long time. For me art is not about suffering, it’s about creation. Maybe some people might say it’s bad for your artistic career to do commercial work, but if it feels right an artist should do whatever job he can get. Also, in the end, we all need money to pay the bills.

Pretty soon after I started working as an independent illustrator I decided to work with Unit, a Dutch agency for creative people. They represent my work and commission international jobs for me. That was a huge help because at that time Finland was still a pretty isolated country; plus illustration was not as common as it is now. It would have been impossible to contact well-known magazines without the help of Unit. Later I added Dutch Uncle (an expression for someone who knows everything better) from London and recently Hugo and Marie from New York to my network of agents. Thanks to those three agencies I’m able to concentrate on the creative part of my work. They go and visit ad agencies, magazines and other creative companies to show my portfolio. I don’t like to sell myself, I am not very good at it and I am happy I don’t have to waste time doing that now. It’s also possible to enter competitions in order to get a job, but most of the time the work is boring because nobody dares to go to extremes. The work is always a concession.

Should we look at digital illustrations like we look at oil paintings?

Mosquitos Sticky (2008)

I think we should look at all images in the same way. With an eye for art, in a way. Everybody can look at images exactly as they want to. We can all look at an image the way we want, let the image speak to us and interpret it in our own way. And I’m not just talking about art as we know it, but about any image in the world. Take the images on Japanese or other Asian packaging, for example. I can very much appreciate the way they are made, even though it’s commercial. They can do really crazy things there.

For what kind of clients do you work? I try to do at least one personal exhibition per year to show my free work in order to discover what I really want to do and make. And besides that my agents arrange jobs for me for fashion brands like Levi’s, Issey Miyake, Nike, Diesel and Comme des Garçons. And I’ve also done a lot of illustrations for publications such as Playboy, Wallpaper and The New

York Times, and for music companies like MTV and Catskill Records. Most of the time the job is to hand in an illustration or pattern that can be used on shoes or clothes, but sometimes my work moves from 2D to 3D. For Nike, for example, I created a commercial but artistic looking installation to show the development of Nike’s running shoes over the past decades. I like all industries (fashion, publishing and music industry) equally. As long as the job is challenging I don’t care what kind of company it is. But at the moment I am working for US telecoms company AT&T and for Microsoft. I only hope it will not only be computer-related companies that contact me in the future. I also hope the fashion industry never stops contacting me. And if I ever get the chance to create the decor for Jennifer Lopez’s Just Sweet fashion brand again, and am able to meet her one more time, that will be amazing. I see three types of images in your portfolio – landscapes, patterns and characters. The patterns, as you said before, probably come from your time in Paris. But where do the landscapes and characters have their origin? It’s not that I did landscapes first, then patterns and then characters; I have always done all three. But I’m sure the mainly horizontal landscapes are based on the views I had in Finland when I was younger. You don’t have to try hard to recognise the Finnish wilderness – which is everywhere around when you’re in Finland – in my work, but I did change it drastically. I use brighter colours than Mother Nature,

probably to escape the greyish colours of the Finnish landscapes. And there’s always a contradiction in my work. It can be messy and clean at the same time, but also organic and abstract, happy and sad or art nouveau and pop art. There can be many bright colours in one drawing, but it’s often combined with a huge amount of blackness. And I really like to include some little twists. My patterns look quite classical from a distance, but take a closer look and you discover tiny jokes or unexpected images. Some time ago I made a normal looking pattern with crabs for a Parisian art magazine, but some of the crabs turn out to be playing a guitar if you look closely. I am also inspired by things other than nature and fashion. One of my more recent images is based on an icon of an Admiral I found in St. Petersburg. Do you think you will continue being an illustrator until you retire? I really, really hope so. And I know I will always do something visual, but maybe not full time all the time. Until now I still like everything I do. And as long as little things change I think I can be satisfied for a long time. Quite recently I made some characters that a friend of mine from London turned into 3D objects for the Heroes exhibition at Maxalot in Amsterdam. My friend used a rapid prototyping machine to create the objects. The first time I saw my computer renderings come to life was, in fact, an orgasmic experience for me. I’m determined to explore this field more in the near future.

Sea Pig's Night Out Husky Rescue (2007)

Top: Garden Havaianas (2008) Left: Lunarglide installations Nike Running (2009) Right: Birthday Cake Issey Miyake A-POC (2006)


PUBLICATIONS 01 CHRISTOPH NIEMANN Illustration 02 MICHEL MALLARD Creative Direction 03 FUN FACTORY Product Design 04 ANDREAS UEBELE Signage Design 05 HARRI PECCINOTTI Photography

2009 2009 2009 2010 2010

with Carrérotondes asbl MAPPING AUGUST. An Infographic Challenge 2010

PUBLISHER Design Friends COORDINATION Mike Koedinger, Silvano Vidale LAYOUT Guido Kröger INTERVIEW Merel Kokhuis PRINT Faber Imprimerie PRINT RUN 500 (Limited edition) ISBN 978-99959-625-7-9 PRICE 5 € DESIGN FRIENDS Association sans but lucratif (Luxembourg) BOARDMEMBERS Silvano Vidale (President) Arnaud Mouriamé (Vice-president) Nadine Clemens (Secretary) Heike Fries (Treasurer) Mike Koedinger (Boardmember)


This catalogue is published for Kustaa Saksi’s lecture at Mudam Luxembourg on November 17, 2010 organized by Design Friends.

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Kustaa Saksi  

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Kustaa Saksi  

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