Painting Mountains with Sonnenzimmer
From their innovative gig posters to their lush textural prints, the Chicago-based Sonnenzimmer has been redefining America’s printmaking landscape for several years now. Founded by Nicholas Butcher and Nadine Nakanishi in 2006, the studio has built a loyal following (Ghostly included) based on their dexterous use of color, abstraction, and typography.
To mark the occasion of “Berg Bild,” a series of limited edition silk screen prints designed and produced by Sonnenzimmer for Ghostly International, we asked Nick and Nadine a few questions about their practice and the inspiration behind the new work.
(Adapted from an interview taken October, 2011)
In one sentence, how would you describe Sonnenzimmer to someone on a subway platform (or, in your case, the “L”)?
Sometimes we joke and say we are an art factory. But the truth is that we are a commercial graphic artist studio specializing in posters and publication design.
How do Chicago’s music and art scenes feed into your work as Sonnenzimmer?
Immensely. Nadine and I both ended up here because of the art and culture coming out of this region. We are consistently blown away by the legacy of this city, everything from free jazz to house music, to the Chicago Imagists. And then there’s Chicago today, which is exploding with activity. Early on as a studio we found a unique pairing with the city’s free jazz and improvised music scene which gave us tons of room to explore visual solutions not normally associated with posters or commercial art.
Individual musicians in the improvised music scene such as Tim Daisy, Mike Reed, Steven Hess, Brian Labcyz, Josh Berman, and Jason Roebke were very supportive of our imagery and approach early on, and they supported us through numerous jobs enabling us to create the commercial portfolio based on abstraction. These artists are fundamental contributors to our story and helped us find confidence and develop our style which we would eventually apply to more widely known institutions like The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the University of Chicago, for example.
What are the most gratifying and the most difficult aspects of working together in the studio?
The most gratifying aspect of working together is when we can seamlessly feed off of one another and come to a conclusion that is outside of either of our comfort zones or perceived skill sets. When
1 +1 = 3, basically. We are very different people and navigating our visual tendencies, influences, and working methods can be a huge challenge. It’s not always easy. It becomes hard to have ownership over certain things when you are always collaborating, and we tend to fall into comfortable rolls rather than challenging ourselves with things that don’t come easy to us as individuals.
As both artists and designers, do you make any distinction between commissioned work and work you create on your own?
Not really. The audience is always the biggest consideration, outside of challenging ourselves. For client work, the audience includes both the client and their audience. For personal work, it really just means a smaller audience and a few less considerations. Both have their merits and can result in interesting solutions. Regardless of the project, either personal or commercial. It’s important to strike a balance between managing expectations and completely disregarding them. For instance, it’s vital to take a project seriously, but not to let that stifle creativity and open ended solution finding. That is so easy to forget.
For your latest print series for Ghostly, you were given absolute freedom to create whatever you wanted. How did you set upon a direction and how do you feel about the results?
The world is a bottomless well of inspiration, and when the opportunity arises to dip our transparent dream buckets into that well, who knows what will come out! These commissioned prints came about at a time when we were returning from a trip to Switzerland to visit Nadine’s mom. While there, I stumbled onto a book of posters by Swiss poster artist, Niklaus Troxler. His simple, form-driven jazz posters really got us thinking differently about how we approach images and the screen printing method. There is definitely some Troxler in these prints.
Swiss inspiration didn’t stop there. Nadine and I have a huge soft spot for landscape painting, especially mountain painting. Over the years, we’ve both become infatuated with idea of becoming landscape painters. There are definitely some mountains in these prints.
Finally, while working one these prints we were simultaneously working on a collaborative print series with a really amazing local printmaker named Alex Valentine. Both Alex and we are treading a similar path, merging abstraction with graphic art, but he uses a much more pop influenced language and color pallet. I definitely see traces of Mr. Valentine in these prints!
Nadine and I couldn’t be happier with how these turned out. These prints mark a shift in our work and that always feels great.