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This duo envisions a new balance.
Friday Jul 29, 2011.     By Jeff D. Min
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

While their education may come from different ends of the world, Nick Butcher and Nadine Nakanishi of Sonnenzimmer, have bridged an aesthetic gap here in Chicago, one that meticulously unionizes theories on balance and abstraction. Most may recognize their work from various gig posters and the quality speaks for itself as their reputation has grown steadily over the past few years. Artists and musicians like Mouse On Mars, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, The Radio Dept., Neko Case, Plastic Paper (an animation fest held in Winnipeg), and Typeforce (a typography showcase) just to name a few, have all tapped into the Sonnenzimmer ethos. The harmony created in their projectsófrom posters and publications to fine artóis striking, and the understated imagery and ubiquitous frame of reference make for a vivid viewing experience. As a collaborative duo Nick and Nadine have introduced engaging dialogue to the art community in Chicago, and the ensuing conversation continues to carry them in new more challenging directions. Both Nick and Nadine were kind enough to take time out of their busy schedule, which includes a project at the MCA (see interview), to talk about their process and how Sonnenzimmer is fearlessly moving forward.

Your work embraces the abstraction of shapes, which isnít common practice especially for literal-minded gig-posters. What led you down that route?
Nick Butcher: I think the introduction of abstraction into our work was a natural extension of just being invested in a medium. Nadine and I both started out making figurative posters, but, for me, I became bored with the limitations. This initially led me to try my hand at painting, which broke my mind and opened up my whole world. The freedom and directness of the painting was perfect for exploring abstraction: form, texture, color. This eventually found its way back in to the rock posters I was making. When Nadine and I started working together our aesthetics mingled and we developed the hybrid style we have now, which borrows from painting, illustration, design, and abstraction.

Nadine Nakanishi: Partially, it was the frustration to not be able to illustrate the right kind of mood for the psychological make-up for the music through representational drawing. Partially, because I wanted to see graphic art like that of Pink Flyod and that of Sun Ra have space. There was an unspoken challenge out there to be proven wrong, namely how far could we push our imagery in a conservative environment. It turned out that the rock poster environment is a lot more liberal and supportive then we ever imagined it could be.

Balance is also a major part of your work, whatís the process like for you in terms of reconciling abstraction and balance?
NB: Balance is crucial to me and my interaction with images. Itís a very intuitive process. You actually FEEL where thereís something missing. To be honest, balancing an abstract image is much easier than a figure based composition, all you have to do is add another shape or blob! Donít forget too that we are mostly dealing with posters, so there is always a text element involved in the piece. The great thing about posters is that you can have a halfway decent type solution and a halfway decent image and that can make a GREAT poster.

NN: To master those two factors is central for any project and we donít always succeed. Because within abstraction lies a certain inherent dualism that needs to be covered to be able to communicate the inner and outer logic of an image and cognitive ideas around it. We balance it through being able to navigate two expectations of an idea. That usually means a concept that has to get carried through a formal execution. This approach also means straddling two different individuals with two totally different ideas for images. Luckily, Nick represents the intuitive idea part, I question that through logic and methodology and in between this back-and-forth, we hopefully find the answer to this.

Is there a direct line of association that you try and draw with the musicians being featured on your posters and the images being constructed?
NB: Most definitely. Nadine and I both spend time listening to the music of the artist hiring us. A lot of times we are already fans, which is really great. From there we try to lock down a mood for the piece and do some free association of a style to work. For example, Trapper Keeper meets Japanese woodblock prints meets Bauhaus. The approach is intuitive, but it comes from a place directly connected to the music.

NN: For sure. We do that a lot. I believe in constructing this three second precognitive ambient window wherein the images unfold for the viewer. The interpretation of that is different for everyone though. Something that is counterproductive for strict communication design, but great when you are communicating a discipline like music. After all music, is a bit holy. But we also have other modes we work in, more traditional thumbnail sketching, research etc. It depends on how much freedom we allow ourselves to explore in and the project demand.

You both studied at university, looking back on it, what were some of the learning curves you experienced going from student to professional?
NB: Great question. For me college in no way prepared me for the amount of work you have to put in to do the ďworkĒ. Creating the art and designing projects is only 20% of the job. The rest is just like running any other service based business: quoting, invoicing, research, managing materials, maintaining equipment, hunting for projects, projecting budgets, fund raising. We could be selling banana bread. Our days wouldnít be much different. Except for a couple of hours a day we can draw, instead of bake.

NN: It was stripping myself down from any false expectation and understanding of entitlement. Opening up to the fact that nobody would care about what I did and yet, I had to find a way to make it count for myself. The best epiphany has been is that being prolific in public, is your best chance to have a stab at anything. That activity doesnít know any boundaries of insider clubs, boys clubs, rich people, popularity contests, whoís who lists. Itís a very honest place and healthy place for work and tears any false expectations down. But I never did think that making art is not about making art, in terms of time management.

How did Sonnenzimmer come about?
NB: Nadine and I both interned at two adjoining businesses in the early 2000ís. Her at Punk Planet magazine and myself at The Bird Machine, Jay Ryanís poster shop. We had both come from our respective homes Switzerland (Nadine) and Tennessee (Nick) to work under two incredibly active and generous individuals, Jay Ryan and Dan Sinker. They were sharing a space at the time, Nadine and I hit it off immediately. Nadine moved here once she finished her degree. We both printed out of the Bird Machine for a while, but Jay really started to take off with art commissions. Nadine and I both had painting studios at the time and started playing around with the idea of combining our efforts to set up a small print shop/painting studio together. Around the same time a big stack of really fancy screen printing equipment fell in our laps. We literally dove in head first. Bought the equipment, found a space, and never looked back. We had no intentions of starting a business really, but poster jobs started to come in here and there. So we started to press for more work. After three years of this being a part time endeavor, we both managed to get here full- time.

Chicago, and its pool of artists and musicians, fosters a really productive DIY community. How does that factor into the way Sonnenzimmer operates?
NB: This is the community that produced us and sustains us. We literally feed off it, producing posters, music packaging, t-shirt designs for artists, musicians, and other designers. We are also heavily involved in many avenues of the broader community. We founded the Chicago Printers Guild, which is a non-profit organization whose mission is to link printmakers with one another via our monthly meetings and to push printmaking here in the city. We love attending local events and do our best to support our friends whenever we can. So itís a give and a take, I guess.

NN: Itís been huge for us to be in this city and region. People think the Midwest is conservative. I cannot disagree more. It bears a strong cradle for entrepreneurs. This is where manufacturing happens. This is where you have to cut out the middle man if you want to survive in the center of a continent. And so therefore, if you donít want to be the middle man, you have to get down in the ditch, roll up your sleeves and figure it out. Weíve been very lucky to be in this region, in this city, where thereís a deep rooted workmanship. Itís great for people who believe in work and the value in that. Itís been a fortunate and fruitful factor for us, as we love the applied arts, which is all about working and applying it. Music has much of the same core. You gotta get in there, cut out the middle man, and work for workís sake. That is the foundation you put down.

Who are some of the artists here in the city that motivate and inspire you?
NB: Ryan Duggan, Ryan Kapp, Mat Daly, Jay Ryan, Dan Grzeca, Keith Herzik, Anders Nilsen, Dan MacAdam, Diana Sudyka, Rachel Niffenegger, and a bunch of others too!

NN: The above and: The Postfamily, Cody Hudson, Caroline Picard, Angee Lennard, Lilli Carrie, Laura Park, Jeremy Tinder, Rick Valicenti, Alexander Stewart, Kerry James Marshall, Mike Reed, Jason Adasiewicz, Tim Daisy, Jason Roebke, Josh Berman, Kathleen Judge, Justin Santora, Chris Kerr, Ryan Kapp to name a few (listed not in any particular order).

A question for Nick: How closely related is the process of making music (as well as instruments) similar to the process of creating images? Are there any?
NB: For me the intuition that goes into making music and making art come from the same part of the brain. Itís about following my gut. Sometimes ideas pop into my head that can be both translated in image and sound. In some ways I construct images in a similar fashion as I do in music; using fragments of longer pieces, to create something that ďfitsĒ together. The two though are fundamentally different, in that music is fleeting and images have more of a permanence. I love this aspect of both mediums.

A question for Nadine: Formal Additive Programs shares insight into your process, why divulge that information?
NN: Itís not per se my absolute process, but it really demonstrates some of the pending back-and-forth I go through to get in touch with a subject. I made the book because I felt many people donít value abstraction and the potential behind it. That itís not about abstraction but the intersection between abstraction and representation. That itís not an arbitrary lazy place for minimalism to hang out in but moreover a room full of potential. It bears as a prism for many interests to break on.

Field Integration is another insightful piece. Could you talk a little bit about it?
NN: Ikebana, the Japanese art form of flower arrangement, has always fascinated me because it embodied so many elements of 2d and 3d learning tools, so I wanted to investigate this a bit, why it works together so well for image making. Nick was interested in this too, because he is very influenced by landscape painting and so, it made a great incubator for a process based book with concrete results and a cultural context.

Any other projects that you have coming up?
NB: Weíll be setting up a satellite studio/print shop (from July 25 - July 31) in the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago next week to produce a poster for the MCAís We Are Here: Design Out of Context exhibit thatís been running throughout the month of July. Each week a different design related group takes over the 12 x 12 gallery space in the museum. Participants include Object Design League, Golden Age, Tim Parsons and Jessica Charlesworth, and us. We also have a collaborative poster project coming up with the amazing Minneapolis based artist/designer Michael Cina in conjunction with music label, Ghostly International.

NN: We are working with an extremely talented Swiss typographer and media designer named Stefan Huber on a project called Fonel. Itís an interactive, web-based application that straddles the line between font technology, image making, social media, and printmaking. Keep an eye for that this fall.

If people are interested in your services or just want to follow your work whatís the best way to find you?
NB: Our web site stays really updated, we do the twitter @sonnenzimmer, and we publish a monthly electronic newsletter called the Sonnengramm. Sign up at to hire us for a job and get a quote, we are always open for business, they contact us through our website.


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