06 Aug Featured: Erika Koutny
Today we’re showcasing the incredible work of designer Erika Koutny, who (among many other nice things) is the name behind the branding for the well-loved Neighbourgoods Market and Superette. Here, we chat to Erika about how it all started, where she’s headed, and everything in between.
To start, please tell us a bit about your background, what/where you studied, and how that all ultimately led to you becoming a designer?
I was born in Johannesburg in the early 80s and grew up in middle-class suburbia. I wanted to do something like ‘math-clever’ or go to ‘real’ art school and, I guess, with that contradiction, it was natural that I landed somewhere between these things, in design. It was the end of the 90s – ‘safe sex, designer drugs and the death of rock ‘n roll’ – a time when people still bought magazines and I was one of them.
I completed a BA at Vega in 2003 and have freelanced ever since; moved to Cape Town in 2008; completed a BTech at CPUT in 2009 while lecturing there. Dabbled in life, research and work; and moved back to Joburg in April this year.
Would you say that you grew up in a creative environment, or an environment where creativity was actively encouraged?
Yes, but not in a typical sense. I was encouraged to express myself in my own distinctive way, which sometimes got me into trouble (and sometimes still does). I wasn’t forced into any specific creative direction. I wanted to play music when I was a kid and my parents afforded me that privilege but on the other hand, they also supported my decision to never take it up again. I was spoilt with choice and growing up in an entrepreneurially spirited environment, developed a sense of agency at a young age. I learnt that no matter how hard you fall you always get back up again.
What did you want to be growing up?
April O’Neil, a spy or something in the natural sciences. I loved chemistry sets, Capsela, secret agent and ‘Choose you own Adventure’ books, paleontology, my rock collection, my nature notebooks of things (usually collected on beach holidays), Star Trek (from my Mom), computer games (also from my Mom), coding, computers and nature (mainly plants). Totally nerdy.
The term “designer” is often used loosely. What does the term mean to you?
It’s a pretty loose term and I don’t necessarily think of creativity, or use it, in that labelled sense. I feel, as a designer, my main role is to create and/or find function, order and structure in order to achieve a synthesis towards ‘an understanding’ of a given brief, opportunity or situation. I try and not to attach personal meaning to the work – the antithesis of ‘designer as author’. I say I try – it doesn’t mean I even come close to this goal and I often ‘design for design’s sake’, well, because it’s fun.
How would you describe your style to someone who has never seen your work, and would you say your style has developed over the years?
A bit all over the place, maybe slightly confused? This used to bother me but it is also what makes me commercially viable. I like type and simple things, but I also don’t have to only eat apples everyday.
For sure it’s developed, it has also fluctuated and jumped around a bit. Ten years ago I was mainly doing broadcast illustration and design work, which is incredibly ephemeral and creates a very different dynamic in one’s relationship with what one does, compared with print-based design. Lately, I’ve been enjoying print and publication design especially working with artists, as the final piece really isn’t about me anyway. I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with identity work; the final outcomes I am happiest with have been from working with really awesome clients.
Much of your work is refreshingly simple and direct in its approach. Is it difficult to exercise restraint?
I find it increasingly difficult not too… to a degree that clients/creative directors are like ‘hmmm, let’s add something to this’ and I’m ‘really… why?’ Sometimes I get a direct answer; most of the time I don’t. Maybe this sounds a bit snotty, but I just think if one ‘has something’, one doesn’t need to hide it by it being over-designed.
It’s interesting to see your vision carried through when translated into tangible objects like your “paper booties” project with Alexander Koutny. Is exploring new mediums something we can expect more of from you?
Wow, that’s an old project (2008?) and quite a weird thing to even think about again, let alone talk about. It is also a little strange as I plan to be working with very different materials in the future. But this journey has only just begun and it will be a while before anything comes to fruition and, more than likely, not under my own name.
To what extent does where you live influence your work?
It’s a ‘chicken or egg’ question… I’ve just moved back to Joburg, a city where I’ve lived most of my life, but with a new mindset and very different goals. I forgot how big it was – Joburg is really big and in many aspects. I have to see what happens with that and where it takes me.
Could you describe your ideal working environment?
I need space and a space that is mine. I’ve co-inhabited with ‘work’ and ‘life’ for the past six years, so the line between them has become somewhat blurry, but this reflects the way in which I work: a functional disorder of sorts that sways from über-utilitarianism to an emo-teenager’s bedroom.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned throughout your career as a designer?
One really does learn something new everyday. One isn’t an island. One can only try getting it right more often than getting it wrong; not to take oneself too seriously, or take things personally. There is no such thing as perfection. Not everything has to be right, right now.