Growing up in Geneva, Switzerland, Kimou Meyer, aka Grotesk, got turned onto graphic design the same way many people have found their respective niches in life—trial and error. For his 10th birthday his dad bought him a copy of Henry Chalfant and James Prigoff's Spraycan Art, a book that inspired Grotesk, to his mother's dismay, to paint pieces on his bedroom walls. Several years later, as a teenager, he struck out with Swiss graffiti artist DEKA and tried his hand at tagging—an experiment he sums up by saying, "I quickly realized that I was the biggest toy, so I started to take pictures and design flyers instead of trying to write on the wall." His eye for design later took him to art school in Brussels, which led to a job, post graduation, at Base Design in New York City, where he still lives.
Grotesk, now 34 years old, married, and a father of two, is producing some of the most disruptive, forward-thinking graphic design around. His work purposely blurs the line between social commentary and corporate branding, causing folks who encounter his t-shirts and silkscreen prints, among other things, to scratch their heads as they attempt to decode his darkly satirical sense of humor. For the second installment of Made You Look, I decided to catch up with Grotesk between his varying duties as creative director at Zoo York, overbooked freelance designer, and father and husband. Our conversation didn't disappoint. I hope you enjoy.
How did you come up with the name Grotesk, and is there some meaning behind the choice?
Grotesk is a play on words, derived from the name of a font called "Grotesk Haas,"
which was the precursor to the Helvetica typeface and one of the best things my country of birth, Switzerland, ever created. The name also means silly, absurd, stupid, and ludicrous.
Can you tell me a little bit about your current job, and give some background on how you came up in design?
Right now I am the creative director at Zoo York
. My friend Christian Acker
is currently art director. Zoo is a tight-knit group of really talented designers and illustrators. I just make sure we deliver on time and that we keep pushing creativity to the fullest. Before that, I worked at Base Design
where I learned high-end Swiss-inspired corporate design and art direction. I also worked for a short time at Ecko Unlimited
[which taught me] the business side of the clothing game—graphic design as it applies to garments and how to manage a complex development process.
Humor plays a big part in your designs. When did you start using satirical phrases and imagery in your work, and why?
Humor, satirical phrases, and sarcasm have been in my environment as long as I can remember. Ever since I was a kid, I always liked to make other people laugh. I grew up in a political family—my dad was an anarchist
and my mom was a politician (socialist
). So we were always having intense debates during dinner, with strong opinions and positions. I figure, since we have the chance in Western society to talk shit without getting our heads chopped off, I should go for it. I feel people in the design world take it way too seriously. Come on, we are just graphic designers not brain surgeons or UNICEF
doctors. I use the satirical stuff to remind myself, everyday, that the job I do is not that deep. I mean, I should keep making fun of my "cool guys" community that sometimes worries more about a color of sneaker than what happens in Iraq
, or Darfur
Your last point, the idea that people in the street wear community "sometimes [worry] more about a color of sneaker than what happens in Iraq, Tibet, or Darfur," is a keen observation. As a European, what is your impression of American consumer culture now that you've been living in New York for almost a decade?
American consumer culture is driven by marketing. U.S. brands are brilliant with it. If you look at fashion for example, the goal is to have you buy the new color each month—the new white t-shirt, the new old vintage revolutionary aged denim, etc. New York is an extreme place for consumer culture. If you hang out in a scene you [sometimes feel like you] have to blend into it, follow the uniform of your peers. But always stay one step ahead. You always need to be newer. So if your boy buys new kicks, you have to buy better ones. Everybody thinks they are different and edgy, but instead they are all in the same mold. [We] keep consuming emptiness to keep up. [There are] a few brands that really deliver positive messages though, like Staple Design or Rockers NYC—to name two who use their freedom to question social problems, war atrocities, history, etc. Or a brand like Rockwell, [where Parra] could care less what people think about his tits t-shirts. Nobody takes the risk to make a t-shirt that would be too different from the standard of coolness. 15 years ago having an N.W.A. t-shirt with them holding their guns was really provocative and rebellious. Today, if you don't have gun imagery or gangsta rap lyrics in your clothing line, you're out.
Also, while you said that using sarcasm in your work reminds you that being a graphic designer is not that deep, what benefits do you think design can provide to people?
Ideas benefit people, not design. Design is just another tool of communication. Design might give you the benefit of not shitting your pants because at the last minute you see a pictogram for a men's room.
Your design pieces are loaded with cultural references, often drawing from elements of pop culture like 90s-era hip-hop, cartoons, and vintage sports graphics. How do these elements inform your work on a daily basis?
All these elements are part of who I am. I was a hip-hop DJ for eight years in Europe and I’ve loved sports since I was a kid. I listen to tons of music, watch ESPN and the news alot, and when some lyrics or other information catches my attention, I start to research my subjects. I have notebooks full of annotations and rough sketches, and when I feel it's the right time to put something out, I dig in my "crates" and deliver. For the cartoon/illustrative part, it's one of the only common and understandable aesthetics that I find while traveling around the world. A Chinese kid or a Mexican kid will understand a mascot, [it doesn't matter where you're from]. It's part of a universal [visual] language and I am all for it. What's wrong with mass appeal?
There's a strong graffiti influence threaded throughout your work. Can you give some background on the origins of this style?
My dad got me the book Spraycan Art for my 10th birthday. I was amazed by it and started to reproduce a piece on my wall. Mom was so pissed. When I was around 13, a kid named DEKA in Geneva was tagging alot and I started [doing graffiti] through him and began hanging out with some OG's from the Geneva graff scene—Risk, Joul, Dekor, Poncho, Timer, Jazze. I quickly realized that I was the biggest toy, so I started to take pictures and design flyers instead of trying to write on the wall. When I arrived in New York in 1999, I had the chance to meet Mister Raven—owner of 12oz Prophet.com and Also Known As. He introduced me to amazing New York graff legends like Cope2, Mare139, Skuff, SpOne, and so on. At the same time my wife was working at Alife, that had just opened, and where everyday I would see people like Espo, Reas, Jest, Earsnot, KR, Futura, and Lee when I would pick her up.
I know that you're also a father. Can you tell me a little about your children and how fatherhood has changed the way you approach your work?
I have two kids that inspire me everyday. The way that Rio, my four-year-old daughter draws, the way she thinks with no boundaries, and the books we read together, are definitely influencing my work. I also have a five-month-old, Jasper, that needs a lot of attention, so my work [has become] simpler and more straightforward as my free time shrinks between my lovely wife Sylwia, two kids, and the 10-hour days at my full time job. It might sound silly, but in the shower every morning is where I find the answers to my clients’ problems, logo ideas, t-shirts, art shows, and so on. And then late at night is when I execute projects—usually very quickly.
All artwork featured in this article was used with permission from the artist. Images are © 2008 Grotesk (Kimou Meyer), all rights reserved.