The Beautiful Universe of a Typomaniac

Interview with Erik Spiekermann

Erik Spiekermann’s name is ubiquitous in graphic design and the world of typography. Perhaps he’s best known for the signage Berliners see everyday – he created the passenger information for the BVG (Berlin Transit) and the current Deutsche Bahn aesthetic – as well as campaigns for Audi, Volkswagen and Nokia. The list goes on and spans decades of collaborations and clients. As the founder of FontShop, the first mail-order distributor for digital fonts, and namesake of Berlin’s Edenspiekermann agency, Erik remarks that he’s worked with everyone in the Berlin design scene and their brother. “Someone made a map of at least 600 people in Berlin who have worked with me at some time. It just means that I am old,” he muses.

Erik Spiekermann is prolific, even famous, in some circles. A winner of three lifetime achievement awards needn’t brag, and Spiekermann doesn’t, though he is aware of his worth through and through, speaking with enthusiasm and no remorse for his spirited and unflinching rules and ideas, like his famous dictum: “Don’t work for assholes. Don’t work with assholes.” Of course it has its own poster and can be found around Berlin (even at the Buchstabenmusuem as part of an exhibit). Retired, yet active as ever, when he’s not traveling to speak at conferences, creating new work at P98a, his letterpress design studio, or spending time with his wife, he might be found cracking away at multiple projects and ideas in their seven-story townhouse uniquely separated by floors rather than walls.

Walking through his airy home, one gets a feel for Erik’s personality. With large windows on every floor of the narrow space, natural light floods in, bestowing the rooms with a feeling of calm retreat in the center of Berlin.
Floors one and two are rented to an office, and the third is Erik’s personal workspace, where a simple desk with drawers supports his computer. A project is clearly in progress: there are several metallic silver suitcases, which Erik laughs about, “Why do I need so many?” There are documents and boxes of archived materials on the long table from Erik’s former colleagues, who lent them for use in the book, Hello, I am Erik, written and compiled by Johannes Erler about Erik’s life and work. His collection of Braun stereo equipment is stacked six elements high. Pinned to the board by his desk, a black and white strip of photos shows he and his wife striking comical poses. The posters and artwork throughout all have a story behind them, either created by Erik himself, or gifted to him by friends. For example, the typographic map of Berlin that just arrived. Cut in linoleum and made by Erik’s friend, artist Mark Andrew Webber, unrolled it takes up the entire living room floor.
The fifth level is a living room and kitchen space, where Erik prepares espressos for friends, and might offer them marzipan candies from a glass jar. His dining table is surrounded by Eames Plastic Side Chairs DSR, which Erik loves, adding “We have some Eames Aluminium Group in our house in San Francisco and I would love to have them for our home office here. One day – white leather.” The chairs, and all the furniture in the house for that matter, match each other. “It’s a mix of different models, but that is one thing about classics: they all mix well with old and new stuff. Good interior design makes me feel at home.”

Because he doesn’t see himself as organized and has a chaotic workflow, he says that he comes up with a new creative process daily. Yet a look around his tidy, if eclectic, home begs to differ with the idea that he is disorganized, offering an eye pleasing sampler of the designer’s interests on display. One of his home’s main attractions is his two-story bookshelf, mostly filled with titles pertinent to his profession, and only accessible by the seated pulley system Spiekermann developed for one of his favorite leisure activities – browsing his massive library and getting lost in his passion for words and images.
Seated in one of his Eames Plastic Chairs at his kitchen table, bare except for his espresso (taken without milk or sugar) and two books, one is the heavy orange coffee table book written about him, and the other a title he wrote, Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works, he says, “The digital age and the analog have totally started overlapping. What I’m doing with my letterpress is not nostalgia. I’m trying to work out how modern digital methods are, for example, capable of making originals. What I’m trying to achieve is bringing the analog process together with the digital. With digital, the quality I can do with my Mac is better than anyone could do on metal, ever.”

The designer’s household has throughout the years suffered one fire, two floods, one burglary and one willful destruction, as Erik describes it. There was the 1977 fire in London that destroyed his hand-collected printing press machines. Followed by the first flood in Berlin in 2002, which affected his archives, in the cellar of what was then the United Designers Network office (also founded by Erik).
He continues, “The burglary was on April 1, 1990 at MetaDesign's offices on Potsdamer Platz, just after the Wall was opened. The office was right next to the Wall and things were messy. We lost all our computers, which in 1990 wasn't as traumatic as it would be today. In fact, it turned out well for us because we got brand new computers paid for by the insurance. The worst incident of all was when my ex-partner at MetaDesign had two plan chests full of samples of my work – posters, record covers, books, newspapers, manuals, etc. – thrown away as they moved to a new office. It was described as an unfortunate mistake, but one doesn't just lose two large pieces of furniture like that by accident. The second flood in Berlin was in 2004 in the cellar of SpiekermannPartners, where what was left of my archives got very wet.”

Though he has his own strengths, he largely credits his success to the network of good friends and colleagues he’s built over a lifetime. They’ve supported and worked consistently beside him, like the internationally famous branding and corporate identity expert and co-founder of the Wolff Olins Agency, Wally Olins, who took a chance on Erik and gave him one of his first jobs during his years in London, after Erik sent him a card poking fun at his own German-ness. It’s what caused Wally to hire him the next day.
When sizing a person up, he has no qualms about making quick judgements, but is lenient to a degree, saying, “Judge people for what they can do, not what they have done. Really look after your friends and your colleagues. You always meet again, if you treat someone badly now, he or she, at some point, is going to come back to you.”

He’s made a living and a life out of always following his interests, whether that means trying his hand at something new, like designing a metal coin or a ship’s flag (both recent projects friends have commissioned him for), or aggregating news and articles he finds most interesting into a digest of sorts, a dream project he has in mind. “I’ve always wanted to know why things looked the way they did. That’s what interests me.”
It’s been such an honor to speak with you, Erik. Thank you for spending the day with us!
For those who are similarly fascinated by design, words, typography, as well as the occasional bit of bicycle or camera knowledge, Erik delivers regular commentary and well constructed discourse on his topics of interest via his blog – Spiekerblog.

You can also follow along on Twitter, and discover more about his letterpress workshop, P98a, on their website.

See more of this portrait on Freunde von Freunden.

Publication Date: 27.4.2015
Author: Abby Mae Carney
Images: Robbie Lawrence

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