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Huh? #19: an interview with Lars Harmsen

August 6, 2015

Lars Harmsen is, in short, an overachiever. From running his latest studio venture Melville Brand Design in Munich, Germany, to publishing Slanted Magazine, to running his latest initiative, 100for10. 100for10 prints 100-page black and white print-on-demand books for 10 euros each. Artists and designers who have or will shortly be publishing 100for10 books include Gui Martinez, Frank Höhne, Steven Harrington, Stefan Marx, and Ed Fella.

Ian Lynam talks to Lars about his super-diverse career as the owner of multiple design studios, publishing ventures, and teaching design.

All of the 100for10 titles published to date!

All of the 100for10 titles published to date!

100for10 seems to be a sign of the many shifts that have been going on in your life over the past year—what’s the story, both with this new venture and what’s been up with you?

After so many years in Karlsruhe, a small town in the south of Germany, I got tired of knowing everything and everyone there. It was super-nice to raise a kid there, but something was missing. I had to move to a bigger city. I already worked a lot as creative director with my partners at Melville Brand Design, often traveling from Karlsruhe to Munich. So my move to Munich in 2014 was a good way to make a new start.

A spread from Damir Doma's 100for10 book

A spread from Damir Doma’s 100for10 book

I am more of a metaphoric sprinter and less long of a distance runner. I like to take risks, I like the unknown and I love to discover things. Traveling is always a good educational expeience: discovering places, experiencing new foods, seeing different ways of life, meeting new people, etc… I hate booking hotels in advance. During the last years at MAGMA, the company I founded almost 20 years ago, I felt more and more uncomfortable in a structure where, for my partners, change meant danger and not chance.

With my experience in the field of publishing and design authorship, I wanted to implement something attractive in the day-to-day work of Melville, giving us a playground for experimentation, without taking enormous financial risks. 100for10 was the perfect idea, a nice challenge—a door opener into the world of illustration, photography and art. A source of inspiration and story-telling

A spread from Grady Gordon's 100for10 book

A spread from Grady Gordon’s 100for10 book

Honestly, I wouldn’t say it was a “shift”, per se? I would say I’m in flow. I have kept on teaching editorial -design and typography in Dortmund. Since 2014, Julia Kahl and I have run Slanted Publishers on our own (before part of MAGMA). Besides being Creative Directo at Melville, I have my fingers in a lot of free projects as POSTER REX.

A spread from Martina Wember's 100for10 book

A spread from Martina Wember’s 100for10 book

It’s interesting that 100for10 seems to reflect your interest in the illustrative/pictoral, whereas Slanted is so much about the typographic, as well as the photographic. Was this a conscious shift?

I love illustration because you can say a lot with just a few lines. Since the beginning of Slanted Magazine in 2005, I have connected the world of typography/graphic design with illustration through Slanted features like “Fontnames Illustrated” and “Typolyrics“. Over the years I bumped into a lot of illustrators and artists that i cherish. 100for10 is the ideal platform to honor their work. Inspired by an exhibition and newspaper catalog of work by Robert Frank at the Academy of Art in Munich where he said “Cheap, quick and dirty, that’s how I like it.” we started 100for10. His photographs – sold for fortunes in galleries and auctions–were inkjet printed on thin paper and glued to the walls. No stealing possible. If ripped (impossible without destroying them), they just were reprinted.

A spread from André Rösler's 100for10 book

A spread from André Rösler’s 100for10 book

100for10 became this kind of experience. For quite a long time I was wondering if it would be possible to edit books for a very low price but at the same time give a maximum to the authors. I am sick of all those publishers who howl into you ears about the difficulties of their business–and at the same give cent-royalities for months of effort. There was this thing going on with print-on-demand, but it had this cheesy/bad reputation. It perfectly matched my idea of ‘fanzine-2.0’, publishing content in an uncensored, fast and uncomplicated way. No big introduction essays with a huge amount of complicated words and thoughts like in most artbook publications, no super expensive paper but one quality for all, no embellished cover but a super glossy fingerprint-ridden monkey-ass paper for the cover. And inside rough and dirty content, direct and unfiltered, right out of the sketchbook, and through this a deep inside look in the minds behind, a psychogram of creativity.

A spread from Adam Hayes' 100for10 book

A spread from Adam Hayes’ 100for10 book

On the flipside, what is your practice at Melville Brand Design like? Have things changed much after moving to Munich?

We make brand design for big clients as adidas and BMW, as well as identities for small local brands. So my work is pretty much the same as before in Karlsruhe, but with better vibes. I wanted to move to Munich for its extraordinary quality of life—being surrounded by lakes, rivers and mountains, tons of inspiring museums, theaters, concerts and parties.

The biggest change is probably, that our son left home last year to study in the Netherlands.

A spread from Frank Höhne's 100for10 book

A spread from Frank Höhne’s 100for10 book

How about your teaching practice? Have there been significant shifts there as of late?

Instead of full-time teaching I am now a half-time professor, and only teach courses every two weeks. It’s a perfect set-up for my need to enhance teaching with my professional experience.

How do you put it all together—designing, teaching and publishing? Are there any significant things that having a hybrid practice have taught you?

Everything is connected. It is something that took me a while to recognize. I have always been hungry to discover new things, new working experiences. After all, it is less important what you are doing but much more important how you are doing it. I am and was always interested in connecting my fields of interests with my life. As soon as something feels like work, I feel bored or restricted. I perfectly understand the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis—he preferred to go to meetings by motorcycle instead of being brought by a car and driver. It was a precious moment of freedom in a life full of boring obligations and tedium. Our society is packed with conventions and restrictions. It is a luxury to decide on how, when and where to work. I feel very lucky that I’ve kept this freedom all my life. Even now as professor at the university, I don´t have the feeling to be at the end of the road, on the safe side of the riverbanks. If a situation sucks, I am out.

A spread from Supermundanes 100for10 book

A spread from Supermundane’s 100for10 book

If you could resurrect a handful of dead artists and use your zombie-controlling powers to make them each do a 100for10 title, who would you choose?

Really? You can give me that zombie-power? I´d love to ask Egon Schiele for a sketchbook full of nudes, Verlaine for a series of poems, Basquiat for some typo-drawings… but to be honest, I think there are tons of fantastic undiscovered talents and incredible good contemporary artists out there to invite. 100for10 has a growing list of international contributors—there is a lot to do and it will be fantastic to have these books done in the upcoming years, even without zombie-tricks.

A spread from Frank Höhne's 100for10 book

A spread from Frank Höhne’s 100for10 book

If you could reanimate a handful of deceased designers to give lectures or workshops at your school, who would you invite from beyond the grave?

Willy Fleckhaus and Heinz Edelmann to talk about the legendary magazine twen! (Heinz was also Designer for Playboy and FAZ-Magazine). I´d love to meet Armin Hofmann. I met his son Matthias in Lucerne last year, a great designer as well and very different from his father. He showed me incredible things done by his father who unfortunately was too old and suffering to see us. I hope he is doing well.

Massimo Vignelli for his interdisciplinary would be nice. But most of all I would love to beam Marcel Duchamp back for a few lectures, for his impact on twentieth-century. He is my hero.

I totally get that—thanks so much for your time, Lars!

Stay tuned for the next installment of “Huh?”, coming soon!!!