What do the Swiss and Japanese have in common? Great graphic design, of course! Tokyo-based Alex Sonderegger and Susanna Baer comprise Swiss design duo so+ba, beautifying books, magazines and much more with their keen Swiss conceptual approach and a strong line of typography (which they teach at Tama Art University.) Appropriately, their cosy work space is located in a former soba shop in Kyodo, western Tokyo. PingMag popped in for lunch…
Written by Verena
Cover of For cue+ magazine no. 11: see through the holes.
First, how did so+ba start?
Susanna: My husband had to go to Niigata to take a portrait of Alex for the Benzin book published by Lars Mueller. After the shoot they went for a beer and had a good time. So when Alex came to Tokyo, he dropped by our house…
Alex: Yes, this is how we met. After I moved to Tokyo, I started working for a small design company. But I was never satisfied with the quality we produced. Then in 2001, Susanna and myself decided to start so+ba and focus on conceptual graphic design with quality.
Now we are curious – was it a deliberate ploy to base your studio in a former soba shop?
Susanna: That was a coincidence. Before, we worked from my home for quite a long time.
Alex: I found this shop on my way home from Susanna’s place and fell in love instantly, although the building was pretty run down. The owner was an old lady who didn’t want to let this place anymore, and it took quite some time to convince her. In the end, we made a deal that we could do the renovation the way we want it. We needed take out the old tatami, walls and oshire [wall closet] and replaced it with new walls and flooring by ourselves. The owner’s only request was not to change the building’s basic structure.
The same tenugui, slightly wrinkled.
Was that how you came up with your name?
Both: We decided our name before we found our current space: it simply consists of our family names Sonderegger and Baer, which would be so+ba. Of course, we like the other meanings such as soba, noodles, and soba meaning “beside,” “next to.”
Does this soba environment give your office work a kind of spicy atmo?
We enjoy having our space with two floors: we work on the second floor and keep the first floor empty, using it for meetings and sometimes as a gallery and event space. The space is rather big for Tokyo standards! Also, being able to hang our drafts on the wall or put them on the floor makes it easier for us to talk about the work. It is good not to sit in front of the computer constantly.
And as a duo, how do you divide the tasks?
Our work is like a Ping Pong match, or two cooks who try to make one delicious, visual dish! We argue and discuss a lot, but most of the time we agree easily as soon as something starts to work. For communication with our clients we have different preferences: Alex likes to talk on the phone and Susanna prefers to write. She is more of a morning person and he prefers the nights.
Good team work! How would you describe your special so+ba style?
Another eye-thrilling illustration, also for Amatterofdesign It’s a Matter of Illustration PB by Victionary.
First, we both went through a Swiss design education: Müller-Brockmann, Hans-Rudolf Lutz, etc. deeply influenced our work throughout. Our designs display a keen fascination for systematic typography and tabular matter. In addition, we mix this with illustrative parts thus breaking our own rules. The words by Japanese poet Basho explain our office philosophy quite well. He said “I do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old. I seek the things they sought.”
Then, when beginning to work on new projects, we examine the product and the company, and collect, hunt, gather visuals and develop various strategies. Then we compile and distil them into one visual language. The conclusion very often is form follows function. In general we don’t regard ourselves as having a particular style; we think that a graphic designer should be a craftsman first and foremost and be able to work with many styles that evolve over the times. We don’t like clients approaching us, requesting to do something in the style of previous works. Each project should reflect and support the aim or the product and not just have a certain style. Style needs reason otherwise it ends up as decoration only.
… so+ba designed toilet paper that was used for an installation in the Austrian pavilion. Now, the paper is available for ¥350 in various museum shops in Japan.
Very conceptual! Now I’m curious to see how you translate that into your works. For example, you did the “small+beautiful” Swiss design edition featuring a clever stamp out [above]. That seems to be one of your specialities, playing with the paper surface, right? Where else did you use paper itself in an artful way?
We love to work with the material! Often, if the budget is not big enough, we prefer to work with less colours but with interesting printing techniques, shapes and materials. For example, we made an invitation card for a product release party of Freitag bags with all the information text being embossed only. For a fashion brochure for Edwina Hörl, we managed to recycle the grass carpet we bought for the shooting by adding a small part to each brochure. Needless to say that we are constantly on the lookout for new ways to print, pack or fold.
We totally love how you worked with different embossed colour layers the cue+ magazine, issue no. 11! Tell us more about the concept, please! [also above]
First, Yamagiwa, the producer of cue+ magazine, puts a strong focus on design and therefore we are getting a lot of freedom in our work. The development of this mag is very interesting: the whole team, editorial and design, gathers about three times for brainstorm meetings with the editor in chief, Riichi Miyake, making the final decisions. After the second or third meeting, a theme or direction is fixed and with that we start the visual work.
The theme for the no.11 was “cadavre exquis,” meaning ‘exquisite corpse.’ Cadavre exquis is a method of collectively assembling a collection of words or images with each collaborator adding to a composition in sequence. The technique was invented by the French Surrealists in 1925 and is similar to an old parlour game called “Consequences” in which players write in turn on a sheet of paper, fold it to conceal part of the writing, and then pass it to the next player for a further contribution. Meaning the magazine is in a constant flow of change until the end.
The theme of issue no. 12 was “kaidan,” an old Japanese word for ‘stairs.’ For that, we created a playful opening in a stair shape, introducing collected facts and mythology, quotes and other things relating to the theme “stairs.” The cover is printed in black and silver symbolising stairs with many different aspects, such as hell to heaven, down to up, deep to low.
Then you also do fashion – I see you had different approaches for each seasonal line of Tokyo-based fashion designer Edwina Hörl…
Cover of “small+beautiful.” Look closer for the stamped out cross!
Austrian Edwina Hörl is not the typical fashion designer creating seasonal collections: she develops a theme and designs the clothes within. “Tokyo blond” has the concept of overdone countryside fashion, “kuro neko” (black cat) was a collection all in black. For that, we suggested to shoot the black clothes on a black background to really have it all in black. Also, we wanted to use the glass cat eyes – which she used as buttons in the collection – as the models’ eyes, so you can never see the models’ real eyes. Then, there is a delivery service in Tokyo called “yamato kuro neko” and we played with its cat logo as it is well known all over Japan [see main image on top]. Another of Edwina’s collection is called “nani kore” (what’s this?) [see the cigars below]; now we are working on her latest called “pirates.”
And I just saw the tenugui towel you created as a wedding gift that used its pattern to display kanji [pattern above]. What a lovely idea!
A Japanese friend of ours got married in Graubünden, Switzerland, in the famous chapel built by Peter Zumthor. He asked us to design a tenugui as a wedding gift for all their guests. Since the wedding was abroad and many Swiss were invited, we decided to create a traditional Japanese-looking pattern: a grid with just two colours, dark blue (indigo) and light blue. If you look from afar you can make out the kanji “kekkon” for ‘wedding.’
You’ve been living in Japan for several years now, can you draw any distinctions between Swiss and Japanese design?
In Switzerland, nearly everything is kind of nicely designed compared to Japan. Tokyo is full of bad design and the good is hard to find – but it really stands out once detected. If there is any crazy idea, a talking or smelling poster, an interactive, digital, or 3D posters, anything is tried to grab the attention. Also, the laws in Tokyo are less limiting than in European cities.
And how do you see Japanese graphic design – is there one aspect that stands out for you from an outside perspective?
Japanese designers seem to be more playful and very often their work is not focused on a logical concept. Meaning, the approach is more visual and comes from a feeling rather than from a concept. This can be very good in some cases: They hit a general mood and it works perfectly without any explanation. On the other hand it can feel empty because it is “only” style, not content. But surely after a certain time, like five to ten years, the design which is more than style survives.
We were surprised that, very often, people from a country with such a great traditional sense for simplistic beauty and material in general are not working with their design heritage. Maybe that can be because of the Japanese design education, or the digital way of communication directing the design world to the point where it is now.
For Edwina Hörl’s “nani kore” (what’s this?) fashion line…
… with the info sheet hidden inside a fake cigar!
Since you teach typography at Tama Art University – what makes the Japanese language so special in terms of typography? Also, what unique challenges does it present?
In the beginning, we were impressed by Japanese typography. It was all new and there was so much beauty to be discovered in the single characters. We still think kanji are visually exceptionally nice, but the mix with hiragana and katakana – two completely different styles and three in total – makes it quite difficult to design a well-balanced text.
Moreover, we like the Japanese typography best as it was originally designed: in tategaki, vertical writing from top to bottom and right to left. If the letters are used like this, the text looks balanced and there is a vertical centre visually for each text line. Unfortunately this way is considered to be old-fashioned.
Moreover, the default Roman letters within Japanese alphabets are often badly designed and usually too small compared to Japanese characters. Therefore we create font sets with matching combinations of roman and Japanese fonts.
We see you have been quite thoughtful about Japanese typography! Susanna and Alex of so+ba, thank you for today.