Eike König (or Koenig) is the founder and creative director of the creative studio HORT in Berlin. He is also a professor at HfG Offenbach. We talked to him about building HORT and his unconventional style of leadership.
You’ve said the reason such a small studio as Hort has been able to land clients like Nike and Xbox is due to the atmosphere you’ve created at the office. When did office culture become so important to you and how responsible is it for the success of Hort?
Eike König: Did I say that? I can’t remember :blush: … I just think that the small structure without many hierarchies and with face to face communication is much more contemporary than those dinosaurs from the last 60 years who polluted our brains with advertising and lies. We work in a design niche that needs partners who understand them. We feel strongly connected to every product we are working on.
Our studio culture evolved from personal experiences with those dinosaurs. This was not the cosmos for a young creative mind. So in the end it’s pretty easy. I work together with highly creative people, and I want to keep them as individual as possible. That means I am not trying to design clones of myself – I want to learn from them and they are adding something to the team I am not able to. So the easiest way is to design the job around the personality. From there she/he will evolve and grow, invest and bring in a free mind. Cool, isn’t it? And that’s what big corporates understand and want now.
Family is a big word. In the past and even today. But what family means is that parts of it are taking care of each other. They support and help without a second thought regarding their own success or growth.
How does a sense of family influence Hort’s creative process?
Eike König: Family is a big word. In the past and even today. But what family means is that parts of it are taking care of each other. They support and help without a second thought regarding their own success or growth. Sharing is caring and it’s easier to step back from your own ego when you know that the people you are working with are not competitors but good people who want to help you to move forward.
Congratulations on the current news regarding joining companies with Sarah Illenberger, Erik Spiekermann, Mirko Borsche, Mario Lombardo, Lars Harmsen, Johannes Erler and Stephan F. Rebbe. How do you imagine Hort working with all these creative rock stars under the same entity?
Eike König: Thanks. Kind of Ocean Eleven. But hey, this has nothing to do with HORT and what we are doing. I think that would not work out. So many special characters and biographies … they don’t have to match with your own thinking and philosophy. But that’s good – we know. No, we started something new but I can’t talk about it at the moment. But we will curate a special day of lectures at TYPO BERLIN this year and the people we invite have nothing to do with design. That’s also the moment when we will go public with our product.
Much of what you’ve done professionally probably differs from what you learned at University. Does that affect how you communicate with people as a professor and at the office?
Eike König: Most. Nearly everything. But there are also things I have gone through and learned at Uni that I wouldn’t want to miss. Real content like typography and a lot of very personal things. My own life is based on experience and everything I am doing or giving back is somehow related to this. “Whatever I do will come back to me” was something my parents taught me and it’s still the foundation of most of my actions. I was always in search of a place that respects me the way I am. That helps me to figure out my possibilities and that allows me to fail and learn. I did not find it in the business world so I just created it for myself and my partners at HORT.
I hated university. I hated the structure, the big EGOs that wanted to educate me what is right or wrong and totally ignored me as a person with my own limitations, fear and hope. They gave me the feeling that I am nothing and they are everything. It took me a long time and investment in reflecting on this to understand that this is not true and that there’s no distance between me and them or anyone who is famous or successful.
How does your workshop series, “After School Club”, reflect your vision of education and where it will go next?
Eike König: I hated university. I hated the structure, the big EGOs that wanted to educate me on what is right or wrong and totally ignored me as a person with my own limitations, fear and hope. They gave me the feeling that I am nothing and they are everything. It took me a long time and investment in reflecting on this to understand that this is not true and that there’s no distance between me and them or anyone who is famous or successful.
When I started my professorship at HfG Offenbach, I wanted to seed a statement in this region that will grow on and one day not be connected to me anymore. A statement about education and institutions. For me the development of a creative personality should not be stopped by institutions or their rhythms. During the semester break the university is an empty space that should be used for self-organized research and knowledge you can gain from. I initiated this art and design camp, invited students to design and organize it together with me and Alexander Lis and suddenly, like never before, there were 120 students from around the world, coming together to learn, create, share, network and create friendships. As I know so many very good people in this field personally I invited them to become educational members of the club. And it really worked out very well. So many good people I have met, so many good moments I could share, so many good things I have learned and will promote – and that’s just me. Add this to another 120+ people and you find a highly social project that matters, creates value and will produce copies of itself. After we proved that it’s possible to create knowledge and value besides conventional institutions that are organized by governments, a lot of people felt strong enough to copy our idea and do their own things. It feels like it became a movement and this is just awesome. Oh, I forgot to mention: this festival is free of charge as I think that education has to be free for everyone.
Having invested so much of your time in leading and helping other creative professionals, what are you doing now to focus on your personal artistic path? How will this impact the future of Hort?
Eike König: I am not sure yet how this will influence anything I am connected with. I will find out as it is still very fresh for me – and the studio. But I am sure it will all be fine. HORT was always changing, more like an organism that adapts to situations and needs. We are now a collective of individuals that are working together under the umbrella named HORT. Each of the individuals also following their own interests and future plans. We know that we can work on very very interesting projects under this brand but we also know that our personal path is important and should not be overshadowed by an organizational structure or my personality. Since I am working on my personal aspirations I think I got the chance to balance all my other paths: commissioned work with HORT, teaching at Uni and my inner soul. It’s just the private Eike that got fucked up and needs some support now. By investing all of my time in those three – for me very important – roads I somehow lost touch with relationships that are based on love and intimacy. I am just not an easy person to hang out with if you don’t accept all those other things.
What about using analogue techniques? What draws you to return to art created by hand?
Eike König: #handmade
Well, I think it’s easy to explain. I grew up before the internet and computers. Everything I did was a direct communication between brain and hand. I learned to make decisions and design itself was very much an experience of reality and not virtual reality. The material, the moment of putting something somewhere on a specific format that can be viewed as a whole every moment, the temperature, the smell, the sound. When computers took over, I easily fell in love with the possibilities – I like technology. But at some point I was missing something. Working on a computer is a one way thing. There’s something glowing that takes all your attention. When I got the chance I took it and moved back to a material world. The great thing is, that in this way of working, there’s kind of a special speed or “slowelyness” included. I can’t speed it up, every decision I make will be forever, when I am not in that moment and not concentrated you will see and feel it later. This way of working is grounding me. Giving me back a feeling of time I am missing those days when everything’s happening at once and changing so quickly.
Can you tell us how you consider the power and influence of the work you produce? What sorts of responsibilities does this power instill in creators of that work?
Eike König: Responsibility is something we are lacking at the moment. Taking care of what we are doing is important and we should teach and give back. I am aware of the power and the influence this (any work, not just mine) can have and know it’s good to push it in a positive direction. I believe in helping people to learn from your expertise. That means, I hate to follow cliches and support them. A good concept should be informed by the past and give us a chance to learn for the future. It’s easy to design something that just scratches the surface and doesn’t matter. But our/my job is to push it and to research how the future could be, as I am able to design it myself.
The way we work is always based on respect and the idea of making things better. After 22 years of running this studio, I am getting the feeling that the people I have met are somehow spreading this in their own little cosmos. I think this is the only chance we have to make this world a better one.
What does building a legacy mean to you?
Eike König: Another BIG thing. First of all: When I started HORT I never had a plan or thought, that this could be successful or that someone would ever ask me for an interview. My thoughts are my thoughts. They don’t need to mean anything to anyone else on this planet. They are constructs of my biography and things I have experienced and therefore adopted to become my truth.
I am most proud of HORT as a special place. It’s not the work we are producing. This will not be my legacy. My personal legacy will be the people I have met at HORT, the people who shared time and creativity with me and I helped to become strong personalities as they also helped me to become the person who I am right now. The way we are working together, not just internally but also with our clients is always based on respect and the idea of making things better and helping to reach this point. After 22 years of running this studio, I am getting the feeling, that this creates value, that the people I have met are good people and they are somehow spreading this in their own little cosmos. I think this is the only chance we have to make this world a better one.