Interview with Danish Art Director Per-Ole Lind
By Erin van Santen-Hobbie
Last year, Per-Ole Lind was spending two months of Saturdays at Knoxville’s 6th Avenue/I40 underpass, using his talent to change the tone of a tunnel of blank gray walls. Responding to a city-sanctioned initiative, Lind entered a design and won, a typographical mural using huge handlettering. These are what Lind calls typograffiti, and they spell out the names of four neighborhoods in the district. The walls have become a sort of pride for Knoxville residents, a clear symbol of the dignity of the South. Not bad for a Dane.
Q. P.O. is the moniker you used in Knoxville, Tennessee. But the P.O. is an acronym for a classically Danish name, Per-Ole. How exactly do you teach your neighbors how to pronounce that? I’ve tried many circus maneuvers, “Pear au Lait,” “Pair Olé,” and so on. Nothing works. It seems that the Danish language utilizes most of the phonetic spectrum, including the guttural. I’ve learned to be comfortable with just the initials.
Q. What are some other ways you see your identity as Scandinavian designer impressed upon by the American South after living in Tennessee for three years? Let’s begin with two common stereotypes: from a scale that ranges from blonde Viking sailor to let’s say, banjo-playing moonshiner, where on the spectrum do you now find yourself? I’m dancing up and down that scale. My Scandinavian Puritan side cringes at the way people pour gasoline on the apocalyptic environmental fire, driving houses around on wheels. I hate SUV’s. If you want transport for 10, buy a small bus instead. I’ve also experienced my inner Redneck blossom full scale. In a sort of organic farmer changing blades on the zero-turn lawnmower with a shoe-horn kind of way.
Q. I’m curious to know how your blossoming inner Redneck affects your aesthetic. What does that look like? Arriving in Knoxville, I immediately fell in love with the work of YeeHaw Industries. I initiated a study of woodblock printing and typeface designs. That let to an odd outburst of Victorian colors meeting hand-drawn saloon lettering. I had a blast. The southeastern typography masters were highly innovative in the 1900s.
Q. Describe a recent impulse creation inspired by typography. Working on the mural project, I ditched my 3 weeks worth of illustrative interpretations of historic photos and made a typographical version in 4 hours.
Q. What was the outcome of the mural project? A 4-wall, 20-column interstate underpass now decorated with thwarted, Victorianesque typograffiti. The community of a small, overlooked neighborhood held the reigns and made a “broken window” reversal. Graphic Design has a much underestimated role to play on altruistic level.
Q. You’ve also worked in Tokyo. Northwestern Europe and Asia have a long history of art collaboration with a focus on technique. What is the best thing you took away from Tokyo, artistically speaking? There’s a new movement of artists in Japan, who manages to bridge traditional technique and contemporary ideas. I had a few favorite galleries I visited again and again over a 5-year period,that made me recognize how my own cultural inheritance could be interpreted through technique.
Q. Who is someone you hold in awe and respect? Bob Gill. He’s a legend in graphic design, and was very active in the 70’s. He believed strongly in a reinterpretation of the basic design brief by focusing on the problems concerning the given project. He knew that there’s always something interesting about the problem. Before I even knew how to pre-press, Bob Gill had a major influence on my design process. He never patronized his audience. Always tried to engage and excite the subliminal mind.
Q. Intuition and integrity seem to play a crucial role your design philosophy. Can you speak a little more about the abstract unseen manifesting itself in design? Integrity is crucial. If a project or a client has nothing to say, I have nothing to add. Design is a matter of visually and communicating content to a synergetic degree. The abstract ‘something’ grows from a clash between my clients’ imagination and mine.
Q. Can you give some examples of this synergy? Redesigning VW Japan’s customer magazine had that. It was a challenge, since we wanted to be careful to balance the editorial and the commercial. Same thing for Mazda. But a better example is the Danish Furniture facade for the Danish embassy in Tokyo. It featured almost life-size graphic portraits of furniture masters, mid-century and contemporary. I thought it would be fitting to portray craftsman using handheld design. We bridged the new and the old generation of furniture makers by portraying them in the same style.
Q. Speaking of style … Oh, that’s my uniform. The wife of famous Danish poet Dan Turéll once told him to “disguise to be recognized.” He went all out with Butler, black finger nails, and a signature goatee. Mine is the Cap. Less flamboyant but easy enough to spot in the crowd.
Q. Growing up in Denmark, did you have an inkling that design would be your life’s path? I won a prize in a photography contest for the National Historic Museum when I was 16 and thought, “This could be something.”
Q. What happened to photography? In elementary school I drew 20 mathematical assignments in all the different typefaces my mother’s library could muster. Hand-drawn fifteenth-century Gothic calligraphy mixed with mid-century hand-lettering. I had no clue that I was doing “graphic design.” Eventually, I got ink on my hands as a printer’s apprentice. Then I co-founded a magazine, and ended up as Art Director. Photography helped me to understand the language of image makers. That to get the best of them, you need to motivate, and then step back and let them do their thing.
Q. What is a favorite place of yours? I love gritty urban spaces anywhere. Where innovation grows despite harsh surroundings. If you mean countryside, I’d say Shirakawa-Ko in the Japanese Alps. Isolation and harsh conditions did tremendous things for their food culture, architecture, and craftsmanship. They had to preserve food very carefully. They had to build houses without nails. There’s something to limitations and innovation.
Q. Aside from Danish and English, you speak four other languages in some capacity. How do you keep up that proficiency in a dominantly monolingual culture? I speak Japanese to the cat and Danish to my wife. She’s getting there, but her mee-ows still have a drawl.
Q. And your biggest ‘aha’ moment … A package design for high-profile Japanese make-up brand Shu Uemura. I returned to my initial sketches after a 5 week detour of trashed and rejected ideas. The initial drafts had it all. That gave me tremendous confidence. That the shortest way to a great idea goes from mind to pencil after all … via the heart, perhaps.