Lausanne's brightest design trio talk to Graeme Aymer about their style, experimentation, illustration and the influence of Swiss design.
Happypets is the archetypal three-headed monster. The three principals, Patrick 'Patch' Monnier, Cedric Henny and Violene Pont turn questions into answers using Pont as spokesperson, who occasionally turns English questions into Swiss-French asides for her colleagues' responses. There's no bickering or debate; just assent and the occasional muffled laugh. This, it seems, is the Happypets approach to work past and present for such clients as Nike, The Face magazine, Theatre du Moulin Neuf and the Paleo Music Festival.
Happypets was born in 2000, when its three founders decided to continue with a number of collaborations undertaken during their years studying at the University of Art and Design in the beautiful Swiss city of Lausanne.
"There were plenty of music-led projects because my two colleagues were also really into music," says Pont. "The band did more electronic stuff at the time. They used to do projections during live concerts. There were flyers, posters, that kind of material, but our work was all very diverse. Because there was plenty of energy at the school we had lots of friends who were into creating films, so we started to do generic things like that."
At the time, the group was already called Happypets. "We thought the name corresponded well with this kind of energy," says Pont. "Different types of people from different backgrounds going in different directions, like this joyful, happy family of pets. We liked the sound of it, we liked the feel of it, so we kept it."
Drop in on the Happypets website these days and you'll see that the company now describes itself as an "experimental lab of graphic designers". You get an immediate sense of this from the examples of work featured there. The work is highly illustrative, very much pen and paper, plenty of printing onto textiles, loads of photography, and even evidence that the company is dabbling in the manufacturing process to bring its strange, Swiss vision to the world of toys.
There's not much 'digital' art on show at the moment, not on the face of it anyway. Nothing is inherently stretched, cut, pasted, smeared, swirled, cloned, blurred or polarised in Photoshop, for instance.
"We work more with pen and paper," Pont admits. "But we also use engraving and tactile materials. We're currently collaborating with stylists to print on textiles, which really interests us now."
The agency, Pont explains, is more interested in the physical than the virtual. At the end of the creative process, Happypets would rather have a product you can touch instead of one that lives inside a computer. "We're interested in this 3D product aspect," she says. "We want to work on a Happypets product label. It could include music, toys or clothes."
As with all rules, there are exceptions. The agency creates its own type, for which a computer is essential, and employs the usual digital toolset to achieve its design goals - Macs loaded with Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign and Fontographer. But there is a twist to the team's equipment. "We're very low-tech," admits Pont. "We're still using System 9!"
The DIY approach
The experimental aspect of the Happypets approach goes far beyond statements of style. "What's interesting or important to us is that we want to try things out ourselves. So we don't necessarily ask a photographer to do the photography, or buy someone else's typography. We do our own. Sometimes it's great, sometimes it's not so successful, but that's how we consider the experimental aspect."
This gutsy approach is fine if you're working on personal projects or museum installations, but you'd think the idea might make corporate clients a little wary. Not so, says Pont. "We try to choose clients that are open to our way of working. It's the same process. If possible we will never have a client who says 'you are going to do it like this' and it's finished. We need to express ourselves or else it has no interest."
Pont is careful to add, however, that Happypets accommodates client briefs where possible. "If there is a brief, of course we have to answer it. The work is for a purpose and for a client, but we try to make it as similar a process as possible."
Most of Happypets' clients come about through word of mouth - they rarely tout for business. And this approach applies to both client work and museum pieces. The latter tends to come along as a side project to the trio's teaching activities.
"We have the chance to work for clients who come to us and say, 'We've seen what you do and we like it'," says Pont. "This was the case with Nike. The firm gave us a brief that said what it wanted the image to talk about, but then let us go free. We were free to work as we usually work, in the same experimental way."
Client work aside, Happypets' approach to idea generation is pretty much what you would expect from a design agency - brainstorming, finding solutions, figuring out the division of labour and so on. But they get to do it all in Switzerland, home of design greats such as Frutiger and Tschichold. It is, after all, where the font Helvetica was born, and possibly the cradle of all we consider to be great and good about modern design.
"We studied in a Swiss design school with a Swiss design heritage, so we are definitely influenced [by Swiss design], which is a good thing," says Pont. "But during our studies, and after graduation, we reacted against this influence and the very strict image we have of Swiss design. We tried to break away from it.
"It's important that it's always there, though. Even if we create work that seems at first glance very confused, noisy or full of things, the rigid base is somewhere behind all that, and it's always there because it's part of our learning process."
In fact, Pont believes she's starting to see more references to the old masters in contemporary Swiss design. "We've noticed that Swiss design is coming back to a very constructive, very strict aspect," she says. "The typographers and the graphic designers are coming back to the base - to people such as Frutiger and Tshichold. Their creative influence has started to re-emerge in a very strong way."
But what effect will this have on design? "It's a good thing. Well, it's not a bad thing anyway," says Pont. "[The style] becomes very strict, when it's almost no design, when it's so pure that you almost don't know there's any design work behind it. It's actually something that's quite far from us as a company because we remain very illustrative, very narrative people. It's a good thing, but it's not what we do."
Swiss design aside, the Happypets team were inspired to get started in design by a whole number of influences, more for process than by practise. As the three were taking their first tentative steps into the world of professional design, they took heed of the likes of Fuel Interactive and KesselsKramer.
"We went to a conference and we immediately thought their way of thinking was cool," says Pont. "But it's never been about just graphic design or designers, we're also attracted to product design and film, and things like that."
Asked to describe the Happypets style, Pont says that it's constantly evolving, and difficult to pigeon-hole. "Our style is very noisy, very colourful, with lots of layers and a collage style, but now we're coming to something more simple, a bit less full. This style comes more from the fact that there are three of us, so whenever we discuss how we will pull everything together there's naturally this kind of feel to it."
There are challenges ahead for Happypets. The team hopes to create its own line of products, gradually relying on less client-generated work. "We do it for the pleasure, always for the pleasure," says Pont, who believes that developing the label is purely a business decision.
"We're conscious that we have to make the business part work, but it's not in a business sense that we do it. We're not going to make products just for money. We're going to do things that interest us. We're just going to try and live like that. That's a great challenge already."