The dynamic Danish graphic design studio with a penchant for striking typography gives Sarah Painter a lesson in perfecting the balancing act.
From Copenhagen Fashion Week to organic food retailer TastePlease and music album artwork, independent graphic design studio Homework boasts a varied client list, tackling projects both big and small. The studio was founded in 2002 by Jack Dahl, the man responsible for kick-starting the visual presence and creative direction for international men's fashion mag, HE. Among others, Dahl has worked with Self Service magazine and Work in Progress (Paris) on leading fashion brands including Jil Sander, Prada, Pucci and Chloé.
First, the name: what made Dahl choose it? "I've always been interested in ambiguous double-acting words," he says, "and having combined 'home' and 'work' for some years, it felt right." Home for the studio is the Frederiksstaden district of Copenhagen. "It's also the home of the royal family and the location of some of the most famous sights, with beautiful parks, the sea [and] lots of picturesque alleys," says Dahl. "I love my 'hood - it feels like living in Paris, Moscow, London and Rome all at the same time." This eclectic, vibrant feel is important to him: "A pivotal point in my career was spending time in New York and Paris years ago. These two cities showed me a world that combined fashion and graphics, among other things."
In the mix
Dahl is certainly not afraid of mixing things up, whether in his striking designs or the clients that Homework takes on. "I've worked with very different clients [including] a huge top-class boutique hotel, an international gallery and a small Danish sex shop," he says. The key lies not in the product but in the team behind it, Dahl explains. "Do we share the same ideals? Do they dare to take new steps? And, of course, are they sustainable? It can be fashion - or dog food. If the project and [the potential] client's dreams, beliefs and personality are interesting, it excites me."
Choosing projects can be a minefield, though, even when you're successful enough not to be scrabbling for work. "I'm lucky and can honestly say that clients come to me," says Dahl. "However, in the long run this can turn out to be bad for you, since you don't have time to reflect on what you want, what will be good for you and the studio concerning dreams, direction and development." It goes against the grain to turn down projects, but sometimes, "it is essential, to grow".
Dahl says his particular love is print work. "I've always had an intense passion for typography," he explains. In fact, his enthusiasm for design started with messing about in Microsoft Word, the only program he knew of at the time. "[From it] I got some of my first great experiences of the impact of digital typefaces and typography," he recalls. "Illustrator, Photoshop, QuarkXPress and InDesign were soon to be discovered, of course, but I'd spend days researching new and old typefaces. I couldn't stop; it became almost obsessive."
At the time of writing, Dahl is immersed in font research towards a dynamic identity for an exhibition at the Danish Design Centre, the Pompidou Centre and the V&A. He's buzzing with enthusiasm. "For this brief, Helvetica would be my first choice for a font; it's both raw and elegant, and can be classic and contemporary, arty and commercial at the same time," he says. "When doing logos, I always try to make them a bit dynamic, working with old, new and original font families, breaking them, respecting them, re-drawing them or combining them into new logotypes."
Dahl describes Homework's style as "clean and classical, while also being contemporary and abstract." "At times I allow myself the simple beauty in things. I don't like it when things are too conceptual or gimmicky. It's not always about creating something new, but trying to make something common look interesting." He has no time for pretension, however. "My job is only a job and I don't see myself as an artist, just a graphic designer with a privileged job."
Work, rest and play
Looking at his past achievements, Dahl particularly values his time as artistic director on HE magazine. "We started out wanting a direction [for] a men's fashion magazine that we couldn't find in comparable publications," he remembers. Dahl decided on a very clean format, inspired by "the Memphis design era, Danish LEGO and Pac-Man - referential elements but with a modern result. To make it 'hardcore meets pop' was our work phrase." And, being a self-proclaimed typography freak, Dahl wanted to get the font work on HE just right: "It had to be quite tight and masculine but still playful."
Unsurprisingly for a man who appears to buzz with energy, Dahl has many plans for the future. Personal projects include building a summerhouse north of Sealand in Denmark, in the "most amazing wild and green space," and a trip to Japan - although even this has a work slant, as Dahl admits that he's interested in giving more Japanese clients the Homework treatment. And work-wise? "I'm restructuring Homework's client base and keeping my eyes open for a new studio and workspace," says Dahl. However, expansion as such is not on the cards. "Not yet," he says. "I have Kalle Graverholt, Benjamin Jonsson and Klaus Lindbak designing for me, and I work with others out-of-house, depending on the project."
With Homework, you get the impression that every move is thoroughly thought-out - no blind leaps of faith here - and that goes not just for projects the team takes on but how the studio itself operates. The balance has been struck, so, for Dahl, an element of 'If it ain't broke.." comes into play when thinking of how to take Homework into the future. "It's taken me years but I feel that I'm finally there," he says, "where I don't work over weekends and don't have that desperate urge to check my email every second, 24-7. It's a great relief and a conquest for me."