Manuel Raeder"I think it’s very crucial to produce in order to figure out an alternative way of working."
by Asher Penn
portrait by Ulrich Gebert
Manuel Raeder is best recognized as the long-standing graphic designer for German fashion label BLESS, a brand whose public identity is as unusual and open-ended as the clothing they make; his formal and conceptual fingerprints appear clearly only if the receiver holistically investigates the full spectrum of his projects, collaborators, and clients. This includes publishing houses such as Walther König and Sternberg, artists like Michael Krebber and Sergej Jenson, and the imprints he mans with fellow designer Manuel Goller, such as My Bauhaus is Better Than Yours and Bom Dia Boa Tarde Boa Noite. Raeder's constance is consciousness: a willingness to engage with material he is working on and respond to it in the moment, with no allegiance to what he did yesterday or what he will do tomorrow.
What was your experience like in school?
When I started to study in London I was a little bit naïve. I didn’t really know what graphic design was. It seemed more free than a course like sculpture or painting. I didn’t know what I was gonna do, or what was gonna happen. That didn’t really matter so much because afterwards at the Jan van Eyck Academy it was much more about me defining my own profession, or defining my own practice in a way. There I started getting into theory, experimenting with printing and different things, and book making, figuring out how to bring those together.
Was the plan to work as a graphic designer?
No, it happened organically. When I was living in London I started working with friends, people who were surrounding me. Most of them were either involved with music or with the fine arts. Friends asked me to start doing fliers for gigs, artists started making me do invitations for exhibitions, things like that.
And it led to more projects?
I started working with some magazines, doing some interviews with artists, musicians, eventually doing the layout of the magazine...
What’s your relationship with the artists you collaborate with?
Every time it’s different. There are no set rules for it. It really varies. There are some artists that I’ve now made the fifth or sixth book with. After such a long time you have a totally different level of communication. It’s usually about trust. Sometimes it might take time, sometimes it can be very fast, sometimes it could happen within one or two weeks. Sometimes it can take years to create a space of mutual understanding.
Is there something in this dynamic that was actively and consciously pursued?
It became very clear when I was at the Jan van Eyck Academy, because I had already worked for a while in design. I was still very young, and hadn’t had much experience, but I wasn’t convinced about a profession that tries to persuade itself through pushing through an aesthetic, making it’s aesthetic look nice and labeling it as a way to survive. I thought “Oh my god, if I work in this profession I’m gonna be bored. I’m gonna be so bored doing the same thing over and over, so how can I create a praxis for me that I find challenging?” This question has always been present in my head since I started working as a designer: How can I detach this praxis and make it suit me and not me suit the praxis? I started looking at different things, like how books were made in the 60s and 70s; Fluxus, conceptual art books, and so on. I found it interesting that even when a designer works outside of the parameters they are usually trained in, a book can still work as a carrier of condensed information. It’s not the typeface, or the color, or the grid, but the structure that surrounds it such as editorial questions, or how it comes together more generally. This is what I still enjoy now, and this is what I have been busy with the last ten years.
What is My Bauhaus is Better Than Yours?
It’s basically a collective. It started as a thesis project for some students at the Bauhaus University in Weimar. I was advisor for their BA, so I was an advisor for this project. The idea developed into a company that could go beyond this final exam and have it’s own life. There are two founders, Manuel Goller and Daniel Burchard, and then there are other associated people who work on it. The idea is that it enables production of furniture and distribution in a more independent way. So they have some of my furniture in the program, but it’s not my company in that sense.
What is your relationship to Bauhaus?
Well, the title My Bauhaus is Better Than Yours is of course a very ironic joke. It relates to what is accepted as a classic design standard. Especially in Germany, where Bauhaus is considered a classic, people are not so open to new young design or things that might be out of the ordinary. The title is saying that something new, a new way of thinking might actually be a new classic. In German design there is very little risk, especially in graphic design and furniture. Design is historically linked to a commercial aspect that has more to do with promotion. But design is not about that, it’s also about human beings, and relationships. It’s about how someone relates to an object, and what this object means or what it says. There are lot of young contemporary designers that are still thinking about these things, expanding on these ideas, and suiting them to a more contemporary context.
How did you get involved with BLESS?
It was quite a coincidence. A mutual friend always said that we should get to know each other because the way I was thinking about graphic design was very much related to how they were thinking in fashion. I had never heard about them, I didn’t know who they were, and I had never worked in fashion before. My friend told me to call them when I was in Berlin or Paris. At one point I was in Berlin for a visit and ended up meeting Ines Kaag at her studio. It turned out that we’re from the same village in the south of Germany. We never knew each other, but there was an immediate, strong connection. Our perception about the world and design were connected. We became very close friends. One week later, they asked me if I wanted to do the book about ten years of BLESS. I said, “Yeah, of course, I would love to,” but I had never really heard about BLESS. They started showing me their stuff and I began working on the book. Two weeks later they called me again and said, “hey do you want to do all our graphic design?” That’s how the collaboration started growing over the years.
That’s when BLESS really established itself. How did you incorporate yourself into what they were doing? Were you riffing on what they had already established?
The first collection we started working on together was number 23. They already had 22 collections where they had worked with other graphic designers, and a lot of it was actually them doing things themselves. Eventually they found that they had no time to do it, so they really needed someone that they could maintain a dialogue with. The company was growing at that point and they began doing projects every six months in Paris. They have always had a very strong opinion about what design is. The first thing we worked on together was the look book, which came out every six months. BLESS doesn’t have classic fashion shows where models walk on the catwalk, where the clothes are presented by tall, slim models. Instead they invite all their friends to come to the show and wear the clothes. So almost every show has the same faces. Whether it’s a dinner or a football match, the people wear the clothes and the press is invited. So I thought we should consider the look book in the same way. It’s a way to escape the industry so that it’s not about the reaffirmation of clichés. How could the photographic language of the look book function in the same way as their collections & shows do. We came up with the idea of collaborating with magazines. We could insert the look book into existing magazines. This way we could sometimes publish it in a magazine about cars, or a magazine about food, animals, photography, art or fashion. It could escape form standardized forms of distribution and reach another audience.
These things are a big part of what make BLESS.
Since they very beginning of BLESS, there was always a great deal of concern as to how to represent an image. BLESS never wanted to have the staged photography and high-end fashion shoots where everything was staged and fake just for that specific moment. It’s important to consider how the woman wearing clothes in the fashion show is represented. These are questions that have always been present for BLESS. So after the shows they started asking for pictures from all the people that attended who had their own cameras. With those pictures we began constructing the look book, so it was an image that was much more related to the people who attended, rather than the image constructed by a photographer hired to produce a fancy nice picture. The nice thing was also that you could see over the years the same people in each show. Then we started saying “why don’t we start thinking about making a pattern from it?” The images and language created by the shows would enter the collection again. I started getting involved in textile designs, and we started making textiles from each look book that would then come out in the next collection.