An Interview with the Inimitable Christophe Szpajdel
by Patrick Gantert
Our interview spanned many weeks and countless Facebook messages back and forth, within which I became familiar with Christophe’s unique and hyper excitable cadence. Our correspondence culminated with an hour and a half Skype meeting (we didn’t use video, I just stared at Christophe’s Skypicon of a frog) where we discussed Facebook, local art communities, his own calligraphic style Depressiv’Moderne, bad dates, and much to Szpajdel’s chagrin, Bjarne Melgaard. This doesn’t pop up in the interview but it is worth noting that all of his logos are hand drawn and subsequently scanned into a computer, he is a man indebted to the fundamentals. Christophe Szpajdel is the presiding aesthete of the dark (musical) arts and I’m humbled to present the following interview.
A. Hi Christophe. I’d like to start this interview with a general introduction to you and your work. Can you tell me, where are you living? Do you have another job to support your work? Who is your favorite band? Who is your favorite artist? Anything else you’d like to share is welcome here.
B. I am currently living in Exeter for about 6 years now. I actually live in the UK for more than 10 years now. I moved from belgium to the Uk IN June 2002. In fact the reason i moved to the UK is because i needed a stable job, I work currently as retail assistant for a convenience store company. My favorite bands are many but if i have to mention one in metal, it would be immediately CELTIC FROST. Don't take me wrong, i am very eclectic and I listen to many musicgenres like folk (my current favorites are Teona Kumsiashvili (Georgia), Psarantonis (Crete), Locrian (USA), Eschaton (Austria) just to mention a few. I also like classics like The Foundations, KISS, Ultravox, Elvis Presley, Amy Winehouse, Jacques Brel, Georges Brassens and some more experimental,,,,,Don't get me started...or i'll get carried away. My favorite artists are : The classics of Art Nouveau: Toulouse-Lautrec, Victor Horta, hector Guimard, peter Behrens, Gustav Klimt...Art Deco: Timothy Pflueger, Wiliam Van Alen, Bruce Goff, Frank Lloyd Wright, Beryl Cook, Tamara De Lempicka. Now About more contemporary artists, I'd like to mention Mel Knight (http://www.melk-art.blogspot.co.uk/). There are three piecer of art that i really like in her portfolio, it's "Mapping the Journey", "Pride or Prejudice" and "Natural Erosion". Other artists that really impressd me are is Emma Clare Grimshaw, http://emmaclaregrimshaw.tumblr.com/ . Her works amazed me through her perception of nature. Amazing pastels by Heatherbell Barlow, Devon. ...the brutal death metal tasting artwork of Lisa perrett (www.lisaperrett.co.uk) and the amazing work of Ivan Clarke, http://www.ivanclarkegallery.com/, my top favorite versatile artist. I discovered him on my last trip to new zealand and he immediately stole my heart. Point of view logo art, i would like to mention Medan Savamhel (Ba'al graphics), Gragoth (Luciferium War Graphics), Chris Horst, Kogaion Art, Daniel Desecrator Corcuera, Industrie Chimere Noire, Raou Gozerian (View from the Coffin) that come straight to my lips. There is an incredible art community here in Devon and across the world that i am often getting speechless when i discover a new artist...everywhere i walk, i can expect the unexpected.
(Author’s note): It was at this point in our Skype interview that Christophe raised an important architectural notation pertaining to his work. He was discussing the Honorary Degree show at the University in Plymouth (a show he would talk about at length), near where he lives. The show takes place in two buildings, the Lewinsky Building, a very contemporary building, and the Royal William Yard, a historic piece of the old city. He took an intense interest in the spanning of time between those two forms. As I began to think more about his designs, this space between time periods became increasingly important as he draws a great deal of inspiration from natural and historic forms and thereafter melds it with a contemporary and accelerating art form. In that sense, it seems that his logo designs are a force of progression.
Q. Lets discuss your career, you’ve designed upwards of 7,000 logos. What year did you start and what was your first logo?
R. I started back drawing logos for my own pleasure in the mid 80's when black/speed/thrash metal was at its golden years, like on my school folders, later on, in 1989, when i met Thrierry Prince who was writing for a fanzine called Septicore. I drew for him a few logos for his "Morbid Noise" compilation tape. that was back in 1989. Later on, i drew logos for bands like Disgrace (Finland), Morbid Death/Blasphereion/Enthroned (apart line up changes, these three bands were formed by some amazing guys who kept the cult of blck/death metal alive. Enthroned is one of the biggest bands I worked with alongside with Emperor....That was how i left a significant footprint in the early 90's black metal scene). Some other logos i must mention are Covenant (Nor), Old Man's Child (Nor), Soulburn (NL, Asphyx/Pentace members), Nargaroth just to mention a few.
Q. I’ve read that nature is a big influence in your work. Death and Black metal have a sometimes latent, sometimes overt preoccupation with nature, namely its inherent force and power. There is certainly an overlap with that attitude in your designs, could you elaborate on that?
R. Nature is definitely a major influence on my creativity and a lot of Black metal bands have a something that enhance the intricate, latent sides of nature. the laws of nature, the principle of Natural Selection. Art Nouveau brought me another influx about the notion of "Cult Of nature". Art Nouveau has the characteristics of branches, trees, feelings of suffering, domination upon mankind. The inherent forces and power are conveyed by cataclysmic episodes like storms, earthquakes, floods, prolonged periods of droughts or floods that can be regarded as a response to the desequilibrium caused by man on the natural ecosystem.
Q. You’ve developed a calligraphic style from Art Nouveau and Art Deco called Depressiv’Moderne. The Moderne portion of that title is understandable with your influences but the Depressiv part is a bit more esoteric. Can you describe how music and attitude aid in shaping the conceptual framework of your designs?
R. Correct, That style has been inspired by the art of Bruce Goff, especially when he designed the Boston Avenue Episcopal Methodist Church in Tulsa. His use of angular, rectilineous patterns coupled with zigzags, interweaving patterns are al the ingreients that triggered my fascination for that style. In facct, i would even say without being afraid that Timothy Pflueger and especially Bruce Goff invented Depressiv'Moderne as a prediction to the 30's upcoming economical gloom that historians called "The Great Depression". Simplified motives, austere looks suggest that an upcoming period of Gloom (periode des vaches maigres succede une periode de vaches grasses- A period of privation succeeds to a period of opulence and aboundance like it was in the 20's). Musicwise, I think about dark ambient drone doom depressive black metal with a down tempo rhythm like it is the case of such bands as Apparitia (FIN), I Shalt Become, Sterbend, Triste, The Elemental Chrysalis, RuhrHunter.... these bands are creating monumental atmospheres that gives you this impression of being surrounded by high cliffs veiled with thick mists and you can see these sharp silhouettes shaping...it is something that fascinates me as it is sort of my universe of creativity. That is actually what triggered me to label "Depressiv'Moderne". A prime example of the Depressiv’Moderne style is the logo for the band The Grey Room (pictured to the right). The vertical energy in this logo mimics that of the aforementioned Boston Avenue Church.
Q. A friend of mine and fellow WOWHUH contributor Nicole Killian tipped me off that you had work in the Walker Art Center. I have a special connection to the Walker as I spent a lot of time in Minneapolis growing up. You designed a logo for them during the show ‘Graphic Design: Now In Production’. Could this logo, though abstracted from the music, still be considered Depressiv’Moderne?
R. It was indeed a GIANT LEAP in my career to exhibit at Walker Art Center and it was indeed a lifetime event. Neil Armstrong said in 1969, when he stepped on the Moon for the first time that a smal step for a human on the moon was a giant leap for the entire humanity. When i entered the Walker Art Center on the 20th of October 2011, on my first steps and with entirely gobsmacked eyes, i said "This is a small step for an artist but a GIANT leap for the entire ART discipline....and it made the thin line between Graphic Design and Fine Arts even thinner. In fact I visited my exhibition on several occasion, saw it framed and mounted on a wall dedicated exclusively to myself. From all the exhibitions I took part in, this was from far the most important one. Actually, during my entire stay in Minneapolis, I was so inspired and creative that I completed 50 logos from scratch to finish, including logos for some satellite projects/associations that gravitate around the Walker Art Center (Tigtone), the names of the designer staff and a bespoke logo for the Walker Art Center, which I handed in by the end of my stay in Minneapolis. That logo has a lot of the caracteristics of Depressiv'Moderne, that means staright lines and curves, shading, impression of flow but it has also the characteristics of contemporary art, Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Properly spoken Depressiv'Moderne logo have a perfect bilateral symmetry and zigzag motives while the Walker Art Center logo hasn't these zigzags and has a central symmetry rather than an axial symmetry added to the elements. If i had to label this logo, i would say it has got elements of depressiv'moderne, contemporary and experimental. I am actually pushing more to create logos which are abstracted from the music. I extended my field of creativity and am emphasizing that will to explore new fields that are abstracted from the music.
Q. There is a surprisingly strict orthodoxy in Black Metal that paradoxically almost echoes a religious doctrine (distinctions about riffs, vocals, imagery, etc). Do you feel those same strictures in logo design? Though beautiful and subtly different, there is a homogeneity to many logos within Black and Death metal, have you noticed a particular code or rule that comes along with bands adopting a logo?
R. In every logo i create, there's a very important criteria i am looking at: the HARMONY between the letters. What the client says is crucial. A black metal band will, in most of the case, want a logo that reflects their music and imagery: Sharp letters, presence of religious/occult symbols, goats, wolves, jagged edges. With every client I work, I require a full briefing about the researched effect in the final product. After having exchanged several mails to have a clear understanding, then i submit a preliminary sketch prior to taking it to further stages. The client gives me feedback and most of the time, changes are required, then I submit amended sketches before any further stages . If, after a few submissions, the client does not like how the logo is coming along or finds the submitted sketches don't reflect entirely the conceived idea, it's a kiss of death, the client is gone and will do business with another artist. An example of old school black/death metal artist is Chris Moyen, who is a cult icon in the entire scene. An example of a truly black metal artist is Gragoth from Luciferian War Graphics. An example of black/death metal artist is Daniel "Desecrator" Corcuera and an example of ambitious artist is Medan Savamhel from Ba'al graphics who in very little time was able to create a fine border between occult art and avantgarde modern style. A death metal band will want the logo to be more jagged but less pointy, with thicker fonts. Death metal logos are consisting of letters only. A black metal logo will often have fonts derived from Old English or Gothic fonts, with the first and last letters being more important and linked to an ornament or several ornaments , the presence of religious/occult symbols is often essential.
Q. Within the aforementioned strictures comes a lot of opacity in terms of message, with growled vocals and epic imagery sometimes clouding the overall message. Do you strive for a similar illegibility in your designs? Is typographic illegibility ever a request from your clients?
R. When it goes to the music, the genre I am aiming is where there is something like clarity through opacity. There are zillions of deathcore/metalcore or brutal slamming death metal bands with pig squeals who are all clones, sound all the same and have all the same lyrical contents and are searching for the most unreadable logo possible. These are not interested in my art and they will rather turn to other artists who are specialized in this overabundant genre. I have a very particular policy, its to create logos which are readable, unless specified by the clients. That created a natural evolution through selection. Most of the clients that contact me play in band which do contain a certain melody, growling/screaming yet articulate vocals. Some of my favorite vocalists are Tom Warrior (Celtic Frost), Jeff Becerra (Possessed), Messiah marcolin (Candlemass), King Diamind (Mercyful fate), Tom Araya (Slayer), The Good ol' father Lemmy (Motorhead)... Most of the time, I strive for a compromise between impressive effect and certain typographic legibility in my logos. Everytime iwork with a client, i put every possible effort to accomodate the requirements of my client. If the client wants the logo to be completely illegible, then i do the way the client wants. With every client, i make every effort to deliver excellent customer service, reason why preliminary sketches and their evaluation by the client are essential.
Q. Do you look at much contemporary art?
R. Melanie Knight (www.melk-art.blogspot.co.uk) who has created the most stunning pieces of art using mixed media. Several of her pieces like "Natural Erosion" or "Pride or Prejudice" or "Mapping the Journey" have been a precious and priceless source of inspiration for exploring new areas in my creativity. Her work has been incredibly educational for me....pushing the limits further Emma Clare Grimshaw (www.emmaclaregrimshaw.tumblr.com) who really appealed to me as her art is very much based on nature, forests, woodlands...Lisa Perrett (www.lisaperrett.co.uk) who explored the feelings of fears. Anyone who is fan of brutal death meta should check her work. Sally Bridgnell (www.bridgnellandcampbell.co.uk) who created incredible effects using splash and drippings. her work is absolutely incredible Samuel Stenning (www.wix.com/sstenning/portfolio) and Tim Salter (www.artsel.co.uk) who developped eerie aspect of contemporary art using effects of rust, erosion Sally Rich (www.sallyrich.co.uk) who illustrate realistic things in a very twisted way, merging traditional with contemporary art, Melinda Schwakhofer (www.inspiraculum.co.uk) who absolutely amazed me with her last work using different mixed media...Harriet Cross (www.harrietcross.co.uk) is another example of contemporary/abstract art i really enjoyed....Dan Wheatley (www.danwheatley.com) is an excellent example of combination betwen traditional and contemporary with an experimental approach. I really enjoyed his oil paintings. This is just a quick browse of artists I came across...that really create a stir in my inspiration. There are some artists from New Zealand like Alvin Pankhurst (www.pankhurst.com) or Ian Clarke (www.lonelydog.com) who really inspired me, mixing traditional with contemporary and abstract. When I was in Minneapolis, I discovered a few amazing artist like Marian Bantjes or Christine Fetterley (who is also staff at the Walker Art Center).
Q. As someone closely associated with the Black metal scene, I am interested in your take on its appropriation within contemporary art. Essentially, artists like Banks Violette and, to some extent, Bjarne Melgaard have utilized Black Metal aesthetics to produce objects that were quickly shuffled into and sold in an unregulated art market, effectively transforming into commodity. I realize this may be a bit loaded but what is your feeling on one scene that strives toward revealing truths being appropriated by another that purports to do the same but, in practice, sometimes does not?
R. Banks Violette really conveyed to my art creative appeal with the shapes of portals, gates, notions of tallness while Bjarne Melgaard kind of left me confused. It's nice but not what i am looking for, just not for me. Before you mentioned these 2 names, I never heard anything of both before, instead. I got truly captured by the pottery art of Grayson Perry who showed that colourful, contemporary, pro-active art can also be a great escape when it goes to creativity. He was actually a huge intake of inspiration for me. Someone that truly captured my mind was the guy of tessellate Designs (www.tessellate.us) that touched a subject that absorbed me: Moths and insects melted with abstract art. His designs are absolutely WHAT i am looking for. This question is very complicated and confusing. Talking about commodity, o love how art nouveau and art deco developped floral and animal motives in objects of everydays use like cutlery, crokery, glassware, plates and lightings (wall sconces). that would be the subjects i would feel much more confortable. Again i am very sorry of my answer is not what you expected. I just didn't clicked at all on Bjarne Melgaard and I do not really like Bjarne Melgaard. As I said, in Banks Violette’s work, I find the portals very inspiring and the way that his projects take black metal as an initial inspiration but I do not find this in Melgaard’s work. I tried and tried but it is like a date that I just had, going on a date with a woman that I did not like but tried many dates anyway. One of these times, she said she thought that she and I should not see each other any longer and I was so HAPPY because I completely agreed.
Q. Would you call yourself a graphic designer? An artist? Neither?
R. I would say Artist, without any doubt, an artist specialized in Typography, band logos and lettering illustration.
Q. To go back to Depressiv’Moderne, you say that it is a style also born out of economic depression. Something interesting that has developed in contemporary art as a result of a poor economy and inflated prices is a trend towards more social, dispersed, and community based forms. I can imagine you are a critical community member in the metal scene, has there been frustration over the economy in that scene as well and has the community strengthened as a result?
R. You put your finger on the right thing. That is a very sad thing. That is also what triggered the notion of Depressiv'Moderne. The history repeats. in the 30's, when came the first Great Depression, Bruce Goff drifted from opulent, high Art Deco to more austere patterns like the striking exampe of the Boston Avenue Church in Tulsa. in 2008, I came up with similar depressive, rectilineous patterns like the angular shapes of tall monoliths integrated with this solemn, down tempo music like for example Tasos Xalkias who is performing Mirologia ( traditional greek Funeral songs). In all what i said, there is a notion of death, downfall, despair, frustration, decay, oppression...and there is a list of similarities between Bruce goff in the 30's and the birth of Depressiv'Moderne in 2008. frustrations come from the fact that when i raised my prices above 60 dollars, i could not get any work with my art. It looks like there are budget limits in the bands I work with and i often have to make deals on multiple commission works. I find the community of artists have suffered a drastic decline of crativity. Lots of artists have tried to find alternative ways to have joint exhibitions, like I did with the North Bridge Group for the Devon Open Studios 2011, I created a group of 10 artists exhibiting together , local and overseas, including jeremy McCurdy from Regnum Art Studios to mention someone from Minneapolis.
Q. Do you play any music yourself?
R. No, but i am putting all my visual ideas into a project called OBSOLESCENCE. With the help of Ronald Andruchuk (Musical components), Paula Whitfield (Lyrical components) and some additional musicians, I am putting together this project that conveys with the whole concept of Depressiv'Moderne. Obsolescence musicwise will be comparable to something betwen the ultra slow, funeral doom of Nortt (listen to Ligfaerd album) and the mellow but deadly depressive folk/dark metal of Xasthur (especially Portal of Sorow). OBSOLESCENCE will work with Graveside Funeral, based in Rhode Island, for the musical components.
Q. What is on the horizon for you, exhibitions, new clients, time off?
R. I am currently in desperate need of some serious exhibitions. 2012 is NOT a brilliant year at all. It is shadowd by some major events like the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics in London, the Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine that drains the attention from the grand public that is focused on these particular events. I have been for a while in talks with someone from Tbilissi to exhibit my art in Georgia repubic. this is something very important for me. I really would like to exhibit in Georgia , Armenia and Greece as i feel very attracted by the Asia Minor cultre and Music that also shaped up a lot of my crativity. I am also in talks with someone from New Zealand to arange a n exhibition. In the meantime, my 40 logos display which is part of the Graphic Design; Now in Production Art show that started the tour in Minneapolis (which I attended) is now at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Center in New York. I am currently working with 70 new clients, including an LA based band called CONJUROR for who I created one of the first Depressiv'Moderne logo back in 2008. I am now working on a brandnew logo for their upcoming debut album. Some other amazing cleints i would like to mention are Arctic Sleep. About time off, I had a few trips to belgium to visit my family and in October i am attending the Vimaranes Metallum festival in Guimaraes, Portugal. A small display of my art is also scheduled there. But the most important is that i am in real need of serious exhibition opportunities. So Please if there is anyone interested in exhibiting my art, please contact me or my manager Herlaka Rose who is representing me in the US, her contact is firstname.lastname@example.org or herlaka gsm (+1) 956-229-8090