Reading Pictures. Interviewing graphic artist, Sune Ehlers

Sune Ehlers is a graphic artist and painter based in Hørsholm, on the outskirts of Copenhagen. He has absorbed an eclectic visual aesthetic with influences from both classical and contemporary artists and invented his own language. Sunes own visual translation of everything from Disney to Miro, makes the observer stop and reflect, which we love.
Working in graphics, animation, paintings as well as on illustrating objects and furniture, Sune has the rare gift of making his work very accessible by simplifying this language, using elegant line drawings and paint. His work can be “read” by everyone, as he invites the viewer to participate. He refers to his work as a mental stimulus, Imagery that speaks to our senses providing us with a framework for possible interpretation. He prefers to invent the images in his work rather than copy a scene or image he encounters in real life, or often he re-interprets a scene by approaching it from another angle. His block color paintings give space to the figure by reducing it to their simplest, raw form, but at the same time his images are often bunched together creating new lines and new visual experiences in his work. It seems like the artist is trying to discover the archetype for each of the images, while at the same time, including a small twist to the story. Sune has been highly respected amongst his peers, since the time he was the Art Director at Euroman, the leading fashion magazine for men in Scandinavia, and established his own company, (River Design). He is a graduate of The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, winner of so many graphic design awards that there's too many to mention. Sune has worked with clients as diverse as Coca Cola to character design for the film Strings, which has won several prizes. His deceptively simple illustrations serve a bigger mission of providing us with the task of thinking through complex concepts, while at the same time offering us a sense of comfort and intimacy.

We tasked ourselves with interviewing the man responsible for some of the best magazine layout designs in Denmark of the last decade.

Sune, can you tell us how you started out?

My first work came out of my interest in the Hip Hop and Graffiti community in Copenhagen, riding the A line to Copenhagen from Hillerød in the late 80’s brings back great memories. I started running my own studio right out of the Copenhagen Design Academy which was great and it forced me to step out of my comfort zone, the learning curve was steep those first years.

Most of my early work, shows and publications were done in collaborations with other designers and artists. I was and still am very much into a push pull approach. Meaning, I did something, another artist did something and out came a third thing. For instance I did a few books with English artist and good friend Jon Burgerman, where we combined our scribble power to an entire universe: The Hello Duudle world. We did books, shows, posters, clothing together. I was always interested in exploring techniques and processes of commercial art and I wanted to bring what I loved about graphics into the public space.

You come from a more commercial background in Art Direction and it seems that your art sometimes takes a back seat. Is that a natural way of things and how do you combine the two worlds today?

I have always liked to go back and forth. It has been a big part of my practice to consciously not take things too seriously and remember to "play" and allow my work to be free flowing.… as I get older, I have found that, pop culture references from my youth finds Its way into my artwork. It reminds me to have fun and use "humor" in my creative process as an Art Director, which I love. So in that way very small things in my artwork can make a large impact on the way I live and work. I try to take the playful and searching approach from my canvases and drawings and use them in my commercial work. I want it to live. And vice versa; techniques, composition and ‘graphic language’ from my bread and butter work - the art direction of for instance magazines, sneaks into my art work. IN other words I really try not to compartmentalise to two disciplines too much. They are in my head anyway - the same.

Through the years I’ve worked on tons of projects where the main focus was on my motives and my specific visual approach. I  don't consider myself a part of the established art community. For me If things get too dark, takes itself too seriously and are really gloomy it can definitely be cool, and great. But it doesn't necessarily capture my imagination. Much of the art world are super preoccupied in staging a closed and mystic scene where its all about acting like a true hard to get artist. I tend to run the other way. I want to convey openness and invite people in.

My paintings are graphic and intentional in a way that my work has always been, but they are also painted without a manuscript, so I never know where I end up with a piece, which is very satisfying. For me that freedom is the thing, it is not about where it is going as much as it is the process itself. My work is about finding connections through visual language. Playing with familiarity, universality, preying on the imagination of my audience. Where as the paintings have the ability to become their own fully formed world, a language of their own.

You’re running the company, your personal company. And River Design. How many people work with you and how do you manage each project with your co-workers?

My studio is really just me and my wife (my partner in crime). Together we run River Design. It has never been more than that over the years. To run a studio small in any aspect means that we can change what is happening in the studio very quickly, and what I can take on is very narrow. Even with a few things going on we are very busy. I like to be super involved in projects, to be a part of every stage. So the growth of the studio is more about creative growth, feeling good and working with nice people, rather than scale.

You work in various medias from paintings to ink drawings, prints, animations, furniture and graphic designs. Are there any specific parts you enjoy more or how do you work between the different medias?

I am always most inspired by the next big thing, I have worked on panels and walls many times, so right now i find it super inspiring to be able to work on a new format, as we're doing in this project in Restore. Having the opportunity to work with new textures like leather, cotton and clothing design in general.

Much of my work is about looking inward, and it comes out of a very traditional creative design process. So something that I have learned is that it is good to have a variable outside of that process; like a new material (leather) or a technical challenge (textiles). My paintings comes from techniques learned both from working on canvases, installations and furniture, everything I work on finds its way into different aspects of my work.

You have a very graphic style with multiple reference points, it seems familiar yet puzzling: what inspires you as an artist?

I get a kick out of people. Bumbing into new ways of thinking, a different approach and another outlook ignites me. I feed on other people’s energy. I like projects that are very open. The back and forth with creative people definitely inspires me.  But speaking about motives I can’t really limit it down to specific sources of inspiration.

I like to take on challenges and have to deliver, and ideally exceed expectations. So this might not be exactly inspiration. I have referred to it in the past as “Flow” and I guess for me this is what inspiration is.

Having seen your studio and house you seem to care a lot for design. What is good design to you?

It is like I said earlier, I like design that is deliberate, not a version! I feel that good clear design, makes you enjoy it even more. There are many amazing Danish furniture designers, sometimes the perfect chair is not the one that is the most comfortable, small flaws in comfort can be inconsequential compared to the style and design of it.

As a kid what did you want to become when you grew up?

I guess I would have to say a Chef

And how did you end up doing what you do now?

I think the same thing that drew me to cooking and wanting to be a chef, is what drives me today. I love working in the moments, I'm creating something new everyday. "Graphic design is limitless in its possibilities. It's a career that allows you to be fluid, to explore different solutions through choices, layouts, and colors. I at the same time immensely enjoy book jacket design for the same reasons, and I can combine my love of literature and design. Graphic design has taught me to never be content with comfortable, so I look forward to everyday and the challenges that it may bring.