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Eye Exam: Keeping Calm and Carrying On

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poster for Mandate

poster for Mandate

By Jason Foumberg

“Why do all the work?” asks Nadine Nakanishi of traditional printmaking techniques. The rhetorical question is often posed to her and Nick Butcher, who together run Sonnenzimmer, a silk-screening poster-design studio in Roscoe Village. A shopper at the Renegade Craft Fair in San Francisco stopped at their booth to ask why he shouldn’t simply get posters made at Kinko’s where 11×17 full-color sheets are available for about one dollar each. The question doesn’t frustrate Nadine but emboldens her to promote print culture, and she’s clearly spent a lot of energy doing so. Nadine is thoughtful, articulate and passionate about the continuing need for local, hand-crafted prints—not fine-art prints but posters, announcements, catalogues, books, flyers—and Sonnenzimmer’s output is testament to this ethic.

Nadine and Nick started as painters and gravitated toward prints as they realized how a print could fulfill a need where a painting couldn’t. At first, they traded rent for poster designs. After mentoring with local print legend Jay Ryan, they founded Sonnenzimmer in 2006 as a fully functioning business enterprise. Their love for painting hasn’t died, though, as painting and drawing often makes its way into their printed compositions.

The growing success of Sonnenzimmer shows how two distinct creative fields, art and music, can strengthen each other. The bulk of their commissions come from music promoters and musicians, from homegrown jazz acts to nationally touring groups such as The Books, Fischerspooner, Throbbing Gristle, The Sea and Cake, and many more. Chicago, like Minneapolis, is a huge base for printed gig posters, so how does a new studio like Sonnenzimmer make a name for itself? One way is to develop a unique style, to visually stand out. Nadine often takes the role of typographer and favors a classic Modernist approach, and Nick likes the freeing directness of hand-drawn figures, and their collaborations strike a balance. They often improvise on a poster, taking turns laying down colors, shapes and textures until an overall design emerges. This process mirrors the way some of their experimental musician clients create soundscapes, each resulting in finely textured works with many little parts that inform the whole. Pointing to a delicate shape invented by dragging a soggy telephone book across the photocopier, Nadine says, “You gravitate toward the solution you know how to execute.”

poster for Taqwacore

poster for Taqwacore

Someone once told Nadine that if she stayed in Chicago she wouldn’t make it, that the city cannot support its artists. Perhaps that is somewhat true for visual artists; Chicago has a ton of makers but the market for fine art is much larger on the coasts. For the applied arts, though, Chicago can be highly sustainable. Nadine, who is from Switzerland, fawned over Chicago as home to the Institute of Design and the world’s first skyscraper. She notes how modern typography has historical roots in the Midwest, and that Mies had no academic degree, only apprenticeships, and so she stayed.

As printmakers in the digital age, Nick and Nadine are up against a lot, but they affirm the need for good design and skilled craft simply by propagating it. They do not complain. In April they created the Chicago Printer’s Guild, a way for local printmakers to combine forces. The fifty or so members help each other locate odd pieces of machinery, answer copyright legalese, and generally serve to raise community awareness about print culture. It is hoped that a potential client will not “just go to Kinko’s” if they realize the ways that an artist can help them. And the creation of a guild doesn’t worry them—surely they are all competing for the same jobs, but whoever gets the commission is likely the best fit. In Chicago, “one studio more is better than one less,” says Nadine.

As the mystique of the art world’s gatekeepers turns many people away, visual artists are more and more shifting to graphic design, reclaiming their role as image-makers. The public listens to design. But the poster-design world is becoming saturated, says Nadine, and although it is an enduring medium of expression, some reevaluation is required. She looks to the current successful business models. Most of these are facilitators, like Google, not producers. As fine artists are inherently producers of objects, they are falling by the wayside of monetary success and public relevance. Nadine feels that printmaking, which is more process-oriented than product-driven, is attuned to the new business model. It is, and always has been, about sending out a message, about delivering information, and about connecting people through a shared, visual portal. That sounds like a definition of the Internet, but it’s printmaking.

Sonnenzimmer posters are available for purchase at Nadine Nakanishi’s recent book, Formal Additive Programs, is available for $23.

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