Set in Stockholm

by Madeleine Morley

Writer Madeleine Morley meets Stockholm’s Snask, whose larger-than-life typographic sculptures are proof that, sometimes, there’s just no beating the old-fashioned way...

As digital rendering becomes increasingly precise, with computer graphics looking just as real and three-dimensional as anything you could build or photograph, creating hand-made, intricate sets is becoming harder to justify.

But Stockholm’s Snask do justify it, with every typographic commission that comes its way – transforming type-based briefs into large-scale sculptural typographies made out of clay, fabric, bric-a-brac and wood.

Many agencies, readers and designers might ask: if you’ve been commissioned to create a typeface that’s shiny like bubble gum, why go through the stress of stringing out sticky, pink oozing material on a set when you could just generate the same effect on Adobe? Yet for Snask, building typographic posters and designs the hard-way – the hand-made way of paint, string, wood, glue and maybe sticky bubble gum – is the best approach to a brief, no matter how life-like or similar a result could be with CGI.

“It’s more passionate and fun to work by hand,” says the creative agency’s co-founder Fredrik Öst, who is warm and welcoming, and who you can tell enjoys playing the role of whimsical and eccentric mentor – the Willy Wonka of the design agency world.

“It feels larger than life when you design something and then see it in real life – artists and sculptors must get this a lot. Graphic designers get to see work in print, but to actually see your design built is something else.”

“the brief lives on after it's been finished”

“...the Willy Wonka of the design agency world...”

With stubborn rigor and deft eyes and hands, the agency has constructed letters in the shape of materials including hotdogs and candy. It’s made alphabets from marble, plywood, cake, felt, sugar, Styrofoam, and bread and for clients including The Washington Post Magazine, Target, Nickelodeon as well as local arts festivals. Its work is typography’s equivalent to a lush Broadway set design: intricate explosions of plush fabric, dramatic silver and gold, rainbow colours, pulleys, string and cardboard dazzle, like a fantastic stage for The Wizard of Oz (but where letters A through Z line a road rather than yellow bricks).

Most recently, Snask formed letters out of cornflakes, bread, icing, powdery sugar and glitter for a Target campaign, working with Martha Stewart’s food stylist to create a recipe for dough that would raise just enough in the oven to make letters look deliciously baked but still legible.

“Our process is one of lots of trial and error,” explains Öst. “We plan everything in advance, but some things you just can’t plan. For Target, we had to spend hours and hours putting corn flakes of the right size in a pile (you might think all cornflakes are always the same, but they’re really not…).”

Its swirling, carnival type for The Washington Post was made from wood, glass and marbled paint. Snask created the entire cover, even the masthead, from these materials, so the client not only received its graphics but also a large sculpture after the commission was realised.

“We find that creating these sets adds another element to the project, even if readers or consumers might assume it's been digitally rendered,” says Ösk. “Our clients can keep the final product and put it in their boring office. Have something to look at. It makes everything more tangible and exciting, and the brief lives on after it's been finished.”

When Öst partnered with Magnus Berg in 2007 to form the agency, handmade letters featured in several early projects. In fact, 3D type was essential to the founding of the studio’s own carefully considered, whimsical brand: early on, they built their agency’s name into a pink neon sign for the entrance of the studio (a name which Öst tells me, with Wonka-esque glee, means “candy, gossip and filth” in Swedish). Any one joining the team is given full responsibility straight away for incoming projects as the studio is founded on the notion of being hierarchy-free, and this playful quality and easy-going set-up is perhaps why some circles call Snask the “Disneyland for graphic designers”.

Its most ambitious project to date most strikingly captures the “larger than life” feeling that Öst describes as crucial to the studio’s raison d’etre. After being commissioned to create the identity for Malmöfestivalen, a city festival in the Swedish town of Malmö, Snask decided to build a typographic sculpture that could also act as the poster for the event. Never satisfied with the ordinary, the team wanted it to be the largest poster ever made. At 15x9 metres, the outcome was a popular photo stop for visitors and became a crucial meeting point: typography transformed into space. It’s not just about fulfilling a brief for Snask; it’s about creating a spectacle, a tangible experience, and a lot of hype. Maybe this is why at conferences, the agency doesn’t simply give portfolio lectures: the team play songs and makes its appearance in the guise of a demented prog-rock band dressed all in white.

“Originally, we wanted to make the Malmöfestivalen poster a huge wall of typography, but that was too risky – it could fall,” says Öst when asked about the process that went into devising the installation. “We decided to make it lying down instead so that it could be interactive, so that people could sit on it and play around it.” Once the typography had been built and set up on the site, Snask only had two hours to photograph the composition for a poster from a crane. Öst stood up above with a camera and directed his team from there.

“We only had this small slot of time because that’s when the sun would be perfect for shadows, it was like a manual drop shadow,” he says. “I was kerning typography from 30m above through a transparent floor, my team would have to rugby tackle each letter to move it, and it was incredibly windy from my vantage point.”

Snask have generated new meaning for analogue, hand-made typography in its post-digital context: it does not build sets for nostalgic or inward looking, self-indulgent purposes, but does so as a marketing technique, as a visceral spectacle where sugar grains and giant wooden planks need to be kerned in inventive ways and by hand. This is 3D typography as stunt; these typographic sets are primed and ready for the rectangular frames of Instagram. Öst & co. make type a circus. They’re putting on a show that seduces and impresses its consumers like a glittery, irresistible musical.

This feature is extracted from The Recorder Issue 4. You can order The Recorder Issue 4 from our Shop.

“We decided to make it lying down instead so that it could be interactive, so that people could sit on it and play around it.”