Graphic design duo Atelier Brenda discuss studio dynamics

For the second instalment in a monthly collaborative series with Onlineprinters that sees us shine a light on the country’s graphic design talent, we talk to Nana Esi and Sophie Keij – the two women behind upstart design practice Atelier Brenda – about their studio’s inner dynamics, artistic integrity and getting your feet too close to the fire. We also asked them to revisit our logo, which they did in typically patchwork fashion.

At its core, how would you define your studio’s artistic intentions and vision?

Brenda is a made up character we feel related to. Artistically our vision is female, but we don’t exclude. We want to create a space, called ‘Atelier’, which is a platform on our website where driven or likeminded people – who knows if it’s girls only, we’re not entirely sure – can share their work on a stage. Members on this platform are Amélie Bakker, Nana Esi and Sophie Keij. We are all individuals, but we are also free to change our identity and use an alter ego. It’s a safe place for creativity and it’s all in your own hands! Graphic design is a means of communication, to translate a client’s intention in an artistic manner, and is something we perceive as an art form in its own right. It’s an outlet and a way of expressing our own intentions, dreams, thoughts and aspirations to a public.

Sometimes it feels like we’re married. In good times and in bad.

How do you organise your studio and its workflow?

From day one our favourite past-time has been researching, discovering and creating atmospheres. We imitated our own alter egos by opening closets and putting on different suits. During our student years we spent a lot of money on ‘cheap’ objects that inspired us. We’ve occupied several spaces, from bedrooms and garages to a worn-down music studio from the noughties (which we shared with at the time). Now our work happens mostly from home, but we meet each other as much as we can. It’d be nice to have a set work space, but living in different cities doesn’t make that an easy feat.

Can you talk to us about your approach in general?

When we get an assignment we tend to get started straight away, as this is the moment when most of our ideas come together – and like this, we don’t get stressed out immediately. After the meeting we start making a mood board where we try to translate our ideas. At this point it’s more intuitive. After this it’s time for the first drafts and rational part, such as making to-do-lists and budgets.

It’s an outlet and a way of expressing our own intentions, dreams, thoughts and aspirations to a public.

What tools do you use?

Nana: Office supplies, a pink rubbish bin, a wig, a doll, lights, gemstones, a copy machine, scissors and glue, magazines and fake flowers.

Sophie: Essential tools are energy, a mac, a phone, internet (sometimes having no internet at all is even better), a notebook and some music.

Can you discuss the internal dynamics of your studio?

We have a lot of similar interests, but we also look at things from a different perspective. This way we learn a lot from each other. Through lots of conversation we grew into a quite inexplicable duo. Sometimes it feels like we’re married. In good times and in bad.

While building our website, we teamed up with Amelie Bakker, shortly after finishing, we got invited for The Beursschouwburg in Brussels and decided to join in together as three individuals into this project. She is a friend and fellow graphic designer, we went to the same school and part of the ‘Atelier’ platform. We did other projects together, too. A shoot for Subbacultcha and a Everpress artist feature T-shirt design, coming out soon. We have a different vision and approach but the designing part we don’t split, everyone has the same voice in this, it makes it hard but very interesting.

As a duo, we don’t limit ourselves to graphic design, but we do specialise in it. You need other passions and inspirations to stay fresh.

Who does what?

Task-wise it goes a bit like this:

Sophie: push, planning, preparation, first drafts, summarise, overviews, experiments, variation, playfulness, brainstorm, images, typography, bigger picture, mood boards and image mining.

Nana: pull, be critical, streamline, summarise, conceptualise, brainstorm, images, collages, typography, fine-tuning, mood boards, image mining, thorough research, fact checking.

Collage, untitled, 2014 #fromthearchive #archive ?

A post shared by Atelier Brenda (@__bbbrrreeennndddaaa__) on

What about your studio’s name?

The name made total sense. Basically it started out as a joke in 2012. It began with decors and little installations, more spacious things. It was a way of expressing all creative emotion and energy we had, seriously needing more outlet than just the routine of school and celebrating new age, astrology and water. We’re children of the 90s.

Where does it come from? What inspired it?

Sophie: I came up with Brenda because I was watching Beverly Hills 90210 at that time and was inspired by Brenda Walsh.

Nana: Brenda was the sister of my best friend in elementary school. She reminded me of a time when I was little and careless and super girlie but boy-girl at the same time. She was almost literally the girl next door, as well. We started out with a third colleague, Els Vidts. We split up eventually, but we’re still friends, though. People come and go.

Can you pinpoint a person, or a moment, that was instrumental in making you want to become a graphic designer?

Sophie: Actually I wanted to be a graphic designer for a long time but my heart was also in architecture. I decided to start with interior design which only took three years, after that I went to Sint-Lucas Ghent to study Graphic design. As a child clear, visual communication was important to me because I have dyscalculia and dyslexia. Words were always dancing in front of my eyes, while logos were easy readable.

Nana: I studied communication science and was already designing things without thinking I was a graphic designer. Then I studied it, because i wanted a solid structure to understand the basics of design, but after 4 years it became quite clear this was the way to go. After all, Sophie and I made such a great duo that I started to believe in our artistic future. As a duo, we don’t limit ourselves to graphic design, but we do specialise in it. You need other passions and inspirations to stay clear in the mind.

What are the challenges you face as a graphic designer working in Belgium today?

Nana: An advantage of our job is how it can overcome linguistic barriers. I never perceived Belgium’s territorial matters as an aspect of my work. I believe people can move past these barriers when given the chance to develop themselves, through hard work or talent. Other people’s work really interests me as well and whenever I’m given the chance to share it with others, I’ll do it. When I like something I buy it, I cherish it, I support it. We shouldn’t be afraid, but we should also be able to grow.

Sophie: Lots of people think it’s only about designing, the tricky part is that you need to find time, discipline and a space where you can create and meet clients. Working together can be really nice because you are not alone in the process but it’s not always the fastest way to go.

To you, what role should graphic design occupy in the community?

Nana: Graphic design can be a means of community art, or the communication medium to support it. It’s a trade that can be deceiving, as well, because we’re bombarded with impressions nowadays. We actively search for them, too. Not all communication and visual language is sincere in terms of content. Also in terms of style: the internet is full of it. It’s easy to blatantly copy styles and elements. Sincerity, to me, is the most crucial characteristic of the designer.

Sincerity, to me, is the most crucial characteristic of the designer.

On a more personal note, how does your everyday inform your work?

Sophie: My work and living space is the same. The blue light of my computer sometimes keeps me up at night and my breakfast table is simultaneously my desk so I guess I can say my work is my life and my life is my work. To relax I do yoga or go for a drink.

Nana: The anxiety in the morning keeps you going as well.

Sophie: The anxiety of getting your feet too close to the fire before the deadline does that too.

Nana: Work is life and life is work, in the sense that I’ll try to include as much of my life in my work as possible. I’m an emotional person, I absorb emotions to unleash them afterwards. I need information and stimulation. I’m a spiritual person, too, which says a lot. I’m constantly on the move, although I’d love to work from home a bit more to balance life and energy.

What were your first introductions to graphic design?

Sophie: Posters of parties that I hung in my room during my teenage years. I also used to collect a lot of Boomerang postcards, the ones you find in cinema theatres.

Nana: All the flyers and posters I used to collect where and whenever I could get my hands on them. My mother never had the chance to pursue and artistic career when she was younger, and she’s the one who inspired me the most. Lots of inspiration comes from memories: toys, children’s books, my mom’s idea collages, and pimped school books with very bad tag writing and illustrations.

Who were the first clients that took a risk on you?

Everyone took a risk on us! But some notable mentions go to Nosedrip, Stroom, 10daysoff and – currently – the Beursschouwburg.


Who are some of your main clients today?

The Beursschouwburg is probably the most known one. And there are still some older clients around from back in the days: and label, OriginalEskimo and Laura Praet from WeCanDance and Fortlaan93. Our new clients are Lullabies For Insomniacs, Aguirre & Onderstroom Records, Point Albert, Cesar Casier, Spek (and some we don’t want to jinx yet ;-) )

An advantage of our job is how it can overcome linguistic barriers.

What work would you say you are the proudest of?

Nana: TANK#13, curated by Ziggy Devriendt back in 2013. Rather than a graphic design project it was an installation and décor project for Entrepot in Bruges. I don’t think there’s going to be another project anytime soon that’s going to transcend this one.

Sophie: The two Brenda books: I The magic touch of and II Inhaalman/Oeuvre. The first book was made by me and the second one by Nana. They’re a good illustration of the materials we used to work a lot with.

Who would you say are your design mentors?

All the artists and people that express the following quote in one way or another: “The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths” – Bruce Nauman (The list is very long).

What does success look like to you?

Nana: Creating opportunities, loving your work, finding the right balance, being in charge of your own schedule, collecting beautiful objects and having good relationships.

Sophie: Drinking rosé in the sun while looking at your e-mails with your other hand. And having discipline to get out of bed.

What would you say to the budding graphic designer just about to open his own practice?

Nana: Be self-dependent. Experiment before you get into something too serious, try different things, research, mingle and share your inspiration with others. Prefer flattery above enemy. Be honest, it avoids a ton of frustration. Surround yourself with positive people. Support! And above all: breathe.
instagram: @__bbbrrreeennndddaaa__