The secrets behind the success of ContainerPLUS

You may have already heard of the talented ContainerPLUS and their fantastic work. If you would also like to know how their success came about then just keep reading. And in case you haven’t heard of them – well, after reading my interview with Luise Vormittag below, you will be able to confidently join in the conversation when the hip kids talk about great design studios.

1. Can you tell me a little bit more about your company and what kind of work you do?

Luise: Our company is called ContainerPLUS and there are three of us working together. We started out as a partnership, just two of us – doing illustration mainly. But really early on in our careers we started being commissioned to do other things… [like] designing the interiors of some hotel rooms. So very early on we already started thinking about the third dimension and applying our work to different surfaces and different objects.

Illustration for Maxima – ‘Jahreshoroskop’

Set design for TOPSHOP press show, conference and staff party

Though we never had a business plan as such, we kind of just stumbled into lots of very different things. We really enjoyed working with the third dimension in that hotel room so that’s something we tried – with a little bit of direction – to carry forward. A few years ago we tried to be a bit more formal about doing more set design and more 3D work as well. We started working with a photographer who joined our company called Patricia. And started working with lots of different freelance set-designers and set-builders, doing more three-dimensional things.

Room design Hotel FOX Copenhagen, Denmark

Currently we are doing such a broad range of different things in our company that sometimes I think people find it a little bit hard to understand who we are and what we do. We do illustration, photography, and set design, we do a bit of animation,… installations as well, and events. But I think all of this diverse range of activities gets held together by a certain kind of … approach which is very playful and humorous and very hands-on.

Me: I think that is what makes your company’s work so interesting. For me as a viewer, there is so much happening. I agree with you and think it’s your unique approach that holds it all together, along with the strength of your ideas, and yes I would say a certain aesthetic, along with the way you choose the colours – that’s very unique.

Design for the London G-Wiz

Luise: Sometimes people… ask me why we don’t expand the company and get employees or more people in to do more jobs, and earn more money… Their idea is, that [if] we had a certain number of staff, then they could turn around a certain amount of work – whatever that would be – [and] that would give us the opportunity to do more creative work.

I have my doubts if that would work. And I think what gives strength to our company is that there is a sense of authorship in almost every piece… Maybe we are control freaks, but I couldn’t see how you could just get somebody else to do it, if they don’t have the right approach, if they don’t bring the right sensibility to it.

Me: I think [Stefan] Sagmeister is probably the most prominent figure who says that the way to end a creative business is to grow it… And I think it was Kyle Cooper [the creator of the famous title sequence for the movie Se7en], who was speaking about his experience of co-founding Imaginary Forces where they employed more than 100 people. He mentioned at a design conference in India that one reason why he decided to set up on his own again was that in the end it became rather stressful to employ so many people, as the business always had to bring in enough money to pay them all.

Studio space ContainerPLUS

2. Where are you based and what do you like best about your location?

Luise: We are based in East London, close to Spitalfields Market. We are in a building that we share with lots of other creative people like us. Which works really well, because there is lots of networking going on in the building… Most of the other companies in our building are also very small and we have diverse skills, which works very well… [and] has been lovely.

…What I like best about my surroundings are the people I think. Being surrounded by people like Patricia and Nicola who are very inspiring, and being surrounded by other good people in the building, and being in a building that really fosters creativity and allows the space for it to happen. We have a big – as you know – lounge area where you can go and sit and read away from your computer.
And we have heating! (Laughter) Actually, that’s what I like best about my surroundings. (More laughter)

3. How did you start to do illustration and how did you start working together?

Luise: I came to illustration after studying fine art [at Saint Martins College of Art & Design, London] and I couldn’t cope… So I left and I lived in Guatemala for a year, which of course was the only sensible option. (Laughter) It seemed like the only sensible option at that time anyway.

I came back and I changed to a different degree, which was graphic design [at Camberwell College of Arts, London], because I’m pretty sure there weren’t many illustration degrees around [at that time], … or at least I wasn’t aware of them. But within graphic design my tutor was an illustrator… That’s how I kind of started doing illustration. And it seemed to offer an avenue [for me] to be very creative, but perhaps without having the conceptual burden of working under the idea of fine art. And I think that’s also the good thing about our company. It allows us to be very creative.

Me: I think I once read on your website or somewhere else how you start working on a job, which sounds like a very good approach.

Luise: Yes we just have conversations really about what we think, just chats.
I think it really works for us to have conversations… There are good things about sitting down and thinking about things just for yourself and then bringing it out in conversation, having a talk about it. … Sometimes its through misunderstandings – I think ‘Oh Nicola [had such a great idea]’ and I repeat it back and she says: ‘But that’s not at all what I said.’… Sometimes in misunderstandings or in between [two ideas], things really grow. And [you find] what really works.

Window installation Selfridges

4. What was your first illustration or 3D job?

Luise: Weirdly, this is completely nuts, but our first client was Selfridges [one of the best-known department stores in London, renown for its creative window displays]. But the first thing that Nicola and I did, ever, ever, ever together was an exhibition at the Notting Hill Arts Club…

Me: Was this straight after College?

Luise: Pretty much straight after College… Nicola and I were working together in that we had a shared website. We were calling ourselves Container, but we were just a partnership with two different portfolios… Then I got offered an exhibition at the Arts Club, because I was working at the bar there. And I asked if Nicola could join me and the owner of the Arts Club said: ‘Yes of course’… Instead of [starting] working on two different shows,… we kind of merged [it] into one thing. And that was the first job we did together. And… the thing that we produced as a team was so much more interesting than what we were doing separately. We just started to keep doing that…

Exhibition piece Notting Hill Arts Club

We were just so lucky. Because on the back of that [exhibition], we got nominated as one of Creative Review’s “Creative Futures” that year. Which was – we’d only done one, one thing, and everybody else was so much more experienced! I really don’t know how that happened! Maybe they just had a spare slot and needed somebody. (Laughter) Which was really crazy, because we really hadn’t done anything, apart from this one show. There was nothing, we had no portfolio. That was it!

Then… in that particular year, which was the end of 2003 – so we were called “Creative Futures 2004” – everybody who was selected that year for Creative Futures, was given a window at Selfridges to do whatever they wanted and a budget to do what they wanted in that window. So we did all these illustrations, but on different kind of, how would you say, like layers. So it was almost like a theatre set design with all surfaces facing forward but on kind of different layers and cut into different shapes. We did that and then on the back of that Selfridges came back to us and commissioned us to design their cafe on the second floor, which is called the Lab Cafe. That was our first job.

Me: Not bad! (Laughter)

Luise: Not bad! (Laughter) I wish that it would have… continued in that way, but it went up and down from then.

Me: But that’s the nature of the business.

Luise: [Agrees] We’ve done lots of much less glamorous work as well – but we started on a high – which was great.

Illustrations for Neue Zuercher Zeitung, Switzerland’s main daily broadsheet

5. How has your work developed since you started working together?

Luise: It’s just gone down so many avenues I would never have expected to do… [things] like set design, designing rooms, animations and building – we did some non-commercial projects where we built installations. None of this was planned.

Me: But if you plan [these things], they may not happen.

Luise: Yes, but you know, we’ve done websites, which again, none of us would have thought we would do. But people / clients come to us, because they are drawn to what we do, not because we are specialists in animation or websites, but we specialise in creating a certain type of world, a certain type of humorous approach,… a certain aesthetic. Yes, people come to us for that.

If we find we need to do a website, we go out and find somebody who translates our work into Flash… or if we need to build a structure for an installation we find the people who can help us with this … We work with a network of people. If we need to build a miniature tennis racquet we go out and find somebody [who can] build a miniature tennis racquet.

6. Would you be willing to share how much time you spend marketing your business?

I think it’s kind of hard to separate the marketing aspect out, because every job has got an aspect [of it. Our work is]… in the public arena, people see it and that promotes our business. We are lucky in that lots of our work gets reproduced in books and magazines, and that’s a kind of… self-marketing going on, which is great! Of course you need to spend time submitting [photos, etc.] People come to you and say, “we would like to show this piece of your work”… and then you have to get the images together, and all of this takes time. But in terms of purposeful, directed marketing [she thinks about it]… to make phone calls and set up appointments, and once a year [we] send out Christmas cards, which is marketing, and… newsletters. It’s not huge amounts. Patricia does most of that.

Me: Do you have a certain time you regularly dedicate to doing marketing? Like a Friday afternoon 2-hour slot to update the blog and see who else you could contact?

Luise: No, not at all. It’s more organic. If something is there to be talked about, we talk about it and if there is nothing to talk about… (Laughter)

Illustrations for Neue Zuercher Zeitung, Switzerland’s main daily broadsheet

7. Where do you find inspiration?

Luise: Well, I think it’s just what you like and what you are into, isn’t it? It’s hard to answer this question because it just sounds so inane, so kind of expected.

Me: Well, I’m really into handicrafts. I look forward to going to Hay-on-Wye [small town on the border between Wales and England, famous for its over 40 second-hand bookshops] each year and I always come home with at least 2 or 3 ‘new’ books on handicrafts and paper from the 70’s. And it’s not that I need to reproduce exactly what’s in there [in my work], but it floats my boat, and it gets me thinking. So is there anything, you think, that is your particular interest, strange…

Luise: Strange people on the tube! [i.e. the London Underground] (Laughter) Strange characters. We all like strange characters, that is something we are fascinated by. And Nicola always seems to know weird people in her neighbourhood and talks about what they are up to… Just kind of unresolved, magical, mystery things.

New Year Card

Me: I think that makes sense, because looking at your work there is quite a lot of magic going on. I mean not in the ‘hat with stars’ kind of sense, but more in the sense of trickery. Something dark, maybe a bit sinister.

Luise: Yes, but in a fun way. Also superstition – I don’t think any of us are particularly superstitious… We didn’t design a Christmas card last year, but did a New Years card, which was a bit like a tarot card. Just kind of playing with rituals. Not necessarily religious rituals, but maybe ritual practices and the kind of ephemera they produce.

8. What does your typical day look like?

Luise: … I don’t think there is a particular typical day. I get up at a very convenient 8 o’clock … Usually I’m in the studio at about 10, go home about 7. But what I do in between – that really depends on the projects. I’m always surprised how much boring emailing there is to do. I can’t quite figure out why there has to be so much email.

Me: Have you structured your day in a particular way – like the morning is for emails and the afternoon is for creative work?

Luise: No, whatever happens happens, there is no structure. There is no typical day really.

9. Would you be willing to provide some insights into the different steps required to do your creative work? And which ones do you like best?

Luise: We usually start work with the thinking process – which is great! I like that… It depends on what kind of project it is… [but] I really enjoy that part, where you really think about what you are going to do, and how you are going to approach it and what your ideas are, and what your ideas might look like. And then I still really enjoy… fostering those ideas and seeing what you can spin them into…

Then it can be tricky sometimes – depending on what kind of client you work with – to match your ideas (of what may be best) with the clients ideas ([of] what may be best). And I don’t mean to say that we always know better, because that’s not the case! The client knows what their requirements are, what their brand needs.

And that kind of process of reconciliation is often challenging. And sometimes it’s challenging for the better and you end up with something better, sometimes it’s not. I’m not saying that clients ruin good work, although sometimes that unfortunately does happen. But I’m saying that… I understand why they need it in a certain way, but sometimes I prefer to do it in a different way.

Design for BURTON Feelgood snowboard

10. You have such a broad variety of jobs you’ve already done, is there anything else you would love to do in future?

Luise: For this year – we just talked about this the other day, and we are all very excited about this –… the 3 of us will each take some time out of working directly for the business and will do a self-initiated art project for a month. But [we are planning to] do it in a structured way. I think that will feed back into the business and… enhance [it].

… All 3 of us have those half-baked ideas of ‘I would really like to do that’ but you never end up doing it because of the job, or there is always something else to do. [So our idea is, that]… each person has to… present a proposal to the other two… who will pass on some feedback. And then you go away for a month and do it and [afterwards] you have to present it back to the group…

I think that will help us overcome our inner ‘lazy couch potatoes’ and just give us a structure to follow up some of the creative leads we all got lingering within us… [And I think this will]… bring something back into our business, which I’m sure this will make it more diverse and unsalable.

All images © ContainerPLUS

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  1. By lovely little interview | ContainerPLUS on 4 April 2011 at 1:06 pm

    […] of our favourite collaborators Jacqueline Wagner has posted a lovely interview with us – thank […]

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