We caught up with Matthew Bolger and Emelie Lidström, better known as M&E, for an interview about their background, methods of working, plans for the future and plenty more besides.
B: So tell us a bit about yourselves like how you met?
M&E: I’m Matthew Bolger and I am Irishman living in Malmö for eight years. And I’m Emelie Lidström from Sweden and together we are M&E. We have been working as M&E for about 10 years. We met in Dublin when we were both studying there.
B: How did you start working together?
M&E: At first we did flyers and record covers for our friends, who are musicians in Dublin. We really enjoyed working together and stayed in Dublin for two years doing stuff like this.
B: Then Sweden came calling?
M&E: We decided to move to Malmö and when we moved here it was for a fresh start work wise.
From the beginning we did assignments for friends. But then more and more people, who we didn’t know, started to ask us to do things for them. We thought we better set up a company so that we can do this for real. We started off in the way that we still do things; we used typography and building sets made by hand, and a lot of handmade techniques. Even from the beginning we had a similar vibe to what we have now, the aesthetics were set up early on.
B: Did your interest in graphic design come from being a kid that liked to draw or was it a subject you had in school or something else?
M: For me (Matthew) I started because I was into punk music and making fanzines basically. When I was skipping school, which I did a lot, I did stuff for friends. I started out doing that and then covers for tapes for bands; it was always music related. You know the usual heavy metal logo. When I left school I often had to study something to make money and I studied electrical engineering. But then I dropped out of that and I realised that you could make a living out of graphic design.
B: And for you Emelie?
M&E: I have always loved graphic design and design, colour, everything. I spent a lot of time drawing as a kid and then I found photography, when I got my first camera at the age of seven. I took photos all the time and knew early on that’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t know it was going to be in Ireland but I knew I was going to study photography.
M&E: It was a perfect combination (Matthew). We got our college degrees, Emelie studied photography and I studied graphic design; so it was a perfect match. At the beginning it was very much like one person doing the photography and the other the layout. Now that we have worked together for so long we have assembled into one thing; it’s all blended together. We can have a collaborative project and then we swap between one another and you won’t be able to tell who did what.
B: So you get both of you or none of you?
M&E: Yeah. We wouldn’t be doing the same type of work if we didn’t have each other; it wouldn’t be as good. When we began, when we started working together, we were doing different jobs. I was working as a window dresser in a record shop and you, Emelie worked in a gallery. When we moved to Sweden in 2007 we had a goal and that was to make a living off it design and we have done so ever since.
B: The experience of working with musicians in Ireland must have helped when you came to Sweden?
M&E: Music is a great way to start and that is where a lot of graphic designers start to experiment and that leads on to other cultural institutions like galleries, opera houses, dance theatres. It is all very connected to music. We have never wanted to work for one company; we have always been freelance and had our own company. This is great because then you can choose which projects you want to work with. We still work with musicians but now we also do a lot of advertising using our aesthetics from record covers.
B: Was it hard to maintain your own style when you started working in advertising?
M&E: We were going to do what we do no matter what. People come to us asking for our aesthetic and our ideas so it’s not hard to maintain our style. But we never try to force it on anyone, it has to work with the idea and the message. And we have quite a wide range of styles now but with a common thread.
B: Did being in Sweden help you in the early days?
M&E: Moving to Malmö, with lower living expenses, gave us the opportunity to be creative and experiment more, and not focus on having too high overheads but instead focus on the company. For instance, we had some financial struggles in the beginning as starting up your own company doesn’t come easy. It takes some years to be able to live off of it; so you have to be focused on what you want to do.
B: Money was tight no doubt?
M&E: In the beginning we did things on a very low budget. If you are not used to having large budgets you build your own sets, because you are not used to having someone building it for you. We were raised working on tiny budgets, indie label type of budgets. A good thing from that was that people saw that we were doing things by hand and they saw our process and got interested in us.
The low budget approach and way of working helped M&E attract clients with many asking for extras, such as behind the scenes images. Maintaining their creative independence has remained vital throughout as the pair explain.
M&E: We didn’t want to have someone telling us what to do, we just wanted to experiment and having fun doing it. We got there a couple of years ago, fortunately. I think if you want to start a company you shouldn’t be overly optimistic as it takes a lot of work and a lot of time. Of course it is worth it in the end if everything works out.
B: We’ve been discussing processes and if feels like you are very hands on and physical with what you do and then computers in the end. Can you talk a little about how you start off a project?
M&E: The first project we ever did was a record cover for a friend of ours, Jape, who is a professional musician. He had an album called ‘The monkeys in the zoo have more fun than me’, so we built typography in wood and brought it into a monkey cage in Dublin zoo and we photographed monkeys interacting with it for the record cover. So even from that point we decided that the process was super important and that hand-made was super important and was a fun thing to do. And not being fully in control results in something – you can’t predetermine it so you have to set up the circumstances and work with the environment.
B: And your approach now?
M&E: How we approach it now is that we don’t force that aesthetic into every job we do. The most important thing is the idea behind it and to do something new, or develop something we have done but with a new approach. The first thing that happens is that you get a brief and you come up with an idea, or concept, and try to brainstorm and sketch ideas. Sometimes we add things to each other’s sketches. Then we’ll choose the best idea. We come up with a concept and send a mood board to the client and a written concept.
B: Can you describe an example of this approach in action?
M&E: A Danish footwear company, Bianco, approached us and asked if we could do an artist takeover of their company. Essentially, this meant that we produced an amount of pieces and they would take those artworks and use them as campaign images and inspiration for their photoshoots and their whole season. Our idea was to come up with a three dimensional illustration. We wanted to do paper marbling, but three dimensional, because shoes are three dimensional. The plan was to produce sculptures and then we came up with the idea of using resin, so we produced sculptures from resin.
B: How did the client react to this approach?
M&E: They liked the idea so then we had to learn how to produce objects in resin. We set up a lab for four months and learnt how to produce resin with vacuum chambers, and watched a lot of videos on YouTube. We built the sculptures, photographed them and the client used them. Our idea was to produce sculptures from resin and we went down that road. It kind of fit the concept of what we wanted to do and what they wanted us to do; being inspired by shoes. The process came after the idea.
B: Do you apply a similar process to all potential projects?
M&E: For every project we do we kind of think of an idea and we think of the process and usually, for some reason, the process is to produce something handmade. The best way to describe it would be to explain the marbling thing. Another job would have been OFFSET, the design conference in Dublin, which was before the Bianco job, where we were mad into paper marbling.
B: Can you elaborate a bit more on that?
M&E: We wanted to come up with an idea and to show paper marbling in three dimensions. We wanted to film something being marbled, not the finished marbled object itself. Paper marbling could be produced by using water treated with moss, which thickens the water into a gelatin, and you drop paint on the top and then you make a pattern and the paint start mixing, then you drop a sheet of paper on top and then remove the piece of paper with the pattern attached to it. We wanted to be able to film the process of an object going through the ink and pushing marbling on to the text. We had this idea but weren’t able to do it since the thickened water would be too opaque to film through, but then a few couple years ago a company in Germany produced this kind of paint that you could use on clear water.
B: Then what happened?
M&E: We passed white wooden text through the marbled paint into an aquarium and the camera was set underneath the water level, so then when we pushed the white wooden text into it, the marble paint was pushed around the text, and then we filmed the footage and flipped it upside down to give the impression of the text rising through the paint and being coated. What we are trying to say is the kind of randomness of producing something, which is handmade, is a perfect example of our process. You don’t know how the water is going to react with the paint, nor the paint with the objects, so we have the concept and we believe in the idea and then you make it work and you spend time on making it work.
You set up the parameters for experimental work to go well but then there is always the last small element of surprise which keeps you excited.
B: And nowadays there is a great demand for handmade items…
M&E: People love stuff that is made by hand, especially in recent years. The concept is important, so it’s just not something that looks like it’s handmade, but that there is a good concept behind it.
B: Can you explain further what you mean by ‘the concept’ that you referred to?
M&E: Sometimes we work with only concept developments for some companies. Without a concept it’s just visuals, nice colours, but it doesn’t mean anything. So the idea and concept behind something has to be rock solid, otherwise it’s just going to be air.
B: Could it be the other way around for you as well, that you start off by thinking I really want to learn something about this?
M&E: Yeah, for instance, we think the future is digital animated stuff; we are very interested in studying that and learning more. Of course you do see some cool stuff that is not related to graphic design that you really want to learn. Ceramics for instance, really interesting, how you can produce different patterns, and glazing as well.
B: Do you create stuff for yourself as well or is mostly job related?
M&E: Nah, we get that feeling out of our work. But sometimes we do self initiated work too. And a lot of ideas we have for projects start in a photograph we have taken or something we tried for the sake of trying, so it’s all interweaved.
B: You work with what you love.
M&E: Yeah, exactly. If we have an idea, we look if we can apply it somewhere. And you have to make it work, because you have promised somebody that it is gonna work. Like the Bianco project; it just had to work. The same thing goes for the material we created for OFFSET, we had told the sponsors it would work. You get yourself into a situation where you have to make it work.
Like for Bianco, we had spent a lot of money on resin. You have to figure out how to do it. We have done this now for a couple of years so when you get an idea you can kind of say that, that and that should work.
B: Do you like working with the clock ticking? Is it stressful?
M&E: Sometimes it’s really stressful, but then once you do it is an amazing feeling. You run into problems, like with the Bianco project, where we had to mould shoes in silicone. Now that seems really easy, right? You just buy some silicone and try it on, right?
B: Sounds like a piece of Italian cake?!
M&E: So we bought a big industrial cooking pot from an Italian food supplier and we had to build a vacuum chamber with a vacuum pump, mix the silicone and put the silicon in the vacuum chamber. We then turned the vacuum pump on and removed all the air out of the silicone, so there are no bubbles, and then you pour the silicone over the shoe. You wait for 24 hours or so and when you then pull the silicone off there could be one thread of the shoe that has reacted badly to the silicone, so then that mould is screwed! Then you have to repair the moulds and it could be a huge process. Sometimes you don’t have the time for unexpected problems that occur.
B: Do you get in contact with specialists?
M&E: Before project Bianco we went to see a guy called Jakob Eklund here in Malmö, who does a lot of models in silicone. He had a small vacuum chamber and we asked him for some tips. He was super helpful and it was a great starting point. In the end we were doing so many bigger things, so the problems that he had were not the same ones that we had.
We did also produce them in clear resin, they had to be crystal clear like glass and we had to drag the bubbles out with the vacuum pump. It was extremely complicated.
B: Complicated and also dangerous too?
M&E: When you pour the resin it is hot, it can burn your skin and so it is super dangerous. We had gas masks on; you know the whole nine yards. It was super toxic! At the end we were really behind schedule and needed to speed up the process of the silicone so we were making these limbs out of moulds and we were cycling from the studio, to home where we were grilling the limbs in our own oven and then cycling back to cover it with another layer and cycling back to grill it.
B: It must have been very rewarding?
M&E: The most amazing thing with the resin was that all our work was very colourful. You could produce hard glass like objects with loads of three dimensional marbling in them and they last forever. When we were doing this we were thinking that this is a process that we could use in the future. We want to set aside time to learn new things, because then you can use them in work. People can be lazy by nature, so if you don’t need to do something you are not going to learn it, but if you have a project you have to learn it and you have to do it fast – it’s a good carrot. We work long hours so that you don’t kind of want to do anything with graphic stuff afterwards.
B: How do you avoid getting lazy in your line of work?
M&E: Do you mean, avoiding using the same techniques over and over again?
M&E: If feels like if we use something again, it’s because we are not finished with it. Sometimes it feels like we want do the same thing again; it’s more to do with that material for instance.
B: Do you get triggered by; this has never been done before?
M&E: Nah. Well, if you have an idea and you realise it has never been done before you of course get more motivated. Sometimes you start with an idea and you realise that maybe we are on to something here. Eg, the marbling thing. When we showed it a conference for 2500 people no one knew how it was made, they thought it was computer animated. So being able to do something by hand, which no one can figure out that it’s made by hand, that’s cool. The process of filming the marbling in this way had never been done before. We were just lucky to have the idea and that the paint was made for the first time.
B: It feels like you get a lot of inspiration from doing your job but where do you get your inspiration from?
M&E: The Internet is amazing for inspiration, Instagram as well. We go back and look at old pictures that we have taken and get inspired by that. For instance, we did a job for a Swedish singer, Britta Persson, where we loved the idea of reflections. We came up with the idea of producing basically a box that we could build from three regular mirrors, and then in the front there was a two-way mirror. So we built this box were we could infinitely reflect anything that we put inside it. And then we could still photograph it without being in the picture. That project was inspired by reflections. You do get inspired by looking at old material.
B: Are you influenced by your contemporaries such as other graphic designers?
M&E: We do like to get inspired by other people but it’s hard to pinpoint what it is that inspires you. When you do things by hand you can never say that this looks too hard, or you just start and you figure it out along the way. If you do something on the computer you need to have a set of skills to be able to start. When it is done by hand there is nothing that can stop you. Everything is inspiring! We live in a world where we think that the world is open and everything is not done.
B: It feels like one of your strengths is to be open when it comes to connecting things.
M&E: We are doing a secret project right now and bringing a lot of things together. I mean we can never turn off work; we just work all the time. That’s a privilege in itself, it’s hard but it’s nice to work with your ideas. And to make a living from your ideas.
B: So you have a studio or..
M&E: We work from home and whenever we need a space we rent it, depending on the size of it. After working at home for ten years it’s about time we got a studio. It is hard for us to find the perfect studio. In a way, if you have a small space then you make small things, and if you have a big space you make bigger things so…
B: How does Malmö feel like, when it comes to creativity?
M&E: It’s a great place to live in and focus on your work and meet people. A lot of people are doing a lot of nice things, but the thing is that Malmö might not be able to support us with work. It’s hard to make a living from this city alone. Luckily enough, we have a lot of work from Dublin and other places, and last year we set up a studio in Copenhagen and got some work from that.
B: Is there a different mentality when it comes to your line of work across the bridge?
M&E: Going to Denmark was the best thing we have ever done. It feels like they have an open door policy, if you ask them if you can come and show your work then they say ‘yeah sure’ in response. In Sweden it feels like they are a bit more reluctant to open their door to someone who just wants to show their work. Here in Malmö it was hard to just get a meeting in the beginning. We got the Bianco job from that time in Copenhagen. The day after we went to an agency we got a job. Just go over there and show your work! Malmö has opened up to us now, but it has taken ages. The downside of Malmö is the winter, but it can be cosy as well when you are inside having fika.
B: What’s next for you?
M&E: For our current job we are working with spirits. We are doing everything, the bottles, the graphic design. That has been an amazing education, it has been like going to product design school. The product is going to be mass produced. It was amazing to produce functioning bottles and learning more about different aspects of packaging design. It would be nice to do more projects in the future in three dimensions that people can interact with.