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Clemens Habicht

Illustrator, Designer, Art Director
WORDS Melia Rayner

The multi-talented Clemens Habicht is beloved for his papercut illustrations
(think Meredith Music Festival, Sydney Theatre Company), his music video work (Tame Impala, Flume, The Presets), his artwork, design work and academic work (stints at UTS and Bauhaus Weimar) and as one of the directors of Galerie Allen. Yes, we’re impressed too.

Clemens initially started out as the in-house designer for the Australian Museum. In the pursuit of adventure, he set up in Paris for an initial six-month stint, and ended up sticking around for the best part of fifteen years. Clemens says ‘if you live an interesting life then your work will be interesting’, and we think both his work and his stories are proof of that.


I came to Paris after working a year at the Australian Museum as an in-house designer, which fulfilled my expectations of professional life and was a brilliant first job – I loved it. It wasn’t a design business so I was spared a lot of the realities of commercial practice and gifted with a lot of the sort of commissions one dreams about – interesting subject matter, worthwhile projects. It was also great training on achieving good print outcomes with little or no budget but enough time to figure out a solution. We worked closely with printers to make the money available work harder and this approach is how I go about everything today, seeking the right advice from the proper people to service an idea.

On arriving in Paris I had the ambition to start afresh as a professional illustrator, and worked hard at that with little success. I was confronted with a very different illustration tradition in France to what I had expected. I was used to a design process of defining and resolving problems with visual solutions, but what I found instead was the illustrator as an artist and mark-making as an expression of a singular personality. You could recognise immediately who did a drawing by its style. The fame of that artist working commercially was associated with brands, like a celebrity endorsement. The other illustration option was very much traditional publishing, children’s books or graphic novels, which were rendered very traditionally with specific rules to be aware of that had more to do with narrative, film and writing. I didn’t fit into either of those worlds in what I wanted to do.

I went to Berlin for a few years and did some animation work, and found that the thinking process involved in directing film (especially music videos) was much more receptive to the sort of illustration I was making; expressing a thought outside of oneself as a visual metaphor. Animation also was great training in setting systems to a single project, defining a look, and then doing hundreds of drawings inside of that framework. While still trying to get illustration representation I managed to get represented as a director instead. Suddenly as a director my poor language skills mattered less and I was free to propose the sort of projects I wanted.

Uprooting overseas is not easy but it’s worthwhile. Depending on what you expect makes the idea of risk redundant. What I left behind was a complex network of friends and colleagues. Starting fresh means you need to regenerate that, build again a reputation from scratch, and it’s confronting. It’s very unusual to get the same sort of job you might be used to as a stranger, as the references you bring with you, existing work and even ways of operating might not really have much currency. Every contact is a new evaluation so it forces you to live into the person you want to become, because that’s how people relate to you. First impressions count, your work speaks for you.

In terms of working in Australia, I’m sure it’s a benefit to be able to make it overseas but it’s certainly not necessary. The pace in London will definitely train you to be faster and work harder and better, merely because there is a lot more competition so you can’t afford to be complacent – anyone who has worked in London will know that – so it does change you. The way in which France works is completely different again. I’ve eventually learned to have an appreciation for the quirks of work here, which confounded me at first. It’s changed the way I relate to people, what I strive to achieve out of work, and why I work at all. It all enriches your understanding, which helps in every situation. I wouldn’t recommend anyone go overseas just to get ahead in Australia.

I would say the design scene in Paris is different from Australia. The French version is more of an auteur thing, which has come out of a history of innovation through cinema and fashion. There is a distinction between the artisan skill of the traditional crafts, and the single creative voice that is at the head of a group or wave. Paris is a populated museum. Many of the systems that run daily life are very old and won’t change, and frankly don’t really need to change. Paris is great as it is. There isn’t that constant reinvention that fuels design in a young city like Sydney, or in cities like London or Berlin that have been rebuilt after the war. This is both lovely and frustrating. Design comes about more slowly, it’s a more vernacular process, evolutionary, and things that work are adopted over time. When innovation occurs, it’s usually out of the blue or at the effort of a single visionary, and it can be a bit hit and miss – either brilliant or ridiculous, or both. Someone might do amazing work, this is celebrated, imitated, and then the work becomes a style of a certain time. It’s a much more fashion/mode life cycle.

In general there is a great understanding of beauty and elegance that is present in better design, but there isn’t a base level of functionality and it doesn’t seem to bother anyone. Signage and websites especially don’t work well, and the expectation that they should just isn’t there. The city has a history of beauty that is all around you, which is nourishing and good for life and work. It is reflected in the beauty of work made here. It’s great to have creative people around you, and similarly it’s enormously important to surround yourself with good things. This is a big part of why I still live in Paris. It doesn’t get boring, as there is a visual density of things going on.

Australian design is really strong, as it feels it has to prove itself. This is likely a hangover from being distant, though through the internet it is less of an issue now. This is a new phenomenon. Australian design tends to be better than it thinks itself to be. On the whole, there is a good base level as well as some super strong practitioners who would shine anywhere. There is in Australia a very unfortunate tendency to chose international over
local creatives simply because they come from overseas, regardless of their merit.

I work in design, illustration and film, and at any given time I’ll have projects in all three. I feel like that guy in the circus spinning plates on sticks. It works for me, as the diversity means that if one area goes quiet I have another area to focus on. The nature of freelancing is that things come in irregular waves. It’s useful to have a few things in separate worlds. To me the three are much the same thing, only the manner of execution and timelines are very different. I approach each the same way, treating a commission as an opportunity to complete a task professionally as well as create something good enough to motivate me to work, to be proud of it. The distinction between design, illustration and film work is more practical, and has to do with my structures of representation and production.

Illustration has very quick turnaround times and quite strict approval systems, so a project might be a week or two from brief to completion. It’s also a very solitary exercise, which can be difficult for me to maintain if it is all I am doing. Commercial directing work can be at least a month or two per project, the creative part is mostly the time spent talking about a project, defining and planning it before it is even awarded. This involves quite elaborate pitches, which become a contract of execution. The making then often requires travel for weeks at a time, as well as working quickly in a team of very skilled people, which I really enjoy. Design
is the longest in terms of time.

Projects can run more than a year with time to think deeply, and often it’s more a situation of servicing a client continuously with physical outcomes along the way. The various time scales means I can manage projects across design, illustration and film without conflicts. I recognise a personal style in my work and I’ve stopped fighting it, but I also don’t actively work towards fostering it, rather I prefer a project defines its own style and outcome.

As a freelancer my daily routine is pretty flexible but I do have my routines. If I’m in Paris then I reply to emails, which defines what’s going on the rest of my day. After taking my dog Charlie for his walk, I take a second coffee outside in the sun somewhere – usually the same places though it depends on my day. I have one cafe that helps me come up with ideas, and another cafe that seems to be better to write them down. A good day starts with a new brief, which is an exciting way to start the day. If I have a pressing deadline for an idea I’ll take a walk, which seems to work for me. I write a list of achievable things for the day and a rough maybe list for the rest of the week, which I revise the next day. I get my thinking done early in the day, prioritising anything that requires the sort of clear concentration required to define a problem. Then I do production work in the afternoon and evening. I’ll have a cooked lunch and often a nap if my day allows it and then an afternoon coffee, outside if there is sun.
The rest of the day is an attempt to complete the things on my list and I’ll often work late into the night depending on the delivery schedule of projects at that time. If I’m working with an Australian client I will need to take calls well after midnight.

If I believe in the work then I am very motivated and don’t get tired – that’s the key to me. If I’m unmotivated or tired, then it’s a signal to me that I am not finding what I need to find in the project. I find having projects come to me is the best thing, as I want to find a solution. Coming up with a project out of nothing is harder. If I’m not working on something I go stir crazy, so if I’m waiting for a project to award I’ll often be making little gifts, which fulfils some sort of restless need I have for making things. Walking the city presents me with infinitely surprising things to think about, and is much richer than spending time online looking at what others have seen. It’s important to know what works for you and make sure you keep doing those things like a regular exercise. If I am feeling good I will have loads of enthusiasm, and good ideas come to me.

I’m a director of Galerie Allen together with my wife Mel O’Callaghan who is an artist, and Joseph Allen-Shea who is a curator. We represent international artists and have an exhibition space in Paris where we show contemporary art.

I’ve always had a relationship with art and have worked closely with artists on catalogues and projects, and find that relationship of representing another’s visual work really challenging and interesting. There is an inherent conflict as two visual people work together on a single visual outcome. A good result should represent the artist without dominating or contradicting their work and philosophies, but it should also not try to be the artist or their work. This doesn’t happen when you work with other creative clients such as musicians as the medium is different and the visual sits comfortably and separately in a clearer position of support to the sounds without conflict of voice. Put visual next to visual, and you know what you can and can’t achieve with design. The roles become more delineated and precise, the design more refined. I find that relationship with artists really fruitful. I also noticed that I expect a lot from an artist; I want to believe in their integrity. I expect them to demand that rigour of themselves.

I’ve always been enormously frustrated and disappointed in the lack of good design in the fine arts. It baffles me how galleries and institutions can be so unaware of the way their designs misrepresent them and their ambition. Even in the top tier of galleries you will find lazily and imitative brands badly executed and incorrectly used by people who represent some of the most original and radical visual thinkers. Imagine if publishing houses didn’t pay attention to spelling. It kills me.

We’re not a big gallery, but we’re a good gallery and we’ve achieved an amazing reputation in a short period of time. I’d like to think that this is by design, which is more than the logo but in all the ways in which we present ourselves to the world and follow through on that promise. I don’t involve myself curatorially, that’s not my part. I assist the artists in anything they need in much the same way a good producer facilitates a director’s work. It’s good for me to be on the other side of the fence as I rely on people to represent me, and so I can see how that is and apply it to my working relationships too.

Some of the people I admire most at the moment are other music video directors. Megaforce are a French collective of four directors who have consistently made videos that continue to surprise me and make me excited. Another young director is Daniel Brereton of England who repeatedly flashes brilliance in thought with simple, reduced executions.


Clemens Habicht

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