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Focal Point: MVM talks iconic portraits and minimalism

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Norwegian designer Magnus Voll Mathiassen (aka. MVM) has been working in design for over ten years. In that time he's amassed an impressive bulk of work. Whether it's sketchy minimalist portraits of pop culture icons like Kanye, or sketching for fashion shows, his block colours and thick lines are instantly recognisable. By eschewing fleeting trends for a style that is inimitably his own, MVM creates portraits that are both surreal and highly graphic. Working with clients like Adidas, Microsoft, and MTV Nordic also means his work has reached audiences around the world, with a retrospective in Oslo last year displaying how his commercial and personal work interact. We chat to the man behind the mixed media...

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Could you give us a bit of background to yourself and what you do?
I’m a Norwegian graphic designer, illustrator and art director. These days I work mostly as an illustrator. I have been in the industry for some 10+ years, and started with co-founding the design studio Grandpeople before I started my own solo practise under the name MVM.

What’s your favourite medium to work in?
It will always be as “primitive” as possible. Ink for example. But for those familiar with my work would rather say I do mostly digital work. And I do. But I love doing things directly to a piece of paper. In my spare time I have been doing exactly this, and it even ended up me creating an alias or persona: Mud. There’s actually a Mud website out there.

You’re something of a veteran in the design world, what have you learnt over the years? Have you seen anything change in the industry?
A veteran? Oh gosh. That made me feel old. Well, what has become extremely obvious to me the later years is all the fads and trends coming and going. Like typefaces. And colour use. It’s not saying that I am above that - rather the opposite. Trends are important, but people riding the trends become unimportant (over time). I see some names, and then they’re gone. It’s pretty normal, but the older I get, the more I don’t understand why people don’t bring themselves and their personalities into the work. Trends are like the the Borg from Star Trek. Massive and nameless. You know, it’s not that I wasn’t affected by trends when I was younger, but I understood to be able to do what you love over time, you should dictate your own future direction with your work and have signature and plan ahead.

Other things that have happened is that I encounter more friendly industry people now than I did before. This might be more about people gravitating towards my work now, rather than me fighting battles as someone who has to prove something. Soooo… just work for a long time and it gets easier.

Do you separate personal work from the commercial? How?
Yes. I actually had a big retrospective show called ‘Hybrido’ last year in Oslo. It was about juxtaposing commercial work and personal work to show similarities and opposites. I have always done my fair share of personal work, and I believe this show was the start of the end of my commercial vs. personal work. My goal is to have fun working, and with a distinction like personal/commercial, it just makes each work day less fun. I’m working towards that hybrid now – to let it become one entity.

Any hidden talents, unrelated to design?
Well, it looks like I’m a hoarder of chairs and bowls. The latter surprised me. I love bowls. I have no idea why. Not exactly a talent, though.

Your images of pop-culture figures feel both abstracted and familiar, how do you start creating images of such iconic people?
The style and way of working was an experiment. I constructed the style when I wanted to work more illustrative, and I wanted to see if I could work with figurative material in an abstract manner – that the process results in work that consist of abstract or geometrical puzzle pieces, as well as keep it minimal. Not the typical minimalism, but where the lines, shapes, overlays etc ends up as something richer and not superflat.

What advice do you wish you’d had when you started your first job?
My colleagues and myself really learnt everything the hard way when starting Grandpeople. Since we set up shop and never had been employed before and being oblivious to how to run a studio, we faced everything. To give an extract of that experience: Get paid. And have strict routines. Have time off, enjoy life.

Do you have any work habits (good or bad!)?
Yeah. I tend to divide my days into bulks of 30 minutes. I work fast and furious, and have a few minutes each half hour, and then browse some new music and read an article, and then it’s back to work. Sometimes it works extremely well. Sometimes not. I can end up reading A LOT. But the most important thing is to not blend creative work and administrative work. It becomes a mess for me. That’s why I am not always the guy you get a reply to your email from straight away. I’ll do that in the morning, and sometimes later that day. Or tomorrow.

Finally, how do you keep your ideas fresh?
Some people are working for the results in mind, some find that the value is in the process itself. I believe if you love the process and solving something is rewarding, you’ll just keep on going and making good work. I think what keeps me going is that I have a love/hate relationship with working. It’s a hell to start every time, but the reward of solving something is like a drug. And with the fact that I get extremely easily bored, I always need to carve out my future path. I need to do work today that will lead me to another place tomorrow.


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