Courtesy Hjärta Smärta

Long before higher education in art and design was within reach for me, and before my imagination stretched to even considering book design as something one could do for a living, I accidentally found a publication in the school library that absorbed me and still sits in my heart as one of the “magic” books of my life. 

It was an artist book depicting a character called “Miss Universum” (Miss Universe), the alterego of Swedish pop and performance artist Catti Brandelius. With a name alluding to beauty contests where women are objectified and judged by their looks, Miss Universum is a princess-like character sporting a shiny dress and plastic tiara. Subverting her immediate associations, she takes the role as an exhibition guide at the Modarna Museet in Stockholm , and organizes photo sessions for men where they get complimented and asked to smile while wearing pretty shirts and lip gloss. The book is a hardback but with a highly DIY, fanzine-like feel. It collects together diary notes, doodles, song lyrics, handwritten letters, and collages created by Brandelius between 1997–2005. 

Years after first finding this book, and long after having graduated from design school myself, I revisited Miss Universum and realized that it was designed by the duo Hjärta Smärta, formed by Samira Bouabana and Angela Tillman Sperandio and active for ten years between 2001–2011. Bouabana and Tillman Sperandio are most known for their ongoing initiative Hall of Femmes, a publication series featuring interviews with female senior art directors like Lilian Bassman and Ruth Ansel, and which has gained acclaim internationally. In Sweden, Hjärta Smärta’s conceptual, experimental, and expressive work was highly influential for a new generation of designers during the 2000s, particularly young women in the — at the time — highly ad agency-driven and male-dominated field of graphic design. 

Eleven years after the closure of their combined practice, I met with Bouabana and Tillman Sperandio for an interview in my own studio space in Stockholm. I started my practice the same year they closed theirs. In the last two decades, both the design field and feminist discourse(s) have gone through big changes, which as a woman, you constantly find yourself navigating. These are some of the reasons I was curious to be in conversation with Bouabana and Tillman, to hear how they’ve experienced things. I wanted to hear what they see when looking back on their own time once being “the it girls” in the Stockholm graphic design scene, how they responded to that kind of attention, and where they are now having separated. In front of us, we have a pile of printed matter produced by the pair together, and on the top is the shiny 20th years anniversary issue of the feminist magazine Bang from 2011. 

Bang, Hjärta Smärta

Samira Bouabana (SB): Pink was considered too girly when we designed this issue. This was before Fi!, the feminist political party in Sweden was established and adopterd pink as their identity color, and pink became more accepted as a feminist color. But in 2011, when this issue was designed, the editors-in-chief were hesitant about the pink cover.

Maryam Fanni (MF): Bang was a formative magazine for me, which introduced me to feminist theories. Similarly, Miss Universum was important for me, not only because she was a feminist figure but also because the DIY-aesthetics of the book and the amazing type design and variety of expressions in it. I’m curious to hear about the collaboration between you two and Catti Brandelius, because I think that you have added to her artistic voice in how the book is designed.

Miss Universum

SB: We wanted to emphasize her sprawliness and expressionism with the design. Angela worked on this more than I did, together with our assistant Sofia Østerhus. The dialogue with Catti was quite organic, she just gave us all the material and we decided that we’d go crazy with it. We didn’t have any restrictions saying that it should end up in a certain way, it was a compilation of her work.

Angela Tillman Sperandio (ATS): We are the same generation but she is a few years older than us, I remember I thought of her as a bigger sister. We admired her, she introduced feminism with a lot of humor and wit! That’s her thing. She is very playful and we just sugared it on top with even more playfulness. It was amazing really, it was such a free project.

SB: We created this very expressionist, illustrative display typeface for this project, inspired by a typeface by the Czech avant garde artist Karel Teige. We were very inspired by Russian and the Eastern European avant garde in the beginning of Hjärta Smärta. And this was before there was accessible software that made it easy to make “real” typefaces, so it was a lot of cut and paste and it is mostly made in illustrator. 

Custom typeface for Miss Universum

ATS: We were taught to make graphic design that was very sophisticated, strict, and minimalist, and of course if you’re young and you want to break with the old and open up a door you have to do the complete opposite! 

SB: We didn’t come from families of designers. All we knew about design was what we had learned together in Forsbergs design school, where we met. In that sense we didn’t have heavy luggage to carry, and it was a time when DIY, girl punk, and punky attitudes existed…

ATS: …in music and in fashion, so I just think we were part of a movement, but we used graphic design because that was our tool and suddenly it was allowed to be young, female, and incredibly playful. We were influenced by art, music, theater — everything except graphic design. Graphic design was our method. We were never employed by agencies, so we had ten years of total freedom in our studio where we could just explore!

SB: Especially in those early years when we didn’t know anything about the industry — I mean, it creates a sort of ignorance that is very helpful, if you want to create your own space. When people said ”you are so brave to start your own business right after school!” we were like ”we don’t know what else to do.”

ATS: It is hard to define a distinction between being very brave and very naïve. Once we had a commission to create a wall painting. We had a meeting with the client and showed the drafts and had them accepted. After the meeting, we felt like staying and continuing work on the mural, and we ended up staying all night, had a flow, and changed everything! So the next day when the client showed up she was so surprised to see that the wall was completely different!

SB: We were not aware of the codes of the profession. We worked hard and were very serious but at the same time did what we wanted. We didn’t want to front the works, we wanted to be for ourselves, and keep the agencies away so that no one could step in and tell us what to do or how to do things. We also pretended to be more than two people to avoid being treated as “the girls.”

MF: Later you did a project in which you constructed letters from jewellery?

SB: The earrings was a pause project that we did as a break when we had time, for fun.

ATS: It was playful and fun but it was also a game with very strict rules. We had a light, medium, and a bold version. It was absolutely systematic.

Earrings in bold

SB: Many of our projects that seem crazy are quite serious!

ATS: One of the best projects that we did — and I don’t think there is any documentation of it — was a commission by Kartell, the Italian furniture brand known for exclusive plastic chairs. They gave us a huge chair that we could do anything with, and our idea was to put chewing gums under the seat. We sat for hours and chewed and invented methods for the spacing and colors and substance — they had to be not too wet and not too dry. 

SB: Our friend Ben passed by our studio once and asked if he could throw away his chewing gum and that was how we came up with that idea. That atmosphere is something that I am super grateful to have had in early professional life where you set the rules yourself. It was also a time when more duos and design studios were establishing (around this time there were Kalle and Björn in Vår, Timmonen and  Sandberg, in Finland Teemu and Antti in Kokoro Moi, Nille Svensson and Magnus Åström in Sweden Graphics, Eva and Paul Kühlhorn in Fellow designers, and more). This was after the ’90s recession and it was difficult to get full-time employment.

ATS: I think students have more options now, because there are more design studios, but at that time there were like two design studios, and then the ad agencies, and that was it.

SB: We were the only women that we knew of. We did a graduation project that got a lot of attention —  wallpaper made of authentic scribble collected from public parks and restrooms in Stockholm. It tapped in on the ongoing discussion about good vs. bad taste taking place around that time, and the critique of Scandinavian minimalism and support for more expressive designs.

ATS: It looked playful and dirty, with scribbles of ass-fucking, but the end-product was super-exclusive and expensive! We took a bank loan to finance the production.

Wallpaper by Hjärta Smärta

MF: Where did you find the confidence to do that?

SB: I have been wondering that, too. I think we pushed each other to do things. We were enough for each other so we didn’t have to care much about others. But halfway through our joint career we started to become more aware of the outside gaze on us. It was in an interview when we were asked if we have any male clients that we realized that we had just two — the architects Ola Broms Wessel and Klas Ruin. Jonas Frank had also commissioned us, but for illustration, where it was a bit easier to be accepted as women and with our expressionism. But in graphic design, our work was not considered serious and we had more to prove, so we educated ourselves in typography, which was really rewarding for us.

ATS: It’s fun to start playing in a punkband and then become a classic violinist. We met graphic designer and typographer Leif Thollander and he became our mentor. For several years we took private lessons in typography. For instance, this book for Cirkus Cirkör is more classic — so that’s our ballerina period — but it’s still very organic, not strict and stiff.

Courtesy Hjärta Smärta

MF: The Kolla! catalog has a very conceptual design solution. Here you have recorded and transcribed the jury of the national graphic design and illustration awards and then you have organized their speech acts in alphabetical order and published it on the cover. This way, it is a recording of design discourse and how language is employed to value design. It’s a highly conceptual work that adds a meta layer or discursive layer to the award procedure.

SB: That publication is an example of a meeting between the crafty and conceptual, we worked with Lisa Rydell on the execution of it. It’s a kind critique to the award logic and an attempt to make the process more transparent. All the work of making that lexicon was very analogue and time-demanding as we didn’t have tools to automatize it.

ATS: Nowadays you can make a Google search and you can find a lot, it is still a lot of work, but when we started Hall of Femmes there wasn’t much information online. We did our research by calling people and going to the library. Similarly, this catalog would have been easy to make today but back then even the text part was crafted. And the scribbled wallpapers were made before digital cameras so we took photos and had them developed at a photo shop…

MF: The word on the cover is not Kolla!, the award’s name, instead it’s ”skitfint!” (literally “shit nice!” in Swedish, meaning “damn nice!”)

ATS: Yes, that was the most common word that was used in the jury discussions.

MF: You said you had strategies to not be perceived as “the girls,” for example, you pretended you were more than two. And then, at some point there was a shift when you were suddenly more aware of how you were perceived. 

SB: In one sense there was a lot of positive ”go girls”-kind-of-attention. But we were also once told that we should avoid being two women together in a meeting because two pairs of women’s eyes are intimidating for the client. 

ATS: I think this is called “Queen bee” in feminist theory — it’s ok to include one woman but two is too many. In the beginning we didn’t think much about being women…

SB: …because we didn’t know much about the industry, so we didn’t know that we were exceptions. We received “Kycklingstipendiet” — the “Chicken” grant for young talents in visual communication in Sweden — for our wallpapers. We loved winning prizes, we had applied for the grant but at the same time felt hesitant about receiving a grant from the advertising association (Reklamförbundet). The grant was 20.000 SEK, so we used the money to make our own scholarship and passed the cash on to others.

ATS: And our mothers cried because we were so poor!

SB: It was a prelude to Hall of Femmes, you can appoint anyone you want to be an important person, peer to peer. Winning that award we were so conflicted because now we had to be on stage and reveal that we are these two people. We were planning to send our mothers or two teenagers or have a mask or something. But we ended up standing on the stage and announcing that everyone is welcome to apply for our scholarship. Afterwards, in the ladies room, there were women cheering and celebrating us and telling us that it was important for them to see women winning the awards, finally. It wasn’t until Hall of Femmes that we stepped into the light more consciously. I think we could do that then because we could suddenly identify more with being the women, thanks to the women we met. We became more visible when we could lean upon their experiences and when we put forward their stories instead of our own. 

ATS: Looking back, that ladies room moment was a defining moment.

SB: When we started to see ourselves from the outside. We also became more angry, we started to notice all those comments, you become a bit paranoid at first and then realize they were not coincidences, comments like “oh, so you are interested in typography” while everything we have ever done is all about typography! We started to remember all the remarks and felt “we’re gonna show you.”

Courtesy Hjärta Smärta

ATS: I think we tried not to highlight that we were women, as a strategy. When someone imposes something on you, you either embrace it or you need a strategy, you must react somehow. I was so irritated because our work was always incredibly idea-based but we used girly aesthetics like stickers and earrings. There is something really powerful in that, especially in that minimalistic time, always playful with a hook. But it was so frustrating that often people couldn’t see the concepts behind our ideas and reduced our work to spontaneous and shallow.

SB: There is a freedom in that girl room aesthetics because no one can come and say that there are rights and wrongs in making graphic design with stickers or typography with earrings! That kind of experimental and interdisciplinary work is more common today. We could probably have developed that into an interesting trajectory if it would have been around today. But when we later tried to prove ourselves to others, it turned out to be on someone else’s terms and less on our own terms. I think we still did beautiful work but we were somehow less interesting when we weren’t “the girls.”

MF: In the last, let’s say, ten years, the interest in women’s history and feminist perspectives in design has exploded. How has it been for you to be part of and observe the growing interest? I imagine that the conception of “feminists” has changed.

SB: Yes, totally. Both the fact that it has been embraced commercially, but also on a grassroots level, feminisms have become more integrated into design practices and in society in general. Now even more perspectives are on the table that we didn’t include — this is particularly relevant in design, which is still such a white industry. When we did the design for the magazine Bang in 2011, they employed the term “intersectionality” and I remember we objected that it was too complicated and asked them to use more accessible words.

ATS: I think we were very kindly received by people within the feminist movement, we didn’t have or at least I didn’t have an academic background, and they were so kind and generous and educated us and helped out. I am not a graphic designer anymore, but I work a lot with sustainability and I see the same thing happening again. People who are experts today are often from academia and they are always so kind and patient with stupid questions. I think that nothing good comes out of shaming and excluding. It must be OK to be a beginner. Just because you don’t share the vocabulary, it doesn’t mean that you are not on the same page in practice.

MF: A question that I ask myself and that I am curious to discuss with you, is how one is sort of “swallowed and spit out” as a young/female/minority professional, i.e. how the industry is obsessed with the “young and upcoming” and after a while you risk becoming passé. According to studies, women’s careers in our industry decline somewhere after the age of 30, while men can age in the profession and accumulate status/merits in a completely different way. This analysis/insight is obviously one of the fundamentals of Hall of Femmes. What about your own experiences? What are your observations from the field/s (higher education respectively agency)?

ATS: When I was young, I envied men for being able to make straight career paths, one thing leading to another, men helping each other, young men being picked up by a senior and dubbed crown prince. Women’s career paths are often messier. Now I am 46 and so incredibly thankful that I didn’t have a straight career path. Because I have had so many different experiences. You are expected to work professionally until you are 60 or 70 so it’s a long path and therefore well worth listening to what you want and be curious instead of copying what someone else did.

SB: That is also a mindset that I try to give to students, to learn how to know what makes your heart beat instead of repeating what you think leads to success. By learning to listen to your own reactions, I think we will have a more sustainable field. Also, when knowing what you are interested in yourself, you’re not as easily defined by others. I think many students who are representatives of a minority struggle with the stereotypes imposed on them, and I try to encourage them to not necessarily do what they think is expected from them but instead choose more freely.

ATS: It comes back to our beginning. If you can empower yourself, that can give you something that you can own for your entire life.

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By Peter

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