Ateliergemeinschaft Labor Creative-anarchic explosions

Since 1999, the eight laboratory members have pursued their creative work both in groups and on a solo basis;
Since 1999, the eight laboratory members have pursued their creative work both in groups and on a solo basis; | © Michelle Schönbein

Eight designers from Frankfurt am Main are successfully refuting the cliché of the lone artist. They produce all kinds of different projects with one thing in common – weird and wonderful ideas.

“Only for children, and everyone else” reads the headline above the illustrated column in the national Sunday newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. Anyone who dismisses these apparently innocuous drawings as kid’s stuff has failed to understand the double meanings of the picture- and word-plays. Those willing to engage properly with them will quickly find themselves tumbling through several levels of meaning, and may end up spending longer on this quarter page than on some editorials. The column bears the signature of a “Labor”, a laboratory – but what sort of people are these who appeal to the inner child of adults and take children so seriously? In actual fact they are the same people who in 2015 brought out the seventh volume of their Kinder Künstler Bücher (i.e. Children’s Art Books) to great media acclaim. The Kinder Künstler Bücher are a creative-anarchic explosion, their maxim being: there is no such thing as crazy ideas if only they are spewed out by your brain. Ultimately, what keeps the laboratory going is a diversity that a lone artist would find virtually impossible to achieve.

So what is in fact the laboratory? The blurb reads simply: “The laboratory is an art studio community that has been in existence for ten years now and is made up of freelance designers in Frankfurt am Main. Reciprocal exchange and shared lunches are the declared objective.” The group’s creative epicentre is situated in Frankfurt’s Sachsenhausen district: there, on the second floor of a rear building, Anke Kuhl, Moni Port and Philipp Waechter rented the premises of a former dental laboratory in the summer of 1999 – the Ateliergemeinschaft Labor was born. Soon they were joined by other artists, some of them writers, some of them illustrators, while others left – today the three original founders work side by side with Alexandra Maxeiner, Jörg Mühle, Natascha Vlahovic, Kirsten and Zuni von Zubinski, all of them born in the late 1960s or early 1970s.

Support and freedom in the group

In total, the “Kinder Künstler Bücher” have sold nearly half a million copies; In total, the “Kinder Künstler Bücher” have sold nearly half a million copies; | © Labor The group refutes the cliché of the lone artist beavering away all on his or her own. The community also serves as the fulcrum of their artistic existence, giving all its members support and freedom at the same time: some of the time doors remain open, while at other times someone needs absolute peace and quiet; sometimes everyone gets on with their own work, while other times they get together in teams of two or three to tackle all kinds of different projects. These include books for children and young adults, illustrations for newspapers and magazines, book covers, novels, screenplays, theatre plays and numerous exhibitions. One exhibition series, the now legendary Laborproben (i.e. laboratory samples), is always staged during the Frankfurt Book Fair each autumn.

Anke Kuhl did her degree at the Offenbach University of Art and Design and afterwards had absolutely no desire to end up working in a studio all on her own. She sees the fact that “someone is always available to talk to when you need them” as being the big advantage of the artist community. Alexandra Maxeiner is the only one in the group who does not draw, but only writes: screenplays, cabaret and theatre plays; her first novel, Unentschieden, was published in 2014. In 2011, Anke Kuhl and Alexandra Maxeiner won the German Children’s Literature Award for Alles Familie, a children’s book they produced together. Philip Waechter studied at Mainz University of Applied Sciences and has illustrated numerous books, among them works by Peter Härtling, Robert Gernhardt, Paul Maar, Kirsten Boie and Klaus Kordon. Ich, a book about bears he published in 2004, won a Stiftung Buchkunst prize. While still at university, Moni Port already worked as a cover designer for Eichborn Verlag, creating a number of trend-setting bestseller covers. She writes and illustrates children’s books, and her illustrations can regularly be seen in the daily national newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Natascha Vlahovic, who only joined the laboratory in 2008, specializes in collages and pictograms. Jörg Mühle has illustrated numerous books, including many of the books in the Carlsen-Verlag’s Pixi series, as well as Ulrich Hub’s witty and whacky children’s book An der Arche um Acht. Kirsten and Zuni von Zubinski’s cleverly simplified drawings are frequently to be found on magazine covers and posters.

Praise rather than criticism

A look inside a “Kinder Künstler Buch”; A look inside a “Kinder Künstler Buch”; | © Labor The laboratory members do not regard themselves as a collective, but rather as independent artists with very individual abilities and ideas. However, despite all of them having retained their very own styles over the years, and all having plenty to do with their own projects, they still frequently find time to engage in weird and wonderful communal ventures – first and foremost the Kinder Künstler Bücher, of which half a million copies in total will soon have been sold. Or, more recently, the conveniently-sized series of small Kinder Künstler Kritzelkino books – a combination of flicker books and colouring-in books. The laboratory artists continue to fire each other up. When asked whether they criticize each other’s books, Jörg Mühe once replied: “We prefer to praise rather than criticize one another. Which I’m sure is also more constructive.”