ACS meet the Lisbon-based design aficionados Studio AH-HA
Carolina Cantante and Catarina Carreiras are the Portuguese designers who have been quietly and elegantly creating graphics out of their studio, just a stone’s throw from the Lisbon City Museum and the university where they studied and met, since 2011. Firm friends at university and now a creative duo (aka Studio AH-HA) specialising in communications, graphic design and creative installations, the pair have a knack for infiltrating spaces with cleverness and ingenuity.
They’ve applied their uniquely simple, characterful and often tongue-in-cheek design style to a whole host of wide-ranging creative pursuits. From brand identity and website design for Tetra, an online shop and lifestyle brand “dedicated to elevating the aesthetics of the smoking experience”, to signage for a bike lane in Aveiro, to editorial design and exhibition signage for Saint-Étienne’s Design Biennale.
Studio AH-HA is godfathered by French designer Sam Baron and Benetton’s research centre Fabrica. The duo work alongside a large cast of multi-disciplinary collaborators, seen in Carolina’s experience at the renowned OMA led by “starchitect” Rem Koolhaas in Rotterdam. These influences are visible in their holistic approach to design.
While their briefs might be varied, their contemporary feel for simple shapes and a soft palette is earning them a strong and consistent reputation for stunning, clean design.
ACS had the pleasure of meeting the creative duo on our recent trip to Lisbon…
How did the two of you meet and decide to start your own studio?
We met studying at the Fines Arts University in Lisbon, became friends and started working as a team from an early stage. When we left university we went separate ways, leaving Lisbon to work abroad across different projects. We always had the feeling we would work together one day and when, in 2011 we were both looking for a side project that would inspire us more than our day jobs, we decided to jump into that adventure together. Studio AH—HA started as an experiment, as a side project, we never thought it would take fire like this. Now we’re both 100% committed to it.
How do you split and share the work you do?
We usually work side by side at every stage of a project, especially on the initial concept development. We start by sharing a research folder, throwing in references and keywords. Then we tend to go separate ways and create two different projects, and in the middle of this process we start playing around with each others’ files and mixing them up. Sometimes, due to workload, we need to work on different projects, but we always “ping pong” around ideas between us. We like to have fun while working and to experiment — so when one of us is a bit stuck or bored with a project, the other one jumps in. We then share the projects with an ever-changing cast of collaborators that do stuff (apart from graphic design) much better than we do: photographers, architects, illustrators, type designers, programmers.
How do your skill sets differ? How do complement each other?
When it comes to graphic design our skills and interests are different. Carolina is more into editorial design, Catarina loves creating 3D graphics for exhibitions, packaging or merchandising collections. Usually Catarina is more hands on with the creative and design process, while Carolina works closer with the client, from estimates to production, managing everything related to the studio that goes far beyond ideas.
Catarina is maybe the heart and Carolina is the brain.
Did you have any mentors or major artistic influences growing up?
One of our biggest influencers is product designer Sam Baron, a friend and a mentor, with a great mind and a very interesting design process. Catarina started working with him at Fabrica and they’ve never stopped working together since. We go to him for advice, and he often brings bits and pieces of inspiration to the studio through his trips and projects. He also makes us question what we do and how we do it. He hates graphic design styles so he always tries to push us to avoid creating something purely “beautiful” or “contemporary” but rather finishing at a more consequent design. Something that even if you don’t like it in an aesthetic sense, you can easily understand its conceptual value.
Which projects have had the biggest impact on the studio so far and why?
We never start a project thinking about the impact it can have. This is good because it takes the pressure off. There are some “big” projects that have had the potential to become the studio’s “flags”, but the truth is that the projects we have done simply for our own enjoyment are the ones that have brought more attention to our work so far. There are a number of projects, where we have worked from the initial concept to the execution and brand applications, that showcase what we do the best. Mercado, Wonder.full, Tetra, Fluxograma Studio are great examples of where we feel we have pushed the boundaries of traditional graphic design and created three dimensional brand campaigns. They challenge the viewer and play with archetypes.
What feeds your passion for design?
Our passion for what we do comes from the process we go through while doing it and the people we meet along the way. We like to get our hands dirty and to be faithful counsellors to all steps of a growing business. We really like to work between borderlines. We get bored with the pure and classic sense of graphic design. We like to experiment and, a few times a year, we use some of the money we earn in commercial projects to develop pro bono or personal projects.
What influenced both of your decisions to return to Lisbon after working in places such as India, Rotterdam, New York and Italy?
Lisbon has been in the spotlight for the past couple of years. At last we feel like the rest of the world is finally coming to see its wonders. It is a city that is really evolving and there is definitely a new and exciting energy in the air. There are a lot of ideas flying around and the will to execute them in the right way, especially by young people like us. There isn’t an overdose of “cool stuff”, of polished and conceptual spaces.
Lisbon is still genuine — whatever is new and effervescent respects and lives side by side with the old, with tradition, with crafts, with past generations. We love that dialogue.
And then there is the river, the sun, and (very close by) the sea. It sets the perfect mood and makes us want to conquer whatever is beyond the Atlantic. It’s where we are from and it wouldn’t make sense to start this venture anywhere else.
In terms of creativity and style, have you seen a big difference between the places?
We are not sure about distinct national styles. Due to the amount of information available nowadays it has become hard to answer to a country’s aesthetic, or to have one whatsoever. We believe in a soul more than a style. The Portuguese design soul respects the old and likes to see it breathing side by side with the new. Therefore, most of the projects tend to take inspiration from the previous lives of a brand or of similar concepts. It’s all about re-inventing heritages. In New York everything tends to be super trendy and in a conceptual way we feel like it’s quite lacking in content sometimes. Italy is a little messy, and that’s ok. Great outcomes can come out of messiness. In Rotterdam the conceptual approach always takes the spotlight. And in India, communication is key. Importance is placed on creating something that answers a clear need.
Could you briefly walk us through the process of transforming a simple idea into a great design?
We have a holistic approach towards design and branding, working closely with clients, filtering their inspirations, ideas and motivations. Our goal is to explore what’s beyond the brief. If we are asked just to design a logo, we usually say no. We like to build the universe around that logo, and that’s what makes sense for us. Besides this, we like to add a subtle sense of humour to what we do — to imprint stories on our projects. Starting from confusing, hectic, creative brainstorming, we then try to undress things to their core values. Our ultimate goal is always to be able to explain to our grandmothers what we’ve done all day in a very simple and short way — and that’s never easy.
Do you think there’s a science to design?
If by science you mean process, then yes. This is a discipline that requires a process. We are not artists and we answer to tight schedules, specific briefs and crazy amounts of work. It would be impossible to be creative everyday if we didn’t have our own process to generate ideas that often start out as ordinary, but with the potential to become extraordinary.
Who do you admire in the arts or fine art?
We love installations. The Dia:Beacon foundation or the Valerie Traan gallery in Antwerp. We draw inspiration from artists whose work is very graphic — John Baldessari, Lawrence Weiner, Kazimir Malevich and Ellsworth Kelly. Additionally, we’re big fans of those whose work makes bold visual statements — Erwin Wurm, Edmund de Waal, Sol LeWitt and Kjell Varvin.
What do you both share a passion for besides your work?
Collections of objects, textures, old stationary, prints. Random things that we can see live and that we can touch. Our studio is filled up with small collections. Things we keep bringing from places we visit, from the street, from our grandparents homes, from shops that are closing. They are usually triggers of ideas, helping us with inspiration for projects. We keep the studio free of graphic design because we like to work from a blank page.