German artist and art director Mark Gmehling is a master of character design. His imagination and skill produce playful, humorous, emotional and entirely approachable beings that adopt his personal mantra - ‘FUCKTHENORM’.
Gmehling's rebellious nature hasn't impeded his progress, having won countless awards; he also boasts clients spanning the globe from Bahrain to Johannesburg. It's clear that these brands and agencies are keen to work with the visionary and we can see why, his impressive skillset ranges from animation to art direction, illustration and mural work. His unique characters have been described as ‘liquid porcelain’, and we’re in awe of his talent.
CZ: Where did it all begin?
MG: I was born in Dortmund, Germany but moved to San Francisco, USA when I was three because my father (a chemistry scientist) studied at Berkley. We moved back after his studies. My mum always supported my interest in painting, and in the late eighties I started writing graffiti which was my first conscious contact with design. I was hooked by playing with typography - the word as an image and the mechanics of getting fame.
CZ: Can you tell us about your current town and studio?
MG: After my studies, I went to Hamburg, Germany to work for a big advertising agency. I didn’t enjoy it and wanted to pick my own clients, so I moved back to my hometown, my girlfriend, my band and friends to do freelance illustration. I’ve been working in my rooftop studio above my flat for twelve years now. I’ve often been asked why I didn’t move to London, Berlin or New York, but in my hometown I can afford a big studio, I’m connected to my friends, and as long as I’ve got the internet it doesn’t make a difference.
CZ: How has your city influenced your style?
MG: My ‘style’ is a result of my visual culture born from 80s graffiti and street art. Graffiti is cryptic communication in a secret circle and street art is subversive communication with the public. Both have to be loud and in-your-face yet clear enough to get a message across. At best, they can be surprising and charming to evoke a smile, which is the biggest reward you can get.
CZ: You work across all disciplines, from animation to large-scale murals and sculpture; do you have a favourite medium?
MG: I enjoy painting large-scale murals even if they are physically exhausting. Being outside is good for mental-wellness. Travelling to paint walls is a nice way to step out of the daily grind and meet interesting people. Life is about experiences, and this doesn’t happen in front of the monitor.
CZ: What are your thoughts on public art?
MG: On the one hand it's nice seeing all this urban art evolve and I prefer coloured walls to grey ones, but on the other hand I would like to see more subversive art out there. It’s easier to paint a few flowers or a female portrait on a wall than to paint a statement. In my view, artists have to raise their voices about what’s going wrong as we actually live in turbulent times.
CZ: How do you approach a piece of work? What is your process?
MG: I write down ideas and quick scribbles in sketchbooks. I review these from time to time, and if the concept still has some impact or relevance, I use it. For final executions, I use Cinema4D, which I’ve been using for sixteen years now because back when I realised that 3D offers flexibility and possibilities I needed to master it - it’s like Photoshop on steroids.
CZ: You’ve been experimenting with sculpture. Please tell us about this: why did the art need to take on a 3D physical form?
MG: I'm often asked if my works were photos of real-life sculptures and in the beginning I had to say, “No, I wish they were!” Sculpture is the next level, and I always perceived my work in 3D so I think it was a logical consequence to tackle this discipline. Creating an object that looks perfect from every angle is the most complex task.
CZ: As a visual artist, what is it that you want to communicate with the world?
MG: My core understanding of creation is ‘FUCKTHENORM’. As an artist, I know the rules in order to break them. I constantly question the status quo to ‘UNFUCKTHEWORLD’. Mainstream has no relevance to me in design or in life. I need fresh concepts in both disciplines to evolve.
CZ: You work with agencies all over the world, can you tell us about some of your favourite commissions?
MG: My commissions vary a lot! Sometimes a client needs my technical skills to execute a defined idea and sometimes there’s a core statement that needs to be executed. The best case is always “We love your style and humour, how would you transform our statement into a visual?“
I was commissioned to create a ‘Biker God’ for a BMW event in Switzerland. The agency liked an exhibition I did near Basel and they asked me to retain that vibe but build the character from parts of a BMW bike. The result was quite unusual for a Bike event as it was super-clean and silent.
I also enjoyed working on McDonald’s ‘Wake-Up’ with TBWA Shanghai which made the Cannes Lions Shortlist. BOSE Wireless Headphones Ogilvy Memac/ Bahrain which won 3 Bronze Lions and Gold and Silver at Dubai Lynx. Nestle’s Hepar with Marcel in Paris and also Panasonic Spots campaign with Nexus in London which won an Effie Award.
CZ: Who do you admire in the game?
MG: I admire creators that are entrepreneurs in their genre, the ones that FUCKTHENORM. Back in my graffiti days it was SHOE (Niels Meulmann) who painted calligraphy on trains with dirt and a broom; then I realised graffiti isn’t restricted to spray cans.
I admire Ai Weiwei who is raising his voice to question relevant topics. He’s an artist who fits my understanding of being a ‘contemporary’ artist.
I also enjoy reading the books by Yuval Noah Harari, a historian and writer that deals with humankind.
Beastie Boys influenced my life a lot! A few well educated upper-middle-class whities with the balls to get into rap and being ‘real’ with all its consequences.
CZ: What’s next for Mark Gmehling?
I’ll be releasing toy designs with Superplastic in 2019. I’m also working on building a ceramic/porcelain network for sculpture production and developing my animation skills. I’ll be painting and speaking at the ArtDirectors/Germany Event in Hamburg late May 2019.