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A Conversation with Jakob Trollbäck

Swedish designer Jakob Trollbäck has been working in New York for twenty-two years. As founder and principal of the award-winning studio Trollbäck + Company, the self-taught designer is an industry leader in the creation of brand campaigns, digital experiences, and commercial advertising for a diverse range of clients.

For Aperture’s 1/1 Benefit & Auction on October 28, his studio will debut a custom installation occupying one of the world’s largest high-resolution video walls, located in the Frank Gehry-designed InterActiveCorps (IAC) headquarters in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood: a series of slow-moving, microscopic vignettes which examine a world of photography never before seen at this scale.

Jason Quincy Bailey recently spoke with Trollbäck about his journey in design, the role of photography in his work, and the bold visual program he has created for Aperture’s 1/1 Benefit & Auction.

Installation view, IAC HQ, New York.


Jason Quincy Bailey: You have quite a diverse skill set, ranging from music to photography. Can you tell me a bit about your journey toward design?

Jakob Trollbäck: I was a DJ in Stockholm—I also had a record store and club. I started to create fliers for the club, and became interested in design by doing that. I bought a computer—a Mac, very early on—and started to play. And then I decided I would be a designer. I was kind of just like that. I bought some books on design and began imitating people I liked, and learned that way, like you learn to play the guitar.

I did that for a while, but didn’t get far in Stockholm because there is a strong focus on education, and I had none in graphic design. I thought America would be the land of opportunities, so I left and came here.

JQB: What did the landscape of design look like at that point? Clearly you didn’t get started doing what you’re known for now: digital experiences, motion graphics…

JT: I was fascinated by America and American design: art deco, film noir, Raymond Chandler, black-and-white movies. A lot of the design that I did was very filmic in that sense.

I had been here several years before I started my own company. For the first time, I felt I wanted to go back to my roots, and work with more European, Scandinavian thinking in my design—that’s why we have Josef Müller-Brockmann posters in the office. It was a change: from something that was very ornate, to then trying to find some truth, something real in the design—in the same way that Johann Sebastian Bach found truth in music, by going back to the building blocks of music. I wanted to find that in design.

JQB: I notice that in your work you play with the relationship between sound and the visual elements that you create. Does one “truth” inform the other? Or, vice-versa?

JT: I always try to find tension. I always look for moments. In music, that moment is often a buildup to something. All of a sudden you’re on your way—and there’s a surprise. I love the fact that music has these wonderful stories: it takes you somewhere, and then it gives you something else. It releases you, it lets you out, or it asks a question.

That interplay of surprise and delight…that’s something that I’m looking for in design, which was then enabled when I began to work with motion graphics. There you have a timeline, and you can do things that really set a trajectory to build the very particular moment that you are looking for.

JQB: Absolutely. It’s always surprising to see these auditory and visual streams guide each other in this very integral, very strategic way.

JT: Music has been so central for me since I was born, but it never seemed to me that it would be what I would do professionally. It was just a source of inspiration. I think that what I’m doing in motion is sort of a visual variation of doing music. It’s the same story, but you’re telling it with visuals instead of notes.

JQB: Do you see any relationship between your work and the world of photography? Does photography influence your process?

JT: Photography is actually the most important inspiration for a lot of the people in the studio, including myself. We’re looking for moments. We’re looking for a particular mood, we’re looking for the time when something happens. And you know, a great photographer does just that. It’s about finding the right mood, then finding the right time.

I had the privilege of working with Richard Avedon many years ago. He was shooting a jumping woman. It was amazing when I looked at the negative, because he caught this woman at the apex of the jump every single time. I mean, his timing was impeccable. I don’t really understand how it’s possible. A great photographer seems to know the moment before it happens, he needs to grab it when it happens. The sense of hunting for that moment, where everything aligns, that’s really powerful for me.

We look everywhere for inspiration: we look at art, feature films and documentaries, photography, industrial design, and architecture. A good analogy is Gerhard Richter’s way of working: he’s takes photographs of his motifs, and then translates those into paintings. That is when the magic happens, when you add your own interpretation.

JQB: Do you have any favorites in photography?

JT: There are so many. I had a period where I was very much into Thomas Struth and the Düsseldorf school. I like Ryan McGinley. I like his work because it’s very useful for us. There’s a lot of over-the-top exuberance in it that is also painted in a certain light. That is akin to what we’re doing.

Installation stills. Image courtesy Lauren Espeseth/Cool Hunting.

JQB: You describe your upcoming installation at Aperture’s Benefit & Auction as “examining a world of photography never before seen at this scale.” What can our audience can expect to see?

JT: Yes. We’re excited about that. I’ve been a fan of Aperture for many, many years and wanted to have a deeper connection with the organization. This is a great opportunity for us to do that. What we’ve tried to do is to look at photography from another angle, to think about the peripheral things you may not always think about. We’ve been looking at the eye, at the lens, at the flashbulb, etc. We have done some pretty cool things with that and we’re very excited—it’s going to be beautiful.

JQB: Sounds exciting. I caught a little preview, but had no idea what I was looking at.

JT: It might have been my eye. We have twelve different eyes in one of the pieces. We shot them with a macro lens, and we were like an inch and a half away from the eye. It’s blown up across the whole 125-foot screen. I’m not sure what the scale is, but it’s big.

When you go that close you realize that people you’ve been thinking of as blue-eyed are actually more green-eyed. There’s an amazing amount of variation in the eyes when you’re that close.

JQB: So you got to know the people you work with much more intimately?

JT: We were actually thinking, maybe for our staff photos on our website, we’ll just have people’s eyes.

JQB: That’s a great idea. Everyone’s always looking for something unique, but ultimately we all just use photobooth images.

JT: Yeah. It’s either that or naked photos.


Jason Quincy Bailey is the digital media producer for Aperture Foundation.

View bonus video from this interview on Vimeo, and find out more about the 1/1 Benefit & Auction (including ticket information) here.