Friday, 8:00am
1 January 2021

Rigorous play

For almost three decades East Berlin duo Cyan has produced urgent, experimental yet precise graphic design. Jan Middendorp meets them while the city sleeps

Like all design studios, Berlin’s Cyan has gone through a very unusual year, writes Jan Middendorp.

They were on our list to be featured with their recent work for Berlin dance companies when the city’s theatre spaces were locked for Covid reasons. As poster designs became temporarily unnecessary, Daniela Haufe and Detlef Fiedler, who together comprise Cyan, worked hard to make the best of the situation.

Haufe and Fiedler have been together as Cyan since 1992. This magazine published Michèle-Anne Dauppe’s profile of Grappa – the cutting-edge studio they co-founded with four other East Berliners (Eye no. 5 vol. 2) the previous year. The group had started out in the spring of 1989, only six or seven months before the Berlin Wall collapsed and, with that symbolic yet very concrete Wall, the entire ‘Iron Curtain’. Continuing in the unified Germany brought new opportunities and new technologies. Thoroughly skilled in their GDR graphic schools, Grappa’s team confidently explored the new digital tools.

Poster for a Cie. Toula Limnaios production of ‘Shifted Realities’, 2019. Design and photography by Cyan.
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Coexistence: Die gestundetete Zeit. Poster by Cyan, 2020. The duo presents the poster thus: ‘Us in the bathtub, and bats in the sky under the virus’s Milky Way.’

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Poster for Cie. Toula Limnaios’s production of ‘Meantime’, 2020. Design by Cyan.

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The new context also intensified the creative and perhaps spiritual differences in the group. When Grappa split, Haufe and Fiedler continued as a smaller unit under their current studio name. Cyan’s conjunction of technical precision, visual poetry and experimentation made them a forerunner in the digital scene. They perfected their technique of layering photographs and patterns, combining them with dense text blocks into something that was always intriguing. Their unorthodox editorial design received an extensive mention in Ellen Lupton’s Thinking with Type.

Fast forward to today. Still working in Eastern Berlin, and condensed to a two-person-and-one-dog working unit, Cyan has gained worldwide prestige with its approach to visual communication. While many established designers tend to tailor their trademark tricks to a client’s wishes and likes, every Cyan project is a sensitive response to the its contents. This is how Daniela Haufe summarises their ideals: ‘One of our chief principles is that we collaborate with partners. They aren’t clients or customers to us. When we work together on a complex system – be it an exhibition, an identity, or a publication – we continue exploring until we find a good solution. Whatever the budget is – small, medium or large – we work until we get the maximum out of what’s available.’

Poster for Cyan exhibition ‘Designing Through the Wall: Cyan in the 1990s’ at Poster House, New York, 2019. 

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Staatsballett poster designed by Cyan, 2019. 

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Cyan’s recent designs are as fresh and contemporary as they were two decades ago. Throughout 2019 they produced an astounding series of posters and brochures for Berlin’s major Staatsballett — a new partner. At the ballet, 2020 brought big changes. The new leading team, cutting-edge choreographer Sascha Waltz and manager Johannes Öhman, had to leave the company under complex circumstances. And from early spring, there were no more live performances. Cyan’s sparkling graphic identity, including the formidable posters, was put on the back burner.
The smaller dance company, Cie. Toula Limnaios, which Cyan has worked with for more than a decade, also had to close down their space, but remained very active: performances were transmitted as online streams, and the website was constantly updated. Yet again, several of Cyan’s poster designs were not printed.

And so Haufe and Fiedler created some alternative work, of which the ‘corona poster’ Coexistence is the most impressive and visible work. The subtitle ‘Die gestundetete Zeit’ could translate as: ‘Time divided in hours’. The duo presents the poster thus: ‘Us in the bathtub, and bats in the sky under the virus’s Milky Way.’ Screenprinted in fantastic colours — black, silver, neon pink and neon yellow — the poster is sold directly as artwork for culturally sensitive homes, at a reasonable price and directly from the studio. A creative way to handle the Covid crisis.

Staatsballett poster designed by Cyan, 2019.

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Jan Middendorp, designer, writer and author of Dutch Type, Berlin

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.

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