Citizen Fernando

Posted on July 11, 2006

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shortcut talks to fernando couto, graphic designer and berliner

A Portuguese graphic designer living in Berlin – how did that particular combination happen?

Well, it is the result of chance, actually.

In 2002 my wife received a ten-month scholarship to study here at the University of the Arts. She came and I stayed back in Portugal, working as a freelancer and dropping by once in a while to be with her. Of course the city is really appealing and we discussed the possibility of moving to Berlin on a permanent basis, but since we enjoyed so much the life we had in Porto and she was planning to stay here for just two semesters, we decided to keep with this arrangement. Also at the time I was learning Japanese, so Germany was not at all part of my plans; at least not to live. I wanted to move to Japan for a couple of years and experience the culture. But that didn’t happen.

During one of my visits here, I sent my portfolio to some design agencies, just to get feedback from them; a sense of how my work related in a different culture. I received some encouraging reactions and a job offer from a design agency with several graphic designers from around the world. The projects were interesting and the working environment seemed very exciting. It was a great opportunity, so we put some thought into it, decided I should accept the offer, left our beautiful apartment in Portugal and have been living here since.

Berlin is supposedly in a deep financial and perhaps identity crisis – your take on that?
How do you see the city developing?

The city has indeed financial problems, but I don’t feel there is an identity crisis, to be honest.

Berlin is ? and this won’t change in the near future ? a symbol of division and reunification, of the memories of the past and the challenges of the future. It is a city trying to restore a sense of continuity to a fragmented structure; on every corner you feel and see what the city lost and, for the most part, it is growing with these losses in mind. It was the main stage for many of the most important historical events of the 20th century and is now promoting itself as a privileged location for the challenges facing the enlarged European Union of the 21st century. This is the identity of Berlin now and I don’t see it developing differently in the near future.

Plus the quality of life here is really good and inexpensive compared with other European cities, which makes it very appealing. And although it could mean that some are not working ? since unemployment here is a bit high ? everyone is relaxed, enjoys being outside and nature is such an integral part of the city that just sitting in the balcony at home, facing the park, I don’t think I’ve ever heard so many birds at once… Here it is quite normal for a design office, for example, to have some chairs and tables to sit outside for a short pause, having some friends stopping by to talk or play table tennis and then go back to work. Enjoying life and working is very much apart of the lifestyle in Berlin and this is something I think the city will continue to invest in.

Hopefully they will also manage to solve the financial problems, because apart from other broader social and economical consequences, you can see the effects of this situation on certain events organized in Berlin. Sometimes the locations where they take place do not offer the best and most appropriate conditions, and the trashy-retro-glamour aesthetic that is so popular here should not be an excuse much longer for disguising this problem, otherwise some events might start to loose strength and momentum, which would be a shame.

Where are you working now and are your German colleagues as efficient as everyone thinks?

Ah, the ever present German efficiency! I have to say they are not that different from what I have experienced in other places. But then again, Berlin does not in anyway stand for Germany. People here are very much relaxed and easy going. Normal professionals like anywhere else; occasional mistakes happen, deadlines are sometimes not too strict. But justice should be made: there is an organization structure that allows for this relaxed professional behavior. The experience I have here has, for the most part, involved projects with a development time-schedule planned well in advance. Ideas have time to be discussed and explored before the projects need to be finished, which is wonderful.

There is also the opinion that Germans are uptight, unable to be spontaneous, to improvise. I’ve encountered some of them but I would say the percentage is not as high as one would be led to believe. My working colleagues certainly haven’t proved this preconceived idea to be true! Stereotypes are always too general to fit real people in.

I’m still working for the same people who offered me a job back in 2003. The initial company, which was called Leonardi.Wollein, ended in 2005 when the two partners decided to part and since then I’ve been working as a freelancer for one of them at Wollein&Co.

There’s been a lot of talk about the World Cup and specifically about possible violence (against foreigners) – do you feel the threat was exaggerated by politicians?

Well the risk of violence does exist, but yes, I think it was exaggerated for political reasons. These kind of events always carry tense situations but I’m fairly optimistic about the efficiency of the security structure around the World Cup. So far everything is going okay, and let’s hope it continues this way.

Of course race clashes do exist, but I haven’t felt any during my time here. I would say the areas around Berlin may see this happening, due to more critical financial and social problems but the city is very safe and worry free.

What are your career plans and where are you headed next?

I’ll be moving to London after the Summer to do an MA at Central Saint Martins School of Art and Design. The course is fairly recent and the subject is Creative Practice for Narrative Environments. It focus on how narrative is such an integral part of the spaces and the social structures we live in; and encourages interdisciplinary practice, joining professionals coming from different fields such as writing, architecture, design, etc.

I’m really excited because for a long time I’ve had research interests outside graphic design, but they have been kept apart from my professional work, so this will be a wonderful opportunity to change this. I’m hoping to slowly move away from traditional graphic design and start working on projects closer to curatorship, exhibition and environmental design; something that attempts to reflect and have a critical perspective on our complex cultural structures.

Any areas in Berlin that are interesting to see for visitors and residents?

This city is so full of hidden surprises! The layers of history are everywhere, some are truly wonderful and the best way to find them is just by walking or biking around, exploring the city.

Personally, I’m a great fan of architecture from the early 1900s of which Berlin has many examples.
There is, for example, a charming social housing complex following the Bauhaus functionalism and aesthetic at Erich-Weinert-Strasse. It was recently restored, the colours, scale are very nice and once in a while I can’t resist walking by to see it. And further down on the same street, there is an interesting small group of beautiful Jugendstil industrial buildings from 1907.

Another great industrial site to visit is the historical AEG complex with the Turbinenhalle by Peter Behrens at Huttenstrasse. The size of it today is still impr
essive but before the war it must have been quite overwhelming.
Also very interesting is the area of Karl-Marx-Allee, with its neoclassical Russian style ? also know as "Zückerbäckerstil", or "confectioner’s style" ?, the beautiful Kino International and all the Plattenbau buildings, constructed of large prefabricated structures. From the same period, but in the West and with a totally different scale and urban approach, the Hansaviertel in Tiergarten district is also worth seeing, with buildings from Walter Gropius, Oscar Niemeyer, Alvar Aalto and Jacobsen and the Unité d’Habitation in Charlottenburg, near the Olympiastadion.
Well, the list could go on and on…

Oranienburger Strasse and the area around Hackesche Höfe (1906) in Rosenthaler Strasse, is also very nice. As well as the Gendarmenmarkt square.

And one of the best places to relax on a summer day, watching the river and the boats go-by is the area around the Märkisches Museum in Am Köllnischen Park. The group of buildings that make the museum are very nice and the small park and buildings around it bring a pleasant atmosphere to the neighborhood.
But my best advise is still to wander around and enjoy the city. One is always surprised by what Berlin has to discover.

Coming back to your roots, you’re not entirely Portuguese either, your mother is from East Timor. How has this affected your life in Europe, both growing up and as an adult?

Yes, my mother is from East-Timor and is half Chinese and my father was Portuguese. I was also born in East-Timor but with the Indonesian invasion we fled to Portugal when I was one and half years old.

But even if my education is Portuguese because of this, my oriental roots play an important part of my character. It think it mostly has to do with the fact that according to my parents, I am very much like my Chinese grandfather, when it comes to character and sensibility. Which is quite extraordinary since we parted when I was very young, so it is another evidence of how family genes are an amazing thing.

While growing up I felt my sensibility never really fitted with what I was seeing around me, some values of Portuguese and western societies. When I slowly became aware of my roots, certain things started to make sense and I understood there were family and ethnic reasons for this. And you have to understand that this wasn’t an obvious process at all. At home we only heard Portuguese, my mother had to loose her Chinese name for a new Portuguese one and we never had any contact with my family back in East-Timor because of censorship. Only now are we able to re-establish family links and it is very funny to discover common things with people I had never been or talked with until now.

In the end I feel neither entirely Portuguese, nor East-Timorese nor Chinese but hopefully I’ll choose the best of what each culture has to offer to me.

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samples of fernando’s work: 

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