The World as seen from Berlin14 July 2014
Born in Germany, but a globetrotter at heart, Olaf Hajek has been based in Berlin for nearly twenty years now. He’s especially fond of the Mitte district, which is still a great place to observe the city’s recent transformations. In the last few years, this dynamism has been so intense that he no longer feels the need to spend long periods in other cities : “I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with this city, but it’s a perfect base when you’re working with the rest of the world. You never get bored in Berlin. You have to keep your ear to the ground to find out about the latest trendy street, new restaurants that have opened and people who have moved here. Everything is in continuous flux.” Now more than ever, Berlin is the perfect place to feed his curiosity.
IMMERSED IN AN AQUARIUM
His workshop is located behind a large window in a quiet street. In a city which is increasingly associated with state-of-the-art IT, passers-by can’t help but notice the vaguely antiquated look of his working space. Although the immaculate interior shares the minimalistic style of a faceless advertising agency, it’s hard to overlook a few unusual and surprising details. On the desk, in place of a computer there is a cluster of paintbrushes, and a wooden palette covered with multi-coloured splodges of paint occupies the spot where one might expect to see a printer. Indeed, in both his commercial commissions and his artistic practice, Olaf Hajek’s work is characterised by an absence of new technologies. This urban “aquarium” with its almost timeless feel is where most of the poetic worlds which populate his illustrations are born. Butterflies and exotic insects flutter about amidst a riot of scarlet petals, before finding refuge in the pouffe hairstyles of purple duchesses. Hajek’s designs are miscellanies of fables and dreamlike sequences, invitations to step through the looking glass.
A Frida Kahlo biography, books on botany, photos of Africa and incongruous objects from folklore, the themes represented on his bookshelves give us a few clues about his sources of inspiration. But when asked to review what feeds his aesthetic preoccupations, he doesn’t rattle off a torrent of references. He prefers instead to look back on his personal experiences and the sensitivity he’s developed through his extensive contacts with diverse cultures. He remembers his high school years in Bonn, where most of his classmates were the children of diplomats : “When I visited them, I would hear music from other parts of the world. Although it conjured up completely alien environments, before long they all seemed familiar to me, and that stimulated me to reconstruct far-flung and imaginary lands”. Since that time, he has constantly nourished this interest in exotic journeys and themes. Over time, he has accumulated an impressive collection of African folklore items. He particularly appreciates what he calls the power of simplicity of these objects : “These creations are basic, but incredibly powerful. It’s a force that I always try to channel into my own creative process.”
BETWEEN BAROQUE AND A RETURN TO NATURE
This simplicity is not only reflected in the motifs he uses in his work, but also in the way he prepares his canvases : “When you travel in Africa, you see huge amounts of natural materials, and I always try to work their character into my pictures. I’d even say it’s the starting point of my work : maintaining this contradiction between simplicity and the more elaborate components of my work.” Olaf Hajek’s designs are both familiar and exotic, acting as powerful catalysts to appeal to varied and cosmopolitan sensibilities. He has worked on a range of projects, including the interior design of a South Korean shopping centre and a Turkish luxury store, illustrations for US magazines and Brazilian TV, as well as motifs for Limoges porcelain and children’s books, and he never fails to be surprised by how his art transcends cultural and geographical barriers. This ability to adapt is a constant source of enrichment, as it encourages him to remain open to new impressions : “If, like me, you’re a creative person who likes to travel the world, it’s always incredible to receive commissions from countries which are completely unfamiliar to you. That’s what continues to inspire me and it’s also why I’m really proud to be working with Swatch.”
This challenge was all the more interesting as he’d never had the opportunity to design a watch before. It meant that he had to work within unprecedented con-straints. “I had to work out how to successfully adapt the atmosphere of a painting to a watch. And then there are all the considerations about packaging… looking back, it’s more complicated than you’d imagine.” At the same time, the themes to be represented need to be clarified. After discussion with the Creative Director, a decision was quickly taken to use two designs : “There are many recurrent characters in my paintings. In some ways, they’ve become my alter egos. An example of this is the black-skinned Marie- Antoinette and this bearded character, who I think make a perfect couple. The result is very convincing.” Between baroque sophistication and a mythical return to nature, these two characters stand like two sentinels outside of time. •