Thomas Traum is a visual artist and designer who works primarily in motion graphics and 3D illustration at his studio Traum Inc. Thomas grew up in Germany before studying New Media at Ecole cantonale d’art de Lausanne (ECAL) in Switzerland. After school, he moved to London, where he still lives. He and a team of five at Traum Inc. make work across various mediums, from animations for fashion houses like Kenzo and Issey Miyake to music videos, interactive exhibitions and print illustrations. In November 2016, Thomas created images to advertise Fear and Love: Reactions To A Complex World, the first exhibition at the renovated and reopened Design Museum in London. The show and the ideas explored therein felt like a good framework for delving into Thomas’s work and process. In a Skype conversation last month, we started there.
Meg Miller: The description on your site gets to the core of the Fear and Love exhibition better than any review of it I’ve read. It states simply that the designers in the show are “each exploring an issue that inspires both anxiety and optimism.” What gives you the most anxiety and optimism about technology and design, and where things are headed?
Thomas Traum: Well I think we are at a tipping point—that’s the thing with fear and love, right? We don’t know where it’s going to go. A lot of people think at this point technology is going to be terrible.
I’m also thinking about something that a lot of the guys at Are.na share: an interest in the first wave of the web. We like how amazing the web can be and how connected it makes us and how we can grow knowledge. But now you have that flip side where it helps weird subcultures to feed themselves or get high on their own supply. It’s extreme subcultures like the extreme right wing crews that feed on themselves, and it kind of becomes the opposite of [the original idea].
There’s also body modification, which is kind of scary. Are you still the same person or are you a different person? There’s just so much going on and it can go both ways [anxiety and optimism/love and fear]. I think our images kind of show that this is one way it could go, or maybe not.
Right, so anxiety and optimism are sort of inhabiting the same space.
Personally I’m quite optimistic still. But I think if I didn’t work in this area—I mean, even though I’m a designer, I think of myself as a technologist almost. So it gives you the confidence that you can navigate that space, and it gives you a prediction. But there’s so much that is out of your control. It does give me anxiety at some point.
When we talked the other day, I asked you what you had been working on and you mentioned this project. Why did your mind jump to this one?
Well, Are.na was really good for that one because there are a lot of people on it who are researching high-tech technology. So there’s this kind of feeling that you can’t get anywhere else in terms of this world we’re living in and what ‘now’ really is. I always think human perception is a bit slower [compared to images]. Like right now no one really understands the situation we live in, but images in a way are ahead of us. So we can already see the images in the media but we can’t quite understand how powerful they are.
I’ve found on Are.na there’s sort of a heightened sense of that. If you go to Google Images or something else, it’s a little older or it’s a different sort of selection. But on Are.na it is very now, you know, and [the exhibition] explored this concept of fear and love, this sort of reaction to the world we live in. And a reaction to the future, but also the notion that we’re kind of already in it. These images to me are like precursors. They’re like precursors that [say] we are already here, but there’s going to be a lot more of this.
I like the idea of images being a harbinger of what’s to come. Why do you think that is? Because they can be a straight documentation of what’s going on before we can conceptualize or intellectualize it?
I think also it’s because these images are made by people who experience different things. Like if you go to war zones or you document a drone strike, for example. That’s the type of situation where we’re going to get a lot more of those things, but right now it’s still quite rare. So in that sense they are a precursor.
Or you get social media images, from any source really, but let’s say Kim Kardashian. And she does something that is uniquely new and then she’s followed. It’s so fast and you don’t really have to—it’s there but you don’t quite understand it.
I’ve been thinking about this myself a lot lately. I really find that images are ahead of the times in a way, even if they are documenting something.
Can you talk a bit about how you started working on the images for the Fear and Love exhibition?
[I was asked by] OK-RM a great design studio here in London. They do a lot of exhibition design and communication. They worked on the whole show, so they did the whole campaign in terms of the look.
The creator, Justin McGuirk, involved them, and he’s the one who came up with the fear and love concept and curated the show. So the idea of both a fear and love reaction to a complex world is their baby. The Design Museum in London was reopening, so they wanted to put on a really strong show and make it really relevant.
OK-RM approached me to create the images for it because they thought my work kind of has that feeling to it already, and that it would work really well to use CG or New Aesthetic for this project. That’s how the project came about, basically. We had these themes and we went into the research phase and then we made the images.
Yeah, those were heavily influenced by Justin’s and OK-RM’s thinking about this exhibition and how it was going to play out—what are the major areas where we are going to have a lot of disruption and changes to everyday life?
How did you approach the work?
Justin came up with these themes, and we played around with one or two of the words but we ended up with these subjects. Our approach is really research-based in terms of imagery, trying to find good resources that push you into an area you might not have visually encountered before. We work in 3D, so we can mock it up quickly and then play around with it and refine the images as well. With some of them, we get it on the first try. Some of them went through a lot of iterations in terms of taking a few things off, or editing one single element.
Is that how you approach most of your work?
Yeah, it’s a lot of that. We do a lot of moving images as well, and for that we do storyboards.
That’s why I’m so addicted to the Are.na platform. I try to absorb everything so that when a project comes along I can try to flip it into something interesting I’ve seen. So it works both ways.
That’s why I built the archive tool that I showed you, where you have these image tags created by machine learning, because it allows you to drill down narrower. You have powerful references—like if you want to make a sunset or something, you can search by sunset and it will bring all of the sunset images up. It’s really applied and really conceptual.
You just launched a new site with all of your work. You collaborate with so many different people, brands, institutions. What would you say is the common thread that runs through all of it?
I think the main thing is our slogan: New images for a new world, using new tools for new machines. That’s kind of it. I don’t care so much where it comes from or try to be in a specific area. If anything I try to be above “Oh, these guys do websites,” or “These guys do this.” It’s not a very good business decision, but creatively it’s really interesting.
Also, with everything we do, we create a world. That’s the main thing. You can see that in the Fear and Love images—they all look like they belong to the same world. When we do stuff for [the French clothing brand] Kenzo for a collection, we always extrapolate from the collection and then generate a whole world. I think that’s true for whatever we’ve done—we’ve created a little framework, or a little world.
I think it’s because I come from a Swiss design school and they think in systems. It’s kind of a nice way to make things. Because a world is always a system, so you can answer a lot of questions once you’ve made the world, in a really abstract way. If you have a specific concept, like Japan for a Kenzo collection, you can set up this world and use that as a subject and then find all these angles on the same theme and work in a really fast way.
That’s the power of 3D as well, because it imitates reality in terms of light. You have a sun and a certain world and you can set the sun to a certain setting. So you have really powerful tools when you combine worldmaking and 3D.
I like talking to designers because they have a very specific skill set—in your case, a lot of them, like 3D, animation, video, graphic design. But designers constantly apply their skills in different areas, or in the service of different things. What are your main areas of interest outside of design that continually inform or feed your design work?
For me the main thing is technology, actually. I’m quite a nerd so I follow a lot of programming. I like how programmers organize themselves and I like a lot of programming theory or frameworks. I find that super interesting.
I’m not looking that much at design, but I think most designers don’t. I’m really into blockchain technology. The main thing is that I have to check myself about is how much I read about programming, because it’s a lot. It’s kind of weird because I don’t earn money writing code but I just find it—like those images, I find it at the forefront of certain things. Everyone knows that; for 30 years it’s been happening. But it’s always underrepresented in the arts. [Art and programming] have a difficult relationship, and I find that super interesting.
There’s also that connection between code and your way of systematizing things—your training in Swiss design, and thinking of worldmaking as a framework.
Yeah, that’s a good point. The worldmaking stuff is really extreme in programming because you can start from nothing. It’s really pure in a way because you start from nothing and then create it in 3D.
Are there any artists or designers that you feel tied to, or like you owe a debt to in some way?
I think I’ve been lucky that some of them are my friends because we started doing these things at the same time. These guys from a studio called More and More are really good friends of mine, and I really respect them for what they do.
And then I really like this guy Vadik Marmeladov. He used to own a product company called Lapka that eventually got acquired by Airbnb. He’s just an amazing designer. He’s very broadly skilled as well.
These are friends, contemporaries of mine, that do a lot of good work.
Can I ask you about the name Thomas Traum?
It’s an artist name. I started out with a sort of Internet identity, and Thomas Traum is a really beautiful name in German. Traum means dream, but alptraum is also nightmare. So nightmare and dream have a similar word root in German, and also it’s less—dream has a cheesier connotation in English, but traum in German is way more open to different meanings.
I became a little bit known under that name on the Internet, and when I went freelance I kept that name because it gave me some leverage in terms of finding clients. Since we have more people now I thought it would be cool to get rid of the Thomas and stick with Traum Inc.