For the second year in a row, the current cream of the crop in design, illustration and animation together with legendary visual artists who need to be revered forever, are leaving behind either whatever they are conceptualising for the biggest brands in the world or new work they are dragging out of the depths of their beings, to descend upon the city of Antwerp for three days and inspire us mortal lot.
Heart, soul and gut behind this operation is Rizon Parein, a fellow Belgian who could dazzle anyone by just listing this month's client list (Kyrie Irving for Nike; Apple) let alone last decade's (JAY-Z and I am not even going to name anyone else because, why?), but who'd rather get googly-eyed talking about 'community' and finally booking his biggest hero of all, Delta.
Let it be clear that nowhere and never will you be able to experience this year's 'Us by Night' line-up (top dogs from adidas AND Nike) for this price tag ever again. Industry events are at least 3 times more expensive and way more obnoxious.
Here's what we talked about (and of course we did discuss HOV, like who gon stop me):
KNOTORYUS: Let's go back a little bit before we go forward. How did last year's first edition, which was called 'OFFF by Night', happen?
RIZON PAREIN: Two years ago, I spent three months in New York where I hung out at Brooklyn Night Bazaar in Williamsburg a lot. It was a big industrial lot with a flea market, ping-pong tables, a punching ball, air hockey, concert stages, craftspeople at work… It was such a different way of going out. You could just play Jenga and be a little kid again. The thought hit me that it could be a lot of fun for a conference to be held in that kind of context. Then, last year, the City of Antwerp contacted me to see whether I was interested in working on a design project for ‘Born in Antwerp’. I immediately thought of doing some type of small-scale summit or festival.
KNOTORYUS: But back then you named it 'OFFF by Night'.
RIZON PAREIN: In Barcelona you’ve got the OFFF conference; it's kind of the design industry event. I had been asked to be an OFFF speaker, which was nice, plus the event allows franchising, so my first thought was to do that since I wasn’t looking to develop my own event back then and do all the branding and marketing for it. Very impulsively and enthusiastically, I approached colleagues and clients within the industry and after two weeks I had garnered a hefty speaker line-up. The ambition grew from there. Usually the “OFFF on Tour” franchises are pretty small-scale, with a few hundred people attending and eight speakers in two days. I already had sixteen big-shot speakers lined up and there was so much potential that I starting reflecting on what could be improved about the format of these events. Almost half the fun at OFFF Barcelona comes from the community. Everyone follows each other on Instagram but has rarely met for real. Just having a beer and grabbing a bite to eat, going out: it’s almost like camp for grown-ups. So that became my angle: what if we approach a design conference like a nightlife event? More fun, less serious, but always with a stellar line-up.
KNOTORYUS: So how'd you go about it from there?
RIZON PAREIN: I’ve always had a soft spot for that community feeling. I was involved in the graffiti scene for a long time and loved the culture and travelling, but it was mainly the bonding that drew me in. We secured Parkloods in Antwerp as a location and I immediately felt it would become more than "a little party". I went all out and invited more friends and peers. Image and sound quality is of course very important to me, which meant I wanted to get the biggest and best screens in there. It's an incredible rush for the speakers as well: the bigger the screen, the more pumped you get. We added an entire night market with containers and LED walls that were up to ten metres high, featuring artists' works. There were food stalls by MARTA, a local farmer’s market, inspired by the Brooklyn Night Bazaar. Of course I had to have the ping-pong tables too. As an experiment, we created a Q&A stage blended into the market rather than in a separate hall. When people walk by or grab a bite, they can stop and watch, which is way more organic and allows for more intimate contact between speaker and audience. This was a gamble but we put a lot of local names on that stage and when the time came, it really worked out. I've done a lot and this was never my ambition, but I think organizing "OFFF by Night" was the highlight of my career up to now.
KNOTORYUS: Wow, that's a big statement for someone with your resume.
RIZON PAREIN: Everyone walking around with a smile. It was so beautiful to watch all of this passion and fun being shared. I know what those kinds of events have meant to me in the beginning of my career. To share all that with all these young kids from Belgium, to be able to do that here with this kind of talent. Fantastic.
KNOTORYUS: So when did you know you wanted to do it again?
RIZON PAREIN: The first edition really opened my eyes to the fact that there’s way more you can do with graphic design or illustration than most of us think. Everything was working, people were hollering at the ping-pong table, the Q&A stage was fun. I was totally spent afterwards, but I figured there was no way we would just leave it at that. The city of Antwerp had subsidised this entire edition and hadn’t budgeted funds for a next one, though. Then &KOO, a group of creative agencies, approached us and offered to take over the city’s part. My one condition was to never chase profit as an objective, because I want this to be for the design community. Everyone involved is doing this from the heart so I don’t want it to become a commercial thing. Our new partner agreed, which was very cool, and eventually the city and provincial councils got back in as well. We thought the second edition would be easier to pull off with last year’s blueprint, but then we added another stage: the tutorial stage. A place for the greats to get more technical and the kids and everyone else to learn. We also added ‘Interventions’, which will include a VR installation by Marshmallow Laser, they’ve won lots of prizes. Felipe Pantone will be there as well, his murals have gotten a lot of hype this year. Mode2, an absolute icon from the graffiti scene will be painting. So are StayNice and Alexis Tyrsa, who did Zlatan Ibrahimović’s tattoos. A lot of international speakers from last year will be returning as visitors, guests are coming from Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, Singapore… It’s the best.
RIZON PAREIN: The Q&A sessions in the living area were ideal for me to involve people from different disciplines or cities and create a bridge there. We consider this to be a creative platform for several people to plug into, it’s not an ego thing. ALICE Gallery in Brussels are just fantastic people with lots of vision. Isn’t it crazy how Brussels and Antwerp make so few connections and miss out on each other’s amazing events?
RIZON PAREIN: So getting Alice and Raphaël on board was very interesting to me. We gave each guest curator three slots and then we had a dialogue about what they like and what could work. ALICE brought in Boris Tellegen a.k.a. Delta, who was my absolute idol growing up. It sounds a bit silly, but when I see Delta I still have a hard time catching my breath. What he has accomplished within the graffiti scene is huge. To have Delta and the legendary Mode2 at the same event is so cool.
KNOTORYUS: What do you expect from the Delta talk? What are you curious to find out?
RIZON PAREIN: I try to give people as much freedom to do what they do. We’re not born performers, we’re artists or we make images, so whatever people feel most comfortable doing, they should go for. Delta has been on so many adventures, I think he could easily talk for hours.
KNOTORYUS: I’m also looking forward to seeing Mirko Borsche, who designed the Balenciaga website and online shop, which I have been known to frequent on a regular basis. I’m curious to hear the reasoning behind this beautiful but sometimes confusing store design though, he can come explain himself. Probably I'm just doing it wrong.
KNOTORYUS: Sam Vanallemeersch is another great artist and does something quite different but he’s a speaker I'm also looking forward to. We have one of his huge comic books at home and following him online, it’s clear that he’s still on a quest and doesn’t feel too jaded to admit that it’s all a process.
RIZON PAREIN: I like people who can put things in perspective, to keep it human and accessible. I don’t like rock stars and that was so wonderful last year. All of the speakers were sweet and had a real sense of community, they stuck around afterwards and mingled. I also realised everyone still gets nervous before speaking. Every name on the line-up runs into a wall now and then. We’re also part of an industry where no matter how famous you are, there are always correction rounds. You always get feedback. You won’t just be done after one try, regardless which client. Nobody's exempt from being told off. (laughs)
KNOTORYUS: Legendary designer Neville Brody is also on the roster this year and I’m so curious to see him, we have almost every issue of The Face at the office. What does someone like that mean to you? He is one of the originators for us.
RIZON PAREIN: My very first graphic design book was by Neville Brody. He’s always been a personal hero. I caught one of his talks at OFFF in Barcelona and it was so solid. He has so much knowledge. I don’t remember the details but he talked about his journey and his vision. I remember being very surprised by the amount of famous visuals he had done that I didn’t know were his.
KNOTORYUS: That’s the challenge for a festival like yours, I imagine, the general public probably knows a lot of the work, but not necessarily the names or faces.
RIZON PAREIN: True. When I go to OFFF Barcelona, I probably only recognise half the line-up until I see the work. That’s what we try to communicate to our audience, what all of these people represent; especially on our Instagram. Increasing awareness is not easy, but creating a line-up isn’t either. I sought out lots of opinions after last year and investigated different disciplines. Michael Spoljaric, another speaker and creative director for Nike Basketball was a great sparring partner for me to create this line-up. I’ve been working with him for about five years now and this man has such vision. He’s able to collaborate with loads of artists and thus has a great overview of the scene, from photography to window installations and logos. The research process is very educational. I even got a flash course in cosmetics photography. I initially secured a really good beauty product photographer but he is doing a major fashion house campaign and can’t make it. Next year he’ll definitely be there. I also ran into Daniel Sannwald in London recently - we collaborated on a campaign for Vogue Hommes Japan before - and talked about wanting to book this director I really like and he went: “He’s a great friend of mine, also, M.I.A. lives right around my corner. Do you want to have breakfast on Sunday?”
KNOTORYUS: So, we have a first name for the 2018 Us by Night music stage.
RIZON PAREIN: (laughs) I would love to add bands, but we'll see.
KNOTORYUS: Since you work for Nike Brand Design Portland a lot, do you always operate from Belgium?
RIZON PAREIN: I’ve always worked from home. I tried heading out to New York and L.A. for a while but life was so fast-paced and it’s just a bunch of conference calls anyway, physical meetings are rare. Working stateside for European clients is pretty hard because of the time difference but working for U.S. companies from Europe is pleasant. It’s quiet till 4 PM and then I receive all of the feedback. I can also send stuff out at the end of the day, which they’ll wake up to. It’s been almost five years that I’ve almost exclusively been working for Nike, the Portland branch, and I love that they’ve got teams for each brand that I work directly with. It’s a real dialogue, from the very beginning when the shoe is still in development. You don’t just get a briefing you have to execute, it’s very organic. And as the project grows, it gets passed along to the people working on retail installations and animation and crosses over. That way I get to work with great artists from different disciplines. It would be hard for me to return to the classical ad agency structure.
KNOTORYUS: You are really known for your neon-work. How did that come about?
RIZON PAREIN: As a graffiti artist, it’s important to invent new style elements and claim them. It has always been a preoccupation of mine. It’s not ego-related, it’s an adventure. One day the LG&F agency – now FamousGrey – in Brussels booked me on a campaign for Eristoff. I was asked to create a 3D neon sign and I was really excited because I’d been wanting to do that for a long time. During the creation process, I realised: “Shit, this is cool.” No one was really doing that, and I just felt it would be some kind of moment. So I started making so many different versions, just to be the first one to use neon in that way. (laughs) I also looked for a way to make it go viral, the world needed to know that I did it first! I knew there had been a lot of debate surrounding the font for the film “Drive”. A lot of people were against it. But I figured neon was pretty 80s and immediately after seeing the film, I started working on a design. I dropped it online at night, went to bed and the next day it was all over the internet. It really set something in motion for me. I wanted to put text underneath the neon, but because of the wiring it didn’t work, so I thought I’d pull it to the side and direct the wires around a plug in the wall. That’s pretty sexy to me, cables all bundled up. In reality you’d never see a plug in the wall with the cables arranged like that. But I think I’ve seen almost two hundred copies now, with the cables arranged around a plug in the exact same way. That’s advertising for you: agencies need referencing material. They sell a neon idea to a client, they have someone work on it, they don’t like it and then they figure out why that is. They point to the “Drive” design and ask for the same. That stupid little plug in the wall started to lead a life of its own, I even saw tutorials online about how to make the plug. (laughs)
KNOTORYUS: You've been working from home for the longest, is it true that you are considering opening your own studio?
RIZON PAREIN: With the kind of work I do, there’s always the request for animation - mainly from agencies that want neon in motion. I was at a conference recently where Adobe predicted that 82 percent of content in the future would be motion content. They told us we needed to prepare for that. I’ve noticed the rise in demand, but if I want to retain the quality of my stills in motion, there’s no way I can do that by myself. It’s on my mind a lot, whether I should prepare for that. On the other hand, everything I’ve accomplished so far is due to the fact that I’ve always worked alone and impulsively, steered my own compass in a certain direction. I’ve had the freedom to make decisions you couldn’t make if you had ten people working for you. It’s something to mull over.
RIZON PAREIN: For sure! The festival campaign concept was to make physical neon signs of the entire line-up which would be installed on-stage. Every time an artist would come on, their part of the neon sign would blink. The briefing was part of a pitch involving two industry heavyweights. But I felt like neon was my thing and in the end we got it. When we got feedback, they said: “JAY-Z has personally weighed in and you’ve won the pitch”.
RIZON PAREIN: It was just madness. There were about a hundred artists lined up and I had to edit at least thirty names in the last 48 hours of the deadline. I wasn’t hugely into the end result because there were so many names to feature, which really thinned out the neon. I made an alternate version, zooming in on each artist name separately with the line-up in 2D below. The agency liked it but it still had to be run by JAY-Z and, I swear, that was during the same week Solange tried to kick his ass in the elevator.
KNOTORYUS: So the agency figured that neon signs were the least of Hov's issues.
RIZON PAREIN: (Laughs) I think so, so they stuck to the original plan. The funny thing is that a few months later, JAY-Z’s record label e-mailed me asking if I wanted to make a neon sign to put up in their office. I was a bit tired and told them that I only make 3D neon and I didn’t make the physical objects.
KNOTORYUS: No, Rizon, No!
RIZON PAREIN: (Laughs) Yeah, I regret that now. I could've figured it out.
KNOTORYUS: Thanks for the talk, Rizon, I appreciate it.
RIZON PAREIN: Thank you and see you soon!