Portland boutique graphic design agency FISK knows how to throw a party.
For evidence, look no further than their blink-and-you-might-miss-it gallery storefront on NE MLK, back open as of July 30 after a two-year hiatus.
The agency uses the space to showcase their favorite artists, throw parties and sell a collection of hard-to-find magazines like Flaneur and Mousse, and other endlessly cool finds (recyclable French gardening clogs anyone? Perhaps a door stop made from recycled skateboards?). Shows there have ranged from tarot card-inspired work from linocut artist Sophy Hollington, to illustrations by stick-and-poke tattooer Rachel Howe (@smallspells), to the current show of drawings from MoMa-featured CalArts faculty graphic designer Ed Fella.
The gallery is the counterpart to their work for clients, who range from the Indian-American pop star Raveena to the sustainably-minded jeans manufacturer Bershka, to local West African restaurant Akâdi.
Selling their own FISK-branded merch has been a part of the gallery space since the outset, but for the past two years they’ve focused those efforts on a springtime collection of clothing and housewares celebrating the Iranian new year, Nowruz. Now, Berahimi says the open-ended projects that the gallery affords help him and his team see their designs outside of a computer screen.
Berahimi started FISK while still in design school (where he studied under Fella); it was the name he’d attach to zines and screen-printed T-shirts made with classmates. We spoke with Berahimi about the impacts of good design, his new grasp of Iranian history, and finding avenues to express his perspective while designing for others. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Portland Monthly: Did you always know that you wanted to have your own studio?
Bijan Berahimi: Since school, I’ve had the inclination to create my own environment, because school felt very, very intentional—like it was designed, but with flexibility and fluidity. You have the classroom, but if you’re surrounded by 20 other designers, you’re probably going to make stuff together. And that’s where I started FISK—with my class. That’s where we threw parties; that’s where we made zines. Then when I worked at Nike I was like, ‘OK, this is what graphic design looks like from a functional standpoint. This is what I like about it; this is maybe what I don’t.’ I always felt like that balance was important. Now I’ve been able to make that into a practice, where the studio is like the class and then the gallery is like the extracurricular stuff.
How do you balance creating your own work with creating work for clients?
Growing up with two middle-class parents—an engineer and an accountant—having a job was always really important. That’s why I studied graphic design and not fine art. I enjoy the client side, too. We work with cool and interesting people, so it’s a way to learn from others. The whole studio—we all learn from our clients. And realistically, that’s what funds everything else. Maybe we could make money from the gallery and selling clothes, but for now those are more passionate outlets for us.
Have you always felt like you were able to do your thing when you were hired for jobs?
No [laughs]. When I started at Nike, everything was like Transformers. It was very 3-D. I hadn’t done anything like that in school and it was really hard for me. I’m interested in the more traditional heritage of graphic design like type and image and layout, “image making.” Working with Nike as a client now, we’re trying to integrate our POV into that culture. Finding nuggets. Like, soccer, for example, has a really beautiful aesthetic. So, in research, we found out about a French soccer club from the ‘60s that had this really cute logo. So, maybe there’s space to make a cute logo in the soccer world. The new Toro Y Moi record is like a traditional psych rock record. So, what does that world look like? I saw album covers from bands in the ‘70s that were kind of the lineage of that, but how do we make it contemporary? I never want to make something too throwback; it’s important that it looks contemporary because it is contemporary. There are always little ways of inserting yourself into an industry, and we’re really fortunate to have a portfolio today where people hire us for a specific look.
Has your Iranian heritage always influenced your work?
That’s definitely a newer thing. I had this kind of epiphany. A friend recommended Azadeh Moaveni’s memoir Lipstick Jihad a few years ago. She grew up in California, of parents who immigrated here during the Iranian revolution. The book is about how her entire understanding of her culture was fed through her parents’ lens and her parents understanding and she didn’t realize how limiting that was. She didn’t understand that she could do her own research. It changed her life because she was like, ‘this is one perspective that I’ve been fed.’ That made me like realize, like, ‘Oh, my God, I can read it, too.’ So, I read like 10 books on Iran, the revolution, all these things. And that was kind of what spurred this thing. Now I have this privilege of being able to communicate or educate people on a culture that they’re not very aware of, or might have a certain view of. I can help a young Iranian designer or a young brown designer. I didn’t have any of that growing up. I didn’t have my favorite Iranian rapper, or my favorite Iranian fashion designer, that didn’t exist, at least not in my world.
How does that research show up in your work?
Hosting is a really big part of Iranian culture. Having a lot of people over, taking care of them, showing them an abundance of food, dancing—there’s a party hosting element that I grew up around. And now I can draw the connection to hosting people at the gallery—how important it is to me to create this space for people that’s warm and comfortable, trying to make people feel a certain way. From a visual perspective: decoration, poetry, crafts, textiles and objects are a big part of the Iranian tradition. As a student, I was really interested in decoration and I’m realizing now that the carpets and frames and ceramics I grew up surrounded by were all decorative in a very specific way. At a certain point it was like, ‘Oh, maybe that’s why I like this stuff.’
How did your Nowruz (Iranian new year) collections come about?
It was such an important part of my childhood. It’s like Christmas there. They shut down the city for a week or two and there’s a lot of rituals around it. As a kid, it was this foreign thing that I went to a celebration for, and then went to school and I never talked about it. It was such a weird, polarizing life. Part of the idea to do the Nowruz collection came from dilemmas with making clothes in general. Like, what’s the point of this? What is the purpose of it? I felt a little hollow making a logo shirt. My parents were really supportive of it, too, which is the ultimate test.
What types of client work are you most excited by?
We get excited about stuff that we can connect to. I’ll use Raveena as an example: she’s Indian-American, grew up on the East Coast and had kind of a parallel childhood to me. I could relate to her, like, having weird food products in your house, etc. And I can understand the importance of someone like Raveena being successful because it inspires young brown girls to think ‘I can be a pop star.’ Weirdly, there were Middle Eastern and Asian people in bands in the ‘70s. But [their cultural identity] was never a part of the band. Like, Freddie Mercury was half Iranian. But no one cared.
Their identities weren’t celebrated, but maybe they were successful in spite of them.
Exactly. Now I’m motivated by the fact that I can help change that. For example: working with Akâdi, people don’t understand how hard it is to do what Akâdi is doing. Often people of color don’t have the tools of a restaurant group to support them and be like, ‘You need to have Instagram. You need to Market. You need to pay for advertising. You need to hire influencers to come to your restaurant.’
It’s kind of your job to make things look legit on the internet, or in real life. Which is a bit behind the scenes by design, but it’s also a very expensive part of the process.
And I don’t know if it should be more present, or not. Akâdi didn’t ask us to do a rebrand. They were located next to our old space and I happened to eat the food and loved it. I was like, ‘Do you guys want branding? I can trade you for food.’ And they were like, ‘Sure?’ But I don’t think they had the understanding of the power of design and how it might make certain groups of people feel more comfortable eating there. People love going to a restaurant that has a great identity and a beautiful interior. It makes them feel safe, especially when they’re trying a foreign food. It’s unfortunate, but if I can contribute to reshaping that…. They’re making this product that’s so unique and special; I want to help present that in the best possible way. Ultimately, that can be design’s positive impact. I remember talking to Fatou [Ouattara, Akâdi’s owner], I was like, ‘you might have a lot of different kinds of people coming here. If you have a cool logo, it might draw other people.’