Friday, July 23, 2010

Interview - Niels Oeltjen

Niels Oeltjen's Wilkinitie letterpress print

Experiments in typography by Niels Oeltjen

Thanks & Hudon's new Street Studio book, featuring many local street artists including Niels Oeltjen.

Niels' Street Studio pages...

Niels Oeltjen is a bit of an enigma. You see his name around the place... you've got a vague idea of his work and illustrative style.. a few seconds of googling brings up more than a handful of examples of his brilliant and varied design work... and yet, there is something just a little bit mysterious going on. Like all of Melbourne's favourite and most celebrated gems, Niels is a bit of a secret, a discovery which takes just a little bit of effort to uncover and get your head around. He's kind of like the human equivalent of that Japanese restaurant in Flinders Lane with no signage that I still can't find, 2 years after it was first recommended (Yu-U??).

It's a wonder Niels manages to fly under the radar really. In addition to his commercial illustration work (represented by Jacky Winter), high-profile design collaborations, typography projects, fine art, exhibitions, mail-order letterpress project (Wilkintie), and excellent collaborative design blog (The Wooden Foundations), Niels is also well known in Melbourne for his street art. In fact he is one of the featured artists in Thames & Hudson's new and much talked-about Street Studio book, which is all about Melbourne's celebrated Graffiti scene.

With all this in mind, I am really chuffed that Niels (aka Nails) agreed to this interview! He's not one to blow his own trumpet, you see. He's a modest man of few words and many pictures.

No complaints here! Pictures are my favourite.

Tell me a little about your background – what did you originally study and what path has led you to what you are doing now?

I grew up in Tasmania, where I was involved in the band and skate culture. This is where I learned that sometimes when you want something done the best option is DIY. Tassie was a place I constantly sought to escape, and on a trip to Europe in ‘96 I came across street art (graffiti) and amazing contemporary art. I was so inspired by it that my life dramatically changed direction and I completed by Bachelor of Fine Art with new energy and a new focus, rather than having another go at getting into Marine Biology. From there I moved to Melbourne and immersed myself in everything that I loved – street art, illustration, and design. My path meandered about a bit, and I had a lot of great experiences, but somehow the constant has always been making art, and keeping it DIY.

How would you describe your illustrative style?

Warm with a chance of rain.

What are some favourite illustration projects, clients or publications you have worked with over the years?

Favourite clients is anyone who understands what I do and respects my ideas enough to let me do what I know is best. That said every job has its challenges, and they’re easier to overcome with a friendly and open-minded client, where the process is one of collaboration. I’ve had a lot of those but Tailfeather comes to mind, and Poketo.

How did the idea for Wilkintie come about? How is it going?

My wife was looking for a new project when she left her previous job in publishing. We were keen to do something fun, and to commission all the great illustrators we came across in our work. I had just started making letterpress prints so we worked out a way to make the most of these interests by producing a letterpress art project for kids. It’s going pretty well even as we’ve taken a little break as Carly is doing the Mum thing with our baby boy. We’re working on a new direction for the project over the course of this year, and are looking forward to pursuing some more possibilities.

You have a lot of creative projects on the go at one time! How do you divide your time between freelance illustration, Wilkintie, and projects such as the Street/Studio book and the Wooden Foundations Collective etc… when you wake up in the morning, how do you know what to get started on first!?

My toughest day is usually Monday when I step into the office and see dozens of emails in my inbox and a to-do list as long as your arm. I organise my week then and try to set some time away from the mac, either interacting with people or making something. It’s not any different than any other freelancer I guess. With a lot of projects on at any given time I need to plan, set goals, and keep track of what I’m doing. Goals are really important, as well as monitoring victories… it just keeps me moving. Anyone working for themselves knows how challenging it can be, but the rewards are great coz each victory is your own. Of course there are days where I just get fed up and wanna go do something completely different. I allow myself those days every once in a while just to stay sane.

What does a typical day at work involve for you?

I usually start the day answering some emails, then morning tea and a little play with my son before heading back into the studio. From there I’d be struggling to define a typical day but any of the following might apply: Draw, brainstorm an idea, make some art, paint a wall, chase an invoice, shop for materials, marketing, printing (letterpress, lino, digital), or networking. Lately I’ve wanted to change things up a bit and schedule time in for creative play, something that normally only happens when I need a break from the admin stuff.

Where do you turn for creative inspiration? – travel, art, local or international print publications, the web etc?

I couldn’t define one source… I look everywhere for inspiration. The key is to have an open mind, be curious, and to never dismiss an opportunity to learn. I usually document the inspiration and then refer to that when I’m starting a new project, or if I’m stuck. I love going to the library.

Can you name some other creative people whose work you admire?

People whose work I have been connecting with lately include Theo Jansen, Daniel Eatock , Honet, Michael Johansson, Steve Powers, Nam collective, Random International, Henrik Menne, Tommi Stockel, and CheapCheap.

What would be your dream creative project?

It would be one where I can be purely creative without having to worry about politics, budgets, opinions, or red tape. Or I might want to take off to some remote part of the world to work with the locals on something that benefits them as well as producing something of artistic merit.

What are you looking forward to?

Watching my son grow up and having more art shows OS.

Melbourne Questions

Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?

I spend a lot of time in Brunswick, so I’ll say Brunswick.

What/where was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?

Morning Tea at Dench.

Where do you shop in Melbourne for the tools of your trade?

Ummm… nowhere specific. I do go to secondhand shops a lot for raw materials for my sculptural work.

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

At the Queen Vic market doing the weekly shopping and gorging on sweet treats.

Melbourne’s best kept secret?

There are no secrets left… except one. I know of a place where there is a cave that only a handful of (non-aboriginal) people have set foot in.


  1. I'm such a huge fan of his work. I remember reading about Niels in Dumbo Feather a while back and was in awe of his work right away. So talented and creative and very inspiring too. Great post Lucy :) x

  2. what a wonderful creative! i love niels styles and colour palettes. lovely interview. thanks lucy x

  3. This is awesome. I love Niels' work and I love how he describes his illustrative style - "Warm with a chance of rain". Bloody brilliant.
    x dana

  4. Hi,
    i'm Vanessa, from Brazil, and i subscribe this blog via email. Just wanted you to know that you have a brazilian fan, always tuned to what you put on the blog and always grateful for so pretty and inspiring posts :D

    thanks a lot and please, keep updating :)

  5. Lucy, you're such a dag. Yu-u is just off flinders lane behind 101 Collins, but a little west toward Russell st. The door (blue/grey steel I believe) is on a cobblestone lane, just near the cnr of the cobblestones and flinders lane, on the left when you turn down it from flinders lane. It's just near Coda and Breadwell. Check it out! Great interview by the way :-)

  6. The man's a genius and I love his work!

  7. Love this Man's work...a fantastic post and another great Melbourne find. Be interested to see your thoughts on Wordpress too, I've only recently started blogging and having a few issues with photos in Blogger. RayG.

  8. darling lucy!
    i must say your blog is incredible!
    your fancy pictures and interviews are the best!
    i am immensely impressed!
    x x