Couples who work together (Part 3): Helga and Phen of M8

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Helga Feste Hunter and Phen Hunter runs M8 design from an old Milk Factory, situated by Norway’s biggest freshwater lake Mjøsa. The couple met at Glasgow School of Art in 1992 and some years later they bought the farm that Helga grew up in at Toten. They have since worked with visual communication and identity design, gotten two kids and taken hundreds of dips in the lake, both summer and winter. - The location really inspires us, they say. 

Idea and editing: Christina Skreiberg
Portrait picture: Cosmin Cioroiu

– Please tell us a little bit about how you work, and your approach to design. 

– M8 design is a company working with visual communication and identity design. In short, we work with translating our client’s strategies into something visual. We always try to distill the strategy down to something simple before we start the design process. It is hard both for our customers and us to relate to huge strategic documents: Things get lost in there.

– We sit in an open plan in our studio. We also have a small print studio attached to it, where we can make small limited edition print runs. We in M8 believe that design projects get much better if one can think across different design disciplines. We would much rather be involved at an earlier stage than just be “stuck on” at the end: For instance with signage or marking a building or an environment. 
 
– We have over time worked on several projects that have to do with identity of a place, a region or a municipality or county. We like these projects, and find them meaningful to work with: Design as a tool for making better places and environments. We also work with farmers who produce food – being in the countryside it is nice to work with the most important industry in that place. “Places and food” sums us up quite well. 

– What is the BEST thing about working together?  

– That we get to spend most of our time together, and that we can keep inspiring each other.    Have you set up any “rules” to make it work?  Not really. We have just experienced that we have to draw a line with always discussing customer-based work, especially if it is connected to frustration or worry.  It is important to keep a distance in order to stay sound and healthy. 

– What are the challenges of being partners in both business and in love? 

– Separating the two. Remembering that work is work and life and love is something else. No matter how passionate you are about a project, the work is not everything.

– What is the story behind your name, M8? 

– Fritz, Phen´s language teacher when he first came to Norway, taught him just as much about stars and star constellations as he did Norwegian. He told him about the star constellation M8 where new stars are born continually… it had to be the name of our company.  We find inspiration in places that aren´t so obvious - it´s better to look far away than close for inspiration. It’s better to look at an art or history book than to look in a packaging book, if that´s what you are working on. Going outside to draw is also good, and working in ways that don´t involve a computer…

– Please tell us a about yourselves and your story, how you met, etc! 

– We met at Glasgow School of Art in 1992 (same class), but it wasn´t before 1995 we became a couple. We have in many ways been working together since then: Phen helping Helga with slide projections at her degree show (Helga is not so good at the technical stuff), and Helga helping Phen with screen-printing a book and poster for his show. And this is really very typical for work in later life. Phen is a moving image-person with a passion for drawing and painting, and Helga´s heart is in printmaking.

– We worked in separate, small design businesses in Oslo for a couple of years, before we ‘escaped’ to Toten. It was 1998 when we discovered a great potential studio space in an old Milk Factory by Mjøsa and we bought the farm that Helga grew up in, in Kolbu.   

– Why did you start a studio together and how did you discover that you are a great “union”? 

– We wanted to start our own business for two reasons: 

1) We wanted to work together because we like being together, we have different strengths that compliment each other, and we inspire each other. 

2) In moving to the countryside we knew we had to start on our own, and we liked the thought of doing it our own way and having control over our own work. The studio space we had discovered was within an amazing old factory where condensed milk was produced a century ago (the first of its kind in the world!) Kapp Milkfactory is situated by Norway’s biggest freshwater lake, Mjøsa. 

– It is here we started M8 Design and we are now 4 partners: Helga, Phen, Are and Frode. Next door to us are product designers Kathrine and Cosmin (another couple) who run Noidoi Design Studio. Olga rents a space in our studio and makes beautiful things in origami,  and Ingunn, Hans Olav and Einar are landscape architects – also next door. This small cluster of creative people is very important for us.   

– A big reason for choosing Kapp was lake Mjøsa. We spend a lot of time by and in the lake – any time of the year. In the summer we eat lunch on the pier and swim, but Helga swims all year. We have our own swimming club and every Friday at 11.30 anyone who likes can join us for a dip. The location really inspired us and was important for the idea of having a studio of our own.

Klikk for å se bildet "Korall 1" i full størrelse

Pledd designet hos M8 og produsert av Røros Tweed

– Do you see each other all the time or do you do different things?  

– Often a day starts with bread making. A couple of years ago Phen used to run a sourdough bakery called Lund Brød with a Scottish friend called George. Since then we have been hooked on good bread. So three mornings a week we are up early and baking bread in our converted stabbur. 

– We see each other pretty much all the time but we don’t share everything.  Since we have a family now, our day starts there. After waking up the house we have the drive to work. This is a drive of 20 km which is just long enough to move from private life to work… It sounds like a cliché but it is a beautiful drive in the country and we are very thankful for that.   

– If we are working on the same project we will first discuss it thoroughly and go our separate ways to develop ideas, but come together for discussions and to mix things up. But we are not alone at M8 any longer, so it is not just us doing the work :-)   

– Since we have worked together for 20 years we see that it is smart also to spend time on our own. Helga spends time on printmaking on her own, creating textiles and prints and Phen is out drawing and painting a lot (sometimes together with Helga).

– Do you have a divide between work and private life? Do you discuss work over dinner? 

– In the startup years everything was about work. It was a non-stop 24-hour thing. Luckily things have changed since then. Sometimes we talk about work over dinner, but mostly we have other things to talk about. We have two daughters, Ruby (11) and Frøya (13) and a cat Leo (0,5) so there is balance there. But we are always talking and sharing new ideas and things that inspire us.   

– For us it is also important to separate work and spare time to some extent. There is also a difference between customer driven projects (they have more character of “work”) and our personal projects. We always talk about our personal projects.     

– How does working together affects the work you produce?  

– Working together gives strength and is inspiring. We have two quite different angles/approaches to how we work and this helps us find better solutions.   

– What do you do in your spare time?  

– Phen draws/paints, build things, brews beer and bakes bread. Helga sings in a chamber choir, prints and draws. We often collaborate on the bread baking, as it takes a long time and is fun.   

– We have a small cottage on the Scottish island of Arran close to where Phen is from. We spend a lot of time there with friends and family in the hills and by the sea. These are Phen’s roots.  

Check out M8 design studio here!