Klas Ernflo is one of those artists that don’t dare to consider themselves artists. Born and raised in Stockholm, he has been calling Barcelona ‘home’ for quite a long time. We talked with him just before he went back to the Swedish countryside for a year to focus on his work and to be surrounded by nature – a landscape he feels easily and instinctively attracted to. And also to neatness, and to colour. If we had to label him, so to speak, we would say he designs, he illustrates, he draws, he paints… Ultimately, he makes art. He was hooked on it from the start. This is a conversation with talented Klas on a sunny morning in Barcelona.
Tell us a bit about yourself – your background, your upbringing…
I was born and raised in the outskirts of Stockholm in a blended family. We lived in a typical Stockholm middle class suburb with a large layout of almost identical row houses. All houses looked the same except for some that had a façade detail in red, and the next one would be in blue. I painted a lot as a kid, I did a big mural with a beach and palm trees in my tiny room, like a home made photo wallpaper. I remember selling drawings to my sister’s best friend, probably for like 10 cents (laughs). My most vivid memories from the first years of school are also drawing and painting, I was hooked on it from the start.
You studied Graphic Design at Beckmans College of Design. In what ways do you think living in Stockholm has influenced you as an artist?
Yes, I graduated in 2001 from Beckmans. When I studied there it was still in its old quite run down building just behind The Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm. It’s one of the classic design schools in Sweden. I know they have changed building and a lot of things might be very different now. Anyway, it used to make you feel quite free as a student, like you could solve yours assignments in the way you wanted — they would ask you to do a poster for something and you would finally design a shoe instead. It triggered this exploring attitude that I find the most important in all work.
When or how did you realise illustration and graphic design were your passion?
I feel passionate about images and illustration, and graphic design at its best gives me the same pleasure. But not always – I'm the kind of designer that wants to create their own image, I'm not very interested in organising others’ work if I can’t add much. I like to do the cover more than the inside of the book. And illustration is always your image, it is you interpretation of something. If not, I think it’s a failure. I feel the same way about design really, adapting too much is not good. But after working in graphic design so many years, I started drawing again. As I’ve said, I’ve always been doing it. It was always very clear for me, since I was a small kid. Illustration came more accidentally, so to speak – I started drawing and then somebody started paying me for that. So, after working many years in graphic design, I picked up drawing again. I didn’t have any goals, I was just doing it by night.
You moved to Barcelona quite long ago. What does this city have that makes you want to stay? How does it inspire you?
What I love the most about Barcelona is its social life. It is welcoming and uncomplicated. There is so much I love about Barcelona, but I would never have stayed around if I didn’t like the people. I graduated in 2001 and went to Barcelona, without really planning to stay at all. Then I worked in advertisement and graphic design studios for a couple of years, and then turned freelance 8 or 9 years ago. I’ve been working on my own stuff since then.
What drives your work? Where do you get inspiration?
I am quite introspective, my process has a lot to do with sitting around in the studio, drawing and sketching shapes and objects until I find something. Drawing is the base. I find friendly art very inspiring, I don't mean that it has to be cute and cuddly but I prefer a calm delivery even if it is a challenging message. I have a problem with too messy expressions. So, yes, I find inspiration everywhere, of course in any art expression. And I need a certain routine, a quiet room – I love to work in silence. That’s a little bit why I’m going to Sweden now.
So, would you say your work tends to be planned beforehand rather than spontaneously? Something that really stands out from your drawings is the cleanliness and neatness, it is so perfectly done that it almost looks as if was digital.
Both, but I do a lot of sketches because I’m quite careful either when drawing or painting. It’s not a fast process, so that’s why I sketch a lot. And yes, I’m very fond of neat things, it is very important to me. I really reject chaos. I feel like my work needs to have a positive edge to it.
How would you describe your work?
My latest work looks a little like if you mix hieroglyphs with infographics, or maybe like some sort of rebus. I made out this framework and then I started a process by just filling in objects and shapes that I felt like everyday over a quite long period. I guess I wanted to paint a bit like a graphic designer to accept myself.
So do you feel more drawn to illustration or to graphic design? Or to a hybrid of both?
You could say a hybrid. I like it the most when it is left open for me to choose how to solve it.
Tell me about your tendency to go either black and white or colourful.
When I took up drawing again after a time not drawing so much, it was like colour had fallen behind. So I stuck to black and white for a long time. Then it took me loads of time to learn how to use colour again in a way I felt satisfied with. I felt crippled with black and white and I wanted to be able to use colour, because I’m usually more attracted to it when in a museum or an art gallery.
How does nature take part in your work?
I find it super inspiring! Specially trees, they fascinate me. Nature was always there when I grew up, even if it was a suburban environment, I was never more than a few minutes away to a small forest or lake. I think this goes for every person raised in a nordic country. Nature is very accessible there. My work has actually a lot of organic stuff, and you can see that in many other Swedish artists. There’s something they say, “you can never escape nature,” and I find it very inspiring. It’s different with other artists from here, for instance, nature is less present in a way.
I can see what you mean, it’s true that most of your drawings have organic shapes and are nature-inspired. So far, which work do you feel more proud of?
My latest things.
Tell us about your favourite artists, illustrators or designers.
One of mine all time favourite is illustrator, writer and artist Tove Jansson. Gary Hume's paintings completely blows my mind. The work of Jockum Nordström and Mamma Andersson have also been long time favourites. I love Herni Rousseau and I find Ray Johnson’s mail-art very funny and intriguing. I'm very influenced by the color field paintings of artists like Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly and Paul Feeley. And of course Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd. I freaked out with the work of Tauba Auerbach when I first came across it, and I still do. Bauhaus artist Hans Arp is an obvious inspiration to me also. I could really go on forever, I like a lot of artists.
And what’s next for you?
I’m going to cultivate the stuff I’m doing now. I want to continue for a year or so, I want to amplify it and make more work. I'll also want to try to work in three dimensions, do sculpture – since I'm spending this year in Sweden and I have more space there to try stuff. Looking forward to the winter, I can go skiing straight off the doorstep of the house!