Meet Bijan Berahimi, the graphic designer behind Portland’s FISK

The Portland boutique’s graphic design agency, FISK, knows how to throw a party.

For proof, look no further than their flashing gallery showcase and you might miss it on NE MLK, reopening on July 30 after a two-year hiatus.

The agency uses the space to showcase its favorite artists, host parties, and sell a collection of hard-to-find magazines like Flaneur and Mousse, and other endlessly cool finds (recyclable French gardening clutters everyone? Maybe a door stopper made from recycled skateboards?). The shows there range from a linocut artist’s tarot card-inspired work Sophia hollingtonto the illustrations of the tattoo artist Rachel Howe (@smallspells), at the current exhibition of drawings by the graphic designer of MoMa’s CalArts faculty Ed Fella.

The gallery mirrors their work for clients, who range from Indian-American pop star Raveena to sustainable jeans maker Bershka to local West African restaurant. Akadi.

Selling their own FISK branded merchandise has been part of the gallery space since the beginning, but over the past couple of years they have focused those efforts on a spring collection of clothing and homewares celebrating the Iranian New Year, Nowruz. Now Berahimi says the open projects the gallery offers help him and his team see their creations outside of a computer screen.

Berahimi started FISK while still in design school (where he studied with Fella); it was the name he attached to zines and screen-printed T-shirts made with classmates. We spoke with Berahimi about the impacts of good design, his new understanding of Iranian history, and finding ways to express his point of view while designing for others. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Portland Monthly: Did you always know you wanted to have your own studio?
Bijan Berahimi: Since school, I wanted to create my own environment, because the school was very, very intentional, as if it had been designed, but with flexibility and fluidity. You have the classroom, but if you’re surrounded by 20 other designers, you’re probably going to create things together. And that’s where I started FISK with my class. This is where parties were organized; that’s where we made zines. Then when I was working at Nike, I was like, ‘OK, this is what graphic design looks like from a functional perspective. That’s what I love about it; maybe that’s what I don’t know. I’ve always thought that balance was important. Now I’ve been able to make it a practice, where the studio is like the classroom and 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 very important. That’s why I studied graphic design and not fine art. I also appreciate the client side. We work with nice 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 some 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 job when you were hired for jobs?
Nope [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, image and layout, “image making”. By working now with Nike as a client, we try to integrate our point of view into this culture. Find nuggets. Like, football, for example, has a very nice aesthetic. So while researching, we found a French football club from the 60s that had this really cute logo. So, maybe there is room to create a nice logo in the world of football. Toro Y Moi’s new record sounds like a traditional psych rock record. So what does this world look like? I’ve seen album covers from bands in the 70s that were a bit of a lineage, but how do we make them contemporary? I never want to do anything too retro; it is important that it looks contemporary because it is contemporary. There are always small ways to fit into an industry, and we’re really lucky to have a portfolio today where people hire us for a specific look.

Has your Iranian heritage always influenced your work?
It’s definitely a newer thing. I had this kind of epiphany. A friend recommended Azadeh Moaveni’s memoir Jihad lipstick few years ago. She grew up in California, of parents who immigrated here during the Iranian revolution. The book tells how her entire understanding of her culture was nurtured 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 said to herself, ‘this is a perspective that I was nurtured from.’ It made me realize, like, ‘Oh, my God, I can read it too.’ So I read about 10 books about Iran, the revolution, all those things. And that’s kind of what spurred this thing on. Now, I have this privilege of being able to communicate or educate people about a culture that they don’t know very well or that they might have some vision 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, who didn’t exist, at least not in my world.

How does this research manifest itself in your work?
Accommodation is a very important part of Iranian culture. Having lots of people, looking after them, showing them plenty of food, dancing – there’s an element of party planning that I grew up around. And now I can relate to welcoming people to the gallery – how important it is for me to create this space for people that is warm and comfortable, trying to make people feel somehow. From a visual point of view: decoration, poetry, crafts, textiles and objects are an integral part of Iranian tradition. As a student I was really interested in decoration and now realize that the rugs, frames and ceramics I grew up around were all decorative in a very specific way. At one 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’ve shut down the city for a week or two and there’s a lot of rituals around. When I was a kid it was this alien thing that I would go to a party for and then go to school and never talk about it. It was such a bizarre and 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 that? What is the objective ? I felt a bit hollow doing a logo shirt. My parents were also very supportive of this, which is the ultimate test.

What types of client work are you most excited about?
We are excited about the things we can connect to. I’ll use Raveena as an example: she’s Native American, grew up on the East Coast, and had a kind of childhood parallel to mine. I might relate to her, like having weird food items in your house, etc. And I can understand how important it is for someone like Raveena to be successful, because it inspires young brunette girls to think “I can be a pop star.” Strangely, there were people from the Middle East and Asia in the bands in the 70s. But [their cultural identity] was never part of the group. For example, Freddie Mercury was half Iranian. But no one cared.

Their identities were not celebrated, but perhaps they succeeded in spite of themselves.
Exactly. Now I’m motivated that I can help change that. For example: working with Akadi, people don’t understand how difficult it is to do what Akadi does. Often, people of color don’t have the tools of a restaurant group to support them and think, “You have to have Instagram.” You have to market. You have to pay for advertising. You need to hire influencers to come to your restaurant.

It’s sort of your job to make things 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 did not ask us to do a rebranding. They were located next to our old space and I happened to eat the food and loved it. I was like, ‘Do you want branding? I can trade you for food. And they were like, ‘Sure?’ But I don’t think they understood the power of design and how it might make certain groups of people more comfortable eating there. People like to go to a restaurant that has a great identity and a nice interior. It makes them feel safe, especially when trying a foreign food. It’s unfortunate, but if I can help reshape that…. They make this product that’s so unique and special; I want to help present this in the best possible way. Ultimately, this can be the positive impact of design. I remember talking to Fatou [Ouattara, Akâdi’s owner], I was like, ‘You might have a lot of different types of people coming here. If you have a cool logo, it might attract other people.’

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