IMAGES COURTESY OF AKIKO STEHRENBERGER; FOCUS FEATURES; IFC FILMS; WARNER INDEPENDENT FILMS
"I really had to fight and scratch to keep it as simple as it is," say illustrator and art director Akiko Stehrenberger says of her restrained design for Michael Haneke's 2008 Funny Games U.S. poster. "The client really wanted blood on Naomi [Watts's] face, or a white glove pulling at her hair. I believed so strongly that it was more eerie not knowing what was making her tearful...Eventually my stubbornness paid off!" And she's right, it did. Haneke's twisted lakeside sadism is chillingly captured in Watts's bare, hyperrealist face. "You must admit, you brought this on yourself," the film's tagline whispers in small white print.
Stehrenberger, who "sort of fell into" the movie poster business, got her start after moving back to LA from New York, where she had been freelancing as an editorial illustrator. After being offered a job as a junior designer at an ad agency, Akiko spent many "trial and error...mostly error" late nights and weekends pairing her traditional painting techniques with Photoshop's Frankenstein-ing sleight of hand. Fostering a design signature that matches solid concepts with finespun, sometimes comic or dark allusions, her posters are never burdened with quirk or confession. A movie's intrigue is baited with subtle implication: the watercolor portrait of Zoe Deschanel's love prudent blue eyes for (500) Days of Summer, a black-and-white photograph accented with Elle Fanning's neon pink Chuck Taylors for Sofia Coppola's forthcoming Somewhere, Dave Eggers patent mixed media–clay sculptures, paper planes, block letters, pop-up books–in a four-piece series for Away We Go.
IMAGES COURTESY AKIKO STEHRENBERGER; FOX SEARCHLIGHT; REEL FAKE FILMS; FOCUS FEATURES
Alert to the stigmas surrounding commercial art, Stehrenberger remains both challenged and inspired by the continued debate: "Some of my colleagues like Erik Buckham, Jon Manheim, and Corey Holmes, are in that fight too...At the end of the day, you can't take yourself so damn seriously. I think I can pinpoint the exact day I finally started taking steps to accepting the commercial part of what I do. I lived in Spain for a summer and I went to a Mucha exposition. After seeing his amazing work in person, it really made me re-evaluate my own comfort level with commercial art."
Though her projects are diverse–two of her most recent projects include painting a poster for Todd Solondz's Life During Wartime and working on early drafts of one for the James Bond 50th Anniversary–Akiko's roots as an illustrator continue to inform her work, especially when she hits a wall: "Most of the time I have to make something out of nothing...If I don't have an idea, I'll do some research until I do."
And if she weren't drawing and designing movie posters? "My family is full of artists and absolute nuts jobs...My childhood was a formula that would either make me a creative person, or a stripper-heroin addict. And since I don't have a giant rack, I couldn't pick another career if I tried!"