Art @ Van Eyck – Sean Kuhnke: A Designer Reminds Us to Look Up

by Alison Shea

The Van Eyck is a post-academic art institute which grants artists, designers, writers, curators and thinkers a six to twelve months residency, during which they can reflect upon art and produce art. With ‘Art @ Van Eyck’ I want to introduce you to some of the current Van Eyck participants. The graphic designer Sean Kuhnke is the second participant whom I meet in their studio to talk about his work and residency.

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Whoever visited the Van Eyck during ‘Open Studios’ most likely remembers Sean. He had put up a metal canopy-roof above his studio’s door and the lounge-like atmosphere on the inside turned his studio into a cozy colorful space. Here people could take a break to sit and have a look at Sean’s recently completed book Awnings. As one could already tell from the construction above the door as well as from the subjects in the many photographs on the walls, Sean’s most recent work deals with the little roof-structures that are typical for North American houses.


Sean attended Yale University, from which he graduated with a Fine Arts Masters degree. It was in 2014 when he was riding his mountain bike through New York City that he first became aware of these so-called ‘awnings’. After noticing them on suburban stand-alone houses, Sean now noticed them in his densely populated neighborhood in Queens as well. Suddenly he saw these tent-like roofs in different shapes and colors on buildings of all kinds. Fascinated, Sean began to capture more and more different versions with his camera. Even though the formula of how an awning is built seemed so simple, the features still differed drastically. However, he soon began to realize that the modern buildings which replaced torn down Brooklyn houses no longer had awnings of this kind. Feeling he had only just come across them, Sean all of a sudden noticed their


Every application for a residency at the Van Eyck is expected to entail a project proposal. Sean applied with a project concerning awnings in mind. He was very excited to find out that he had been accepted, since it meant that he would certainly have the time and resources to realize his ideas. Six months have passed since Sean arrived in Maastricht, during which Sean was able to develop his project idea into a book. This included dozens of sample prints, because after all, trying out first ideas plays an important role in Sean’s work. Before Sean’s residency at the Van Eyck he worked at several printing companies and did designs for an American architecture studio. From these experiences he knows that many designers get so used to only working with a computer that they forget to think beyond the screen. To avoid this happening to him, Sean always makes physical samples before finalizing an idea.


Through his previous work in the field of graphic design Sean has become familiar with a variety of printing techniques and printing machines. Nevertheless, when working in the Van Eyck’s printing facility, the ’Charles Nypels Lab’, he was introduced to several new techniques. The lab provides a variety of equipment, for example, to do stencil printing such as risography and screen prints. In addition, one can learn more about processes such as different binding methods for making publications. When asked about a typical day at the Van Eyck, Sean laughs and comments that such a description was hardly possible; one of the nicest things about the Van Eyck is the independence he is given. He therefore tends to stay in his studio until late, working on designs. For his productions he simply visits the in-house Charles Nypels Lab for printing and bindings. The machine that Sean works most with in the lab is the ‘Riso’, which can be described as being an advanced mimeograph. Its technology works on a cylindrical drum, making a stencil out of the design which then creates the print by pressing the ink though. Before coming to the Van Eyck Sean had only been familiar with the smaller version of the Riso. He is grateful for the time that the lab’s head Jo Frenken and the silkscreen Expert Margriet Thissen spent advising and teaching him about the bigger A2 machine as well as other materials and processes.


The result of the many hours spent in his studio and the Charles Nypels Lab is finally here: a book titled Awnings. When browsing through the pages one can see some awnings from Sean’s New York neighborhood, printed in vibrant colors. The selection of images is framed by an essay with the title Undercover. It was written by Sean’s friend Jordan Hruska who introduces the reader to the topic, adding personal observations such as the awnings’ audibility: He had noticed that many people only looked up to realize the presence of awnings when it rained because the sound of drops falling on the mental structures created a distinct “Tip. Tap. Rappatappa. Tap.” sound.

There is something homely about Awnings. Browsing through the pages made me feel like a pedestrian in a familiar neighborhood who for once stops rushing, looks around and takes it all in. Sean is surely a graphic designer to look out for.


Pictures by Alessandro Sirocchi
For further information about Sean’s work:
The Charles Nypels Lab on Instagram:


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