In conversation with Rizon Parein, 3D designer and curator of Us By Night
We're excited to announce our media partnership with Us By Night - a unique nocturnal experience returning to Antwerp this September. We'll be interviewing selected speakers in the run up to the festival in the coming weeks! First up, we talk to festival founder and 3D designer Rizon Parein to find out how it all began.
Rizon Parein has come a long way from taking his talent and passion for graffiti from the streets of Belgium to the forefront of the world of design and advertising. His unique 3D style, from typography to setdesign, is colorful and playful, and his digital models come beautifully close to reality. With an extensive portfolio that includes the famous neon poster design for the film Drive starring Ryan Gosling, the artwork behind numerous global Nike campaigns, Jay Z’s BMIA music festival, playful ads for Toyota, Google and Facebook, Rizon started working primarily for Nike Brand Design Portland in 2013.
His love for the creative community led Rizon Parein on the path to launching his own event and so he became the initiator and curator of Us by Night, a creativity & design festival in Antwerp turned into a ‘unique nocturnal experience’.
I discovered design portals such as Design Is Kinky, and this was a total game changer to me; the designers I came across were incorporating elements of graffiti culture in their work; lots of different styles and people claiming their identity within the scene. It opened up my eyes to the possibilities of graphic art.
Can you give a brief overview of your early career and how you got into 3D design and digital?
I dropped out of college at 17 as I wanted to pursue my passion for graffiti but realised early on that it wouldn’t be possible to make a career out of it. I was on welfare for a time, trying to figure out what to do with my life. I knew a little about graphic design and it seemed like a good way to make a living, so I got into Photoshop and started out doing nightclub flyers for a lot of venues in Belgium. I was very much into nightlife and I had a huge network there. It was kind of like my playground; each time a new challenge. And then a few years down the line I discovered design portals such as Design Is Kinky, and this was a total game changer to me; the designers I came across were incorporating elements of graffiti culture in their work; lots of different styles and people claiming their identity within the scene. I was designing a lot of nightclub flyers with no real ambition at all, but these design portals opened up my eyes to the possibilities of graphic art in my work.
I started experimenting with 3D lettering and figuring out a way to translate my graffiti style into digital graphics. I remember I had six VHS tapes with tutorials on them, I was completely self taught. So each flyer was an opportunity to try something new. The 3D and motion graphics work was quite niche back then.
There was a small community of designers in Antwerp, but it took a while before the scene started to take off here. Once design festivals such as OFFF in Barcelona started to happen, the scene started to grow really fast. After 5 years, work was going well and I had my own studio. I actually never envisioned myself working in advertising but then I got spotted by an agency – Berstein & Andrulli – based in New York, which then led to a great deal more advertising work mainly for the US and also in motion graphics.
I spent a year doing a lot of neons for Nike Portland, and then after that I worked for years with them across lots of stuff and I really loved their way of working. There was no agency involved, so I was in direct contact with their headquarters which was great – you’re fully involved with a process that takes months to come to fruition, with a lot of feedback and revisions.
As an established designer you’re arguably best known for the Drive neon sign poster; how did this artwork come about?
I created a 3D pink neon for a client and at the time nobody had really done it. It was one of those moments when I realised I had to claim it quickly and get some exposure for the work. I went to see Drive and loved the typeface, and it seemed like a good fit, so right after the movie I worked all night into the early hours to create a neon out of it. I shared it online and got quite a lot of requests for prints, so I reached out to the production company to see if I was legally allowed to sell the poster but they never gave me an answer. Five years later they reached back out to me to ask if they could use it on the five year anniversary cover and I finally got my renumeration!
That’s a great example of creating the type of work you want to be commissioned for..
Yeah definitely. The whole neon thing became a style in itself and I got more and more work along these lines. Each time I’d say I wasn’t going to make another one, but then another client would come along who you just couldn’t say no to! And Nike was one of them, so I spent a year doing a lot of neons for Nike Portland, and then after that I worked for years with them across lots of stuff and I really loved their way of working. There was no agency involved, so I was in direct contact with their headquarters which was great – you’re fully involved with a process that takes months to come to fruition, with a lot of feedback and revisions. It got to a point where the work with Nike started to take over and I had to make a decision about what I wanted my career to look like.
Us By Night was originally called OFFF by Night, which was initiated in partnership with OFFF Barcelona. Can you tell us about how the first event came about?
At the start the City of Antwerp approached me to see if I would be interested in putting on an event. I’d been invited to speak at OFFF Barcelona the year before and I am a huge fan of the event, so initially I thought we could launch a franchise. I immediately started inviting friends, colleagues and clients to speak after the green light and only two weeks later we already had a dream line up. It was clear to me that we couldn’t keep it small, and it gave me the energy to challenge the format. I was so convinced by the idea of hosting it in the evening that I suggested rather than go down the obvious ‘OFFF Antwerp’ route, let’s call it OFFF by Night. Over the following 8 months the whole concept grew fast, and at that point it started taking on a life of it’s own. After the first event we had some discussions which reaffirmed that we wanted to do something bigger. It made sense to go our own way. We’re still good friends, I go to OFFF every year.
It’s grown so fast and there’s also this non-stop hunger to try new ideas and do new things; and it’s weird because my whole network used to bring me jobs and now they’re contacting me more and more to get involved with the festival. It’s weird how your network starts to re-orientate.
Currently you’re still managing to retain your freelance work alongside the festival, but I imagine it must be quite challenging to juggle the two..
Absolutely, absolutely. The festival is quite aggressive in my agenda. It’s grown so fast and there’s also this non-stop hunger to try new ideas and do new things; and it’s weird because my whole network used to bring me jobs and now they’re contacting me more and more to get involved with the festival. If I land in New York now, like it used to be always about the work and the design, and I would always come back with work but when I land there now it’s all about this; everybody around you is all talking about the festival. So it’s weird how your network starts to re-orientate.
Do you have a long list of agencies and designers that are itching to get involved with Us By Night? Is it hard to choose who to invite each year?
Definitely. Personally I used to be very critical of the line-up; as an organiser yourself it can be challenge. There are so many factors; we want to broaden up the disciplines within each area so that when you’re there you can find the people you want; and the work that you’re most interested in. I try very much to curate the line-up on a non-ego basis. I really care a lot about community and the friendships, and I don’t want any rock stars up there.
I try very much to curate the line-up on a non-ego basis. I really care a lot about community and the friendships, and I don’t want any rock stars up there.
So in many ways the event reflects your personal taste and personality?
It is very personal. I try not to criticise it too much but I do take it all very personally, I can’t seem to do it any other way. But it is very much built around a network of friends that I have made over the years; colleagues and clients and especially the first edition. It got the nickname ‘Nike by Night’ because it was full of Nike people! But yes, of course it’s difficult to strike a balance. When you introduce new disciplines; for instance architecture or fashion disciplines where I don’t personally know anybody and have very little network you’re relying heavily on your personality and approach to persuade them to get involved.
Curating the line-up for the speakers is a challenge in itself; especially if you’ve not seen them deliver a talk before..
Yes, true. Sometimes you really love their work but then on stage they don’t deliver what you expect and it can be a bit of a let down. But that’s the risk you have to take. You can’t expect every incredible artist to be a strong public speaker like the creative directors or CEO’s of these big agencies.
Do the speakers get given a theme or structure to base their talks on or do they have free reign to talk about whatever they like?
Our theory was that limiting the speakers in this way would only make their talks and the audience experience worse. We just ask them to share their passion; share their story. Some speakers take it very seriously and go the ethical way; up till now it’s been a nice balance. Last year we had a photographer, very young, only 21-22 years old and he blew the audience away. At that age you don’t expect it.
Absolutely. It’s great that the festival is creating opportunities for emerging talent in this way. Who would you say typically attends Us By Night? Is the audience quite young or mixed?
About half our attendees are from abroad, mostly freelancers, and people from the large corporations like Google, Facebook. And then we have almost one third students; we make very good deals with the local academies here to make the festival accessible and affordable. As I think it’s very important to have that young energy. It’s essential I think. And then the rest is an equal mix between agencies and studios. We do also have quite a few locals that come, that have very little to do with the industry; they see it as an alternative way to spend a night out and they have a different take on it which is great.
What are the biggest challenges you face year on year to bring the festival to life?
Finance! [laughs]. Last year it was really hard to finance everything; the venue was owned by the city and they sponsored us so we didn’t have to pay. It was free. We’ve moved to another venue this year, it’s by the river and really beautiful but it’s privately owned so it’s expensive. So thats probably the toughest part, all the discussions around government subsidising take a while. And sponsorships – all those conversations are so tiring!
I can imagine! Sponsorship must be an ongoing battle, though I guess brands are more aware of the festival now as its grown?
It’s more on their radar for sure, but like anything it’s our personal network that always drives it. Many are friends of ours. It’s all based on personal relationships. And it has to be a win win for both parties. We always try to work with brands who can add value to the event. The Night Market is the most expensive part of the festival, so if the brands can do an activation there, it’s nice for the attendees and brands too. But as with all brands it can be difficult for them to have the freedom to do what they want especially if they don’t have a direct link to global (where all these decisions are signed off). Mostly the brands are really enthusiastic and supportive, and want to go a bit bigger and better each time like Maxon Cinema 4d and Adidas.
Us By Night is a unique nocturnal experience; what sets it apart from other European festivals? What can attendees expect?
The reason I go to festivals is because of the friendships; because of the community.. it’s like a big school camp. It’s three nights of hanging out together, taking in some of the talks and then we stay up late and wake up hungover the next day and go back to work on Monday feeling a bit blue. But that’s honestly the reason most of my friends come. We know each other well but hardly get to hang out and spend time together. It’s an excuse for everyone to get together, and something we work hard to facilitate as much as working on the line-up; it’s so fun to meet new people too. Years ago I was in New York and went to the Brooklyn Night Bazaar; there was a flea market, a little concert stage and it was another way of spending a night out; you’re not in a pub or a club; there’a lot of interaction between people and it occurred to me that if you could combine that recipe with a conference stage than you’d have something unique. I’m a huge food fanatic so I try to lure in my favourite local restaurants for the nightmarket. We have a collectors shop at the event now too. The process of bringing these elements together is very natural and organic.
It’s three nights of hanging out together, taking in some of the talks and then we stay up late and wake up hungover the next day and go back to work on Monday feeling a bit blue. But that’s honestly the reason most of my friends come.
Any surprises up your sleeves this year?
This year is going to be really interesting as we have finally got the opportunity to introduce a real club atmosphere. We are building the sceneography so that when the talks end for the night, the lights will change and we’re going to have a dancing area and the biggest disco ball in the world! I’m really looking forward to seeing it and watch, it’s going to be really something. It’s a little bit of a test to see if people will stay late; if after six hours in your venue if they will stick around for another four.
The first edition was held in September, and I really care about how attendees experience the city; their journey from the venue to the hotel; where they stop for breakfast etc. The first year we had an Indian Summer, and the weather was great, so I’m looking forward to hosting the event earlier this year, it also means with the new venue we can organise outdoor activities. I’m super excited that we can bring the festival ambience outdoors.
Adding a music element to the festival is something you have talked about as a way to sustain Us By Night in future, is this the first step?
We had the idea because, in all honesty it’s not a festival which is making much profit – as far as passion projects go its very hard to change that. It’s a very costly production. I couldn’t allow it to turn into a commercial corporate event. So one of the ideas we thought about would be what if we opened the event at 1am to a larger public and add a music festival element where we have some of the designers from our line up paired up with music acts for a performance. The tricky part about this though is balancing this with the added necessity of security; you’re opening up to the public which can easily pollute the nice ambience we already have here. So we’re just going to test it out on a smaller scale this year and see what dynamic this brings. Alongside that we’re also thinking more towards next year adding more dates, and exploring different elements such as science and technology and artificial intelligence.
Are there any particular speakers that you’re most looking forward to seeing this year?
Loads! There is so much. I’m excited to see Drieke Leenknegt – she’s the global innovator at Nike. She worked 20 years at Nike Portland and Shang-hai, and our early conversations about bringing her over to Us By Night were incredible. She is such a motivator and it was really interesting to hear how sneaker culture originated; we don’t often think about why trainers are the way they are. We make the images and work with the brands, but there’s often a lot of reasoning behind it. And also she has a very big view on how to align artists with the brand. She has a lot of insight to share and listening to her was very inspirational. I’ve also been following Gary Card for a number of years; he’s a set designer who does amazing work. I think he’s super talented and I am really curious to see him in person and get to know him a bit better.
Camilla Walala is with us this time, I have been chasing her since the first edition and she couldn’t say no anymore! [laughs]. We also have two live painters; we can’t share too much right now but it’ll be amazing. I used to work a lot with Wieden + Kennedy Amsterdam and they’re sending creative duo Macie Soler-Sala and Zeynep Orbay , creators of the video ‘Happy Birthday Mr Vice President‘ aimed at Mike Spence. He’s very anti-LGBT and they did an amazing happy birthday song sang by drag queens so their talk is going to be very good I think. And also BUCK, is like for me, one of the best animation studios there is, and I used to to work for them way back, and Ryan Honey, one of the founders is flying over to speak and also Lukas Kaiser who works on all things creative for Will Smith – he manages his Instagram account, so I think his talk will be really funny but also so relevant, y’know managing content especially social media. His approach is fresh and different. We also have various activations and interventions happening like Tokyo / Case Studyo who have a print shop, they’re going to make some scarfs in collaboration with speakers – lots of cool stuff.
Do you feel Us By Night has had a positive impact on the local design scene in Antwerp? Have you noticed it’s influence?
It’s hard to tell what the effects are, but I think one of the nicest things about it which has brought me tears many times is when you see the young ones and the magic in their eyes; this feeling of ‘wow’ you can see how it blows there mind; their ideas about what field they might go into; what ‘design’ can be… they see first hand just how broad the industry is; you can see and feel the energy and that is so beautiful to witness and be part of. It must have an impact. I also know from teachers at the academy – they are so supportive of the event because they sense it in their class; events like this motivate their students enormously.
What are your aspirations for growing the festival in future?
There’s a lot of conversations pointing to New York. There are a lot of night events interested in partnering with us, I think there will be some changes as we can’t rely on European visitors so much so we will have to change the format a bit. The stuff that is happening there is very corporate so it’d be great to shake things up.
Right now we have a small team, but we all have other jobs too. Every year it’s getting more and more demanding though. I think if New York is going to be something that is really going to happen we will need a dedicated person and an office and more structure…it’s definitely something that needs to happen soon. We have so many ideas.
Us By Night is a unique nocturnal experience combining an inspiring lineup and an endless nightmarket guaranteed to provide 3 nights you can’t miss. Come for the talks, stay for the experience. Explore the arcade, a wide range of local and delicious food, get tattooed or play some fluorescent ping-pong. Tickets on sale now: usbynight.be/tickets