Katherine Duclos Makes Fine Art Out of a Beloved Childhood Toy

There are few things on the planet as iconic as a Lego piece. Whether you grew up playing with them or not, it’s inarguable that Legos are omnipresent and have been since their Danish inception in the 1930s. Legos’ brilliance lies in their simplicity, yet they can be the building blocks of ideas and creations that are anything but. 

Things have to happen when it’s time, 2022

Vancouver-based multimedia artist Katherine Duclos has taken the creative potential of Legos to the extreme, first becoming familiar with the medium while playing with them with her three-year-old son. He was diagnosed as autistic, so Duclos served as his parallel play co-regulator, and Legos were often his toy of choice. Duclos’s fascination with Legos grew from there and has erupted into her creative practice of carefully crafting works of Lego art in eye-catching color palettes arranged in satisfying configurations.

Eager to learn more about her process and the journey behind her Lego art, I reached out to Duclos with a few questions that she’s answered below. 

Get where you’re going, 2023

Why Legos? What is it about Lego pieces as a medium that speaks to you so much as an artist? 

I love the immediacy of it. It’s satisfying to touch and is so direct. I started using Lego because it was my son’s special interest when he was three to six years old. All he wanted to do all the time was Lego, and he required a parallel play co-regulator with him at all times. “Mama, do you want to build with me?” was uttered so frequently every day, that I had to figure out a way to use Lego in a way I found satisfying too. 

My son is a whiz at the sets; he’s seven now and about to finish the 6,000 piece Hogwarts castle he built all by himself. He’s been building sets that were above his age since he was three, so he’s quite gifted spatially. But I actually really struggle with the sets because my brain can’t process the diagram directions spatially, so I make a lot of mistakes and they take me a long time. 

In order for me to enjoy Lego, I had to just start seeing it as a modular color material, not as a means of building three dimensional structures. Once I saw the potential as an abstract color process, I was right back to using color as a means of externalizing an internal order. 

We’ve got a plan and we’re sticking with it, 2023

You say in your Instagram profile that you’re an “AuDHD artist.” Can you describe what that means exactly? How does this impact your artistic practice? 

I discovered my Autistic-ADHD neurodivergence in my 40’s after both of my children were diagnosed autistic. It turns out apples don’t fall far from the tree, and we know a lot more about neurodivergent brains now than we did in the 80’s. When I was a kid, I would spend hours arranging colored wooden pattern blocks on our floors to create intricate mosaics that I wouldn’t let my mother clean up. I’m still putting color in order all these years later. 

My need to jump around from material to material is a direct result of my ADHD and dopamine seeking, but it was almost what stopped me from being allowed to finish my thesis in grad school. Artists are often expected to develop a signature style or process they can be recognized by, but I never wanted to be limited. I can’t separate how or what I make from how my brain works now that I understand myself better.

Each brick I put down informs the next. There is always a rhythm that dictates where the colors get put in my work, but it’s internal.

Katherine Duclos

What’s your typical process for your Lego artworks? Do you use other materials at first to plot them out? Or do you start directly from the Legos themselves? How long does one piece typically take?

My process has changed since the early color constructions I made in 2021. Those were made as irregular shapes starting with small bases in a specific palette that were then paired with a colored paper background and framed. I usually start by selecting a color way for each piece— originally I just used Lego colors, but now I frequently paint them. 

The perfect getaway

The first pieces were originally shown in a well-known coffee shop with an art program, attached to Emily Carr University (an art school here in Vancouver). Michael, the curator of the coffee shop (yeah, it had a curator), messaged me on Instagram and asked if I’d be interested in doing a show. We both thought the Lego work had some appeal and wanted to just have a fun show. I called it “Mama Do You Want to Build with Me?” and I think I made 24 pieces. 

After that show, I started getting commission requests and had a few pieces go to galleries in the states, and one in a show with Studio Archive Project curated by Leslie Roberts. I started painting them for a solo show here in Vancouver at THIS Gallery in 2022. My latest group is a mix of heavily painted irregular constructions attached to wooden panels, as well as small sculptures and larger framed panels. Recently they went viral on Instagram, which has brought me a lot of attention. 

Each piece varies in how long it takes me and I often do time lapse videos of the builds, as I find people like watching them. I never plan or plot them out, the same as all my work— it’s all instinctual responses in the moment. Each brick I put down informs the next. There is always a rhythm that dictates where the colors get put in my work, but it’s internal. 

Secondary thinking, 2023

What’s your studio space set up like? I’m imagining mass amounts of bins and boxes filled with Lego pieces sorted by color! 

I work at home, which is great for the Lego work because it’s enabled my kids to stay a large part of the process. I often buy large bulk collections of old Lego that I then spend weeks sorting, like 75 pounds of Lego at once. I have color-coded drawer bins along with bags of extra bricks sorted; so when my yellow bin gets low, I can pull from the reserve bags in storage. 

I buy a fair amount of used bricks on Bricklink, a second-hand Lego marketplace. There are a lot of colors that Lego has retired—like my favorite Sand Red—and Bricklink is one of the only places to get them. I also frequent Lego stores and “Pick-a-Brick” walls. 

There is Lego in every room of our house. My son has an uncanny ability to know where each piece came from and who it belongs to, so we keep them straight. 

If you can dream it, 2023

Has Lego the brand ever acknowledged your work in any way? Do you have any aspirations of doing a collaboration with them?

I heard from someone at Lego last week actually, with promises of further communication and possible collaboration so I’m hopeful. I’d love to design an abstract set for them. 

There’s an oceanic push and pull to the trends within the design industry. Or, in design terms, there’s a constant cycle of copy-paste ideology. Recently, I’ve noticed a new stylistic trend that’s been overwhelming the app icons populating my phone background. And it’s colorless. 

The second my Twitter app pivoted away from its bright blue bird logo to an industrial black and white “X,” I noticed that the rest of my home screen was riddled with a similar black-and-white design style. 

Yes, it took the melodramatic change of one app for me to clock the pervasiveness of this trend, but now I can’t unsee it: we’re in a colorless era. I’ve always been interested in the theoretical design pendulum of trends shifting from one extreme to another, but I never thought that black and white design would displace color. 

“To consumers, black and white branding can say, ‘this is an established company’— it’s kind of a power move to move into an all black and white space, or even to start with one,’ shared Isa Segalovich, a graphic designer, multimedia artist, and writer for Hyperallergic. “Smaller brands often rely on colors to distinguish themselves from the noise— once you have an enormous corporation, you can shed those colors and say, ‘We don’t need these anymore to stand out. Everyone knows what an apple with a bite taken out of it means.’” 

The TikTok app logo design was a pioneer of this trend, as one of the first social media platforms to embrace the stark aesthetic. Sure, there’s a subtle pop of pink and blue behind the brand’s logo, but the overall black-and-white design projects a sense of sophistication to an app that didn’t start out with much. And then, more recently, there’s Threads— Zuckerberg’s latest attempt to take over the internet— which touts yet another flat and austere black and white logo. Not long after Threads was released, Twitter stripped down to X, and our phones got even darker. Many others are already on the black-and-white logo bandwagon as well, including Uber, BeReal, and the popular video editing app CapCut.

X has been the final, most egregious straw for designers being nudged into a colorless space in the tech world, but the removal of color has already been taking over other industries outside of tech-based design. A study referenced in a recent Arch Daily article has revealed that vibrant tones are being used far less across the board, sending the world into a grayer state. The investigation also found that many more cars had previously been spangled in vivid hues than in the present day, while now an increasing number are coated in silver, black, and white. This same pattern is prevalent in household interiors as well: the bold colors that once adorned finishes, decorative items, and furniture up until the mid-20th century have undergone a gradual fading over time. In fact, people are now being mocked for their “Millennial Grey” interiors. 

But is a lack of color necessarily a bad thing? Let’s investigate. One could argue that simplifying branding in this way allows the brands themselves to take a step back and let the platforms flourish through their content. 

“At the end of the day, X, Threads, and TikTok are about the content,” Alex Center, Founder of CENTER, told me. “The product is the people: people’s creations, ideas, words, and videos. The brands serve as a house or museum, and I think of many museums as platforms. If you consider it, museums’ identities are typically black and white. The walls are white, and the typography and some of the branding are minimal. And that’s very purposeful because those places and those brands aren’t meant to overshadow. They’re intended to provide a pedestal, platform, house, or canvas for the art. And in the case of those brands, specifically X and TikTok, the product itself is made by people. That is why people go there; it’s the people that make up the color, if you will. So I think black and white is just a way to sort of get out of the way.” 

Suppose brands, specifically content-sharing-based brands, shift away from color— an easily recognizable and ownable design element. In that case, they’ll have to use typography, shapes, and patterns to define their brand through visual language. When color is no longer the driving force of design, something else will become the differentiating factor. X, for example, has already re-released its black and white app logo design as one with a grunge-y, almost peeled texture. 

I think a lot about trends in design and our direct reaction to the thing that preceded them,” continued Center. “When we think about the more maximalist, more textured, and colorful world of the ‘90s, the pendulum swung towards minimalism in the 2000s, stripping back a lot of the excess, which led to what people call blanding. And a lot of that was also so that things could get scaled down in size so that when you’re looking at a logo the size of a penny on your phone, some textures don’t scale very well. I’ve been watching this over the last five years; there was a move towards doing things that are more expressive, more chaotic, less precious, and more fun, and that does sometimes involve textures, chromes, shadows, and things that are bringing a little bit more personality to brands. Much of that is happening, but I think it relates to how brands can differentiate themselves outside of color.”

Image by Sriya Choppara using Icons8

While we’re just now at the tipping point of this trend completely taking over app logo designs, not all brands are turning toward black-and-white design. 

“Other brands seem like they’re diving into bright colors even more— I’m thinking of all the companies that are really leaning into the ’Corporate Memphis’ style,” offered Segalovich. “Some pharma brands, for example, and medical service industries in general can’t afford to look as sleek and powerful as a tech brand. They have to maintain a semblance of approachability and trust. Food brands are retaining their colors as well. I think they rely on that pop of color to indicate ‘color,’ ‘freshness,’ and ’flavor.’” 

So, if you want to stand out in tech design right now, inject your logo with neon colors— as we all know, going against the grain is a great strategy for making a splash. Plus, as creative beings at our core, humans will always crave at least a pop of color, even if the apps we’re currently using say otherwise. 

When the Pantone Color Institute makes an announcement, you had better listen up. As the arbiter of all things color, Pantone has the authority to make grandiose assertions about color trends and forecasting that others simply can’t. They recently added 224 colors to their Pantone Formula Guide, for example, with hues chosen that reflect what they predict will be “the most popular color families of the next decade.”

That’s quite the claim, but if anyone can make it, it’s Pantone. This power is not something the company takes lightly, as they go through thorough specific processes when selecting what colors are added to the Formula Guide. “When we add new colors, we want to make sure the colors we are adding will resonate with the markets our clients are looking to engage,” the Vice President of the Pantone Color Institute, Laurie Pressman, explained via email. “The consideration of how multiple industries view the colors was key, and balance was a primary factor when selecting the colors to be added. To ensure we are adding the right colors, the Pantone Color Institute team of global color experts are brought into this process.” 

“The selection process takes into consideration the general direction and movement of color trends by color family, and the needs of the industries of those we currently serve and those we would like to better impact,” Pressman continued. “In addition to working with our trend team at the Pantone Color Institute, we consult with our globally based color forecasting partners, solicit the input from some of our key customers around the globe, and look at highlighted colors from key trade shows worldwide.” 

The color trends that Pressman and the rest of the Pantone team identify are reflective of greater movements across design industries and beyond. “Color is a living language that expresses what is taking place in the culture,” said Pressman. “Whenever we add new colors, it is always with our design community clients in mind. Color direction is influenced by many elements including demographics, geographical location, climate, new lifestyles and play styles, and cultural and social influences. Influences may also stem from new technologies, materials, textures and effects that impact color.” 

With all of this in mind, Pantone unveiled a slew of carefully selected oranges, yellows, reds, pinks, browns, blues, purples, greens, and grays in the Formula Guide, each chosen for their ability to provide designers with the most sought-after shades. Pantone found that the desire for spicier and deeper shades of orange has grown, for example. As a result, they added hot and radiant orange tones, an assortment of spicy shades with greater color depth, more toned-down hues suffused with brown, and a variety of coral, softer peach, and apricot hues. 

Pantone also identified a growing predilection for more luxurious neutrals in the brown family. Thus they added brown shades with more color depth and versatility, like golden-browns, and those with red-based undertones, along with robust coffee, mocha browns, and several warmer, classic camel tones tap into the rising popularity of khaki and taupe. 

Our society’s necessary focus on the environment, health, and green living has contributed to a spike in green hues. As such, additions like earthy, warm yellow greens, true green shades, deep blue-influenced greens, grayed-down, blue-based greens, celery green tones, and citrusy, energetic yellow-green hues were also made to the Formula Guide. 

Purple tones continue their tenure as a perennial favorite, so Pantone added vibrant, red-based purples, several grayish purple with blue undertones, an array of softer mid-tones, and some more mystical, smokey violet purples.

While Pantone is confident in the new 225 shades they’ve just added to the Formula Guide, they know full well that trends shift and change by definition, so they’re not writing off any shades or hues that didn’t make the cut this time around. “The popularity and our perceptions/reactions to different colors and color families ebbs and flows based on what is taking place in the culture,” explained Pressman. “What may be on its way out today, could cycle back in tomorrow.”

But the colors they have chosen aren’t going anywhere, ever. “When we add new colors, it is always with this understanding in mind as well as the need for color longevity. We are a color standards company, which means we do not remove colors from our books,” said Pressman. “This idea of colors having a long lifespan and remaining relevant in our global culture always factors into our decision making when it comes to new color additions.”

Those color averse needn’t read any further, but if you’re like me and seek out bright, bold color in art, design, fashion, and just about everywhere else, then let me introduce you to Tekla Evelina Severin.

Severin is a self-described color addict based in Stockholm, Sweden. As a multi-hyphenate colorist, designer, and photographer, her creative background is just as colorful as her aesthetic. She works across a range of disciplines, flexing her skills in interior design, set design, creative direction, and photography, with her love of color as the unifying factor in each.

After coming upon imagery of her recent exhibition “Dimensions of Colour” for FORMEX in Stockholm, I immediately gravitated toward Severin’s carefully considered, yet joyful aesthetic. I reached out to learn more, and Severin’s responses to a few of my questions are below.

(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)

Where does your love of color come from? Have you always loved color?

Well, where do things really start? Everything in life brings us where we are today, right?

So did it start in my early childhood, with a powder pink, wall-to-wall rug? That’s when I unconsciously understood what color and texture could do for a space. Or did it start when I got bad escalating eyesight at age 9? I was devastated, and thought I might lose it. Was it then? I got so obsessed with everything that was visually appealing because it felt so precious. I’m not sure, but I think it definitely plays a part.

Can you walk me through your creative journey to where you are today?

I graduated from Konstfack University of Arts and Crafts in Stockholm, where I studied interior architecture and furniture design. Afterward, first I was an intern, and then an employee at a great architecture studio in Stockholm. I slowly learned the profession, how to run projects, how to deal with clients, and about drawing architecture in general.

But I felt something was missing. It wasn’t only the creative freedom from art school— it was the conformity that was bothering and boring me; the idea about the Scandinavian grace with white beiges and greys. I needed a creative space, and we had this amazing material library in the cellar with lots of materials and colors that were sadly hardly used.

An Apartment of One’s Own for Sancal photographed by Maria Teresa Furnari

I started to do some kind of visual notes for myself— still lives, testing different combinations of materials and colors, exploring other aesthetics. I captured it with a very early smart phone and put it out on that new app called Instagram. I hardly understood I was posting stuff, hilariously enough— I only wanted to take advantage of those vintage filters to save the pictures to my camera roll. 

But soon, I started to get in contact and connect with other creatives and brands around the world. I took many baby steps toward fully freelancing in 2015 and starting my multidisciplinary journey, first through photography, re-inventing, and discovering shapes and colors from scratch. 

One of my first commissions was creating content for a Canadian shoe brand, doing a photo series on the theme of domestic science where I made a triangle of red cabbage with a lilac background and a cube of meat with a pink background. They paid me in shoes!

So from these smaller scenes, I moved my camera toward architecture and interiors. I got a real camera, and for a few years, I only took architectural photography around the world: in Guadeloupe for Air France, in Mauritius for a hotel designed by Camille Walala, in Spain of the iconic La Muralla Roja by Bofill Architects. I thought it was really liberating to not have to care about function or construction as when designing it. I could just focus on strong visual elements, outtakes angle, shadow play, colors, etc.

But after a while, I wanted to be more and more involved in the design in front of the camera, so I slowly came back to interior design, first by doing set design. One of my first projects was for a color collaboration for Montana Furniture. Through this, I felt I could come back in a new way to interior design and be as free, deconstructed, and abstract as I wanted. 

From where do you draw inspiration? Are there other artists, people, places, styles, or time periods that you look to or who have influenced you? 

Anywhere and everywhere. I can get just as much inspiration from an unexpected detail on a backstreet as from fine art in a gallery. But in general, I’m inspired by modern and postmodern architecture, art deco, playgrounds and games aesthetics, surrealism, graphic design, sunlight, and shadow play.

What project of yours are you proudest of and why?  

I would say “An Apartment of One’s Own,” the exhibition design I did for Sancal during Milan Design Week last year. I enjoyed the creative vision from the company and total creative freedom for me. Also the context (Hey, Milan Design Week!) and the level of customized design. I designed special terrazzo, marbled tops, the kitchen, the book cases, etc. It’s also what I’m proudest of because I dared to be so decorative. 

Then there’s “Dimensions of Colour,” the 250 square meter exhibition design and curation I did myself for FORMEX, Scandinavia’s biggest fair for interior details in Stockholm in January. The challenge was to find, pick, and display 200 products from over 400 exhibitors. I’m very proud of how everything came together, space-wise, [and how] perspectives and framings worked throughout the whole space. Also, in terms of color, every facade, wall, and niche had different colors to create different combinations. It all illustrated my forever, ongoing investigation of color. In terms of color theory, I always say, “Color is always relative, never absolute. It’s what you put next to it that defines it.” 

Dimensions of Colour for FORMEX photographed by Fredrik Bengtsson

How do you hope viewers of your work feel when experiencing it? 

Confusion. New dazzling perspectives. Playfulness and beauty.

Dimensions of Colour for FORMEX photographed by Fredrik Bengtsson

What’s your favorite color? 

It changes all the time… right now, lime-ish yellow.

But an all-time favorite is peach— delicate, social, warm, playful, yet sophisticated. 

Sesame Street is one of the most well-known television shows of all time, first gracing the silver screen in 1969 and showing no signs of slowing down. What’s a bit lesser known is the Sesame Workshop, the show’s affiliated nonprofit that’s committed to providing support for kids beyond the lessons learned from the likes of Elmo and Big Bird.

Sesame Workshop recently underwent a brand revamp courtesy of New York-based design agency Trollbäck+Company, in an effort to level up their look and feel to reflect their important work. The brief was to develop a flexible and vibrant brand expression system that brings awareness to Sesame Workshop’s global mission and unites an ecosystem that spans 150 countries. The resulting system is bold and warm with a dash of experimentation, including a new logo, a recurring visual motif of connecting streets and intersections, and a youthful color palette.

Executive Creative Director at Trollbäck+Company, Rosie Garschina, led on the project in close collaboration with Victor Newman of the Sesame Workshop team. Both Garschina and Newman answered a few of my questions about the lively and fun redesign below.

What were your main goals for this redesign?

Newman: Sesame Workshop was born in the 1960s during the American civil rights movement. We’ve always been a nonprofit, mission-driven organization helping kids grow smarter, stronger, and kinder. We’re best known for Sesame Street. The series has held a meaningful place in children’s and families’ hearts for over 50 years. We knew that a strong design and creativity could help us create deeper connections with kids, families, and fans— our multigenerational audience. Our goal was to elevate and unify the Sesame Street and Sesame Workshop brands domestically and globally.

Garschina: It was especially important that the design system grow awareness and provide clarity around Sesame Workshop’s nonprofit work. Their social initiatives tackle some of the biggest challenges children and families face. It was critical that we were bringing attention to this work.

What are the most important considerations to keep in mind when retooling a beloved legacy brand like Sesame Street and Sesame Workshop?

Newman: Sesame Workshop is a visionary and experimental organization, and everyone has a special connection with Sesame Street, whether it’s a favorite Muppet, a song, or a story. It’s an inviting place that is playful and joyful. Sesame Workshop and Sesame Street share the same DNA. The design had to truly reflect that.

Garschina: Providing clarity and distinction between Sesame Street and Sesame Workshop was an important consideration. The brands share the same DNA and are interconnected, but differ in terms of their focus. We had to be strategic in identifying which elements would unify as well as differentiate.

What elements of the redesign are you proudest of?

Newman: The refreshed identity leans into one of the most salient qualities of Sesame Street— that it feels like a real place; a safe space for children to learn, feel, grow, and explore. The Sesame Workshop logo adopted the right number of visual cues— such as the horizontal containers that nod to the Sesame Street sign— and is in alignment with our philanthropic work.

Garschina: The new design builds a flexible and vibrant brand system that brings awareness to Sesame Workshop’s global mission and unites an ecosystem spanning 150 countries. It will help Sesame Workshop reach its full philanthropic potential everywhere it works to help children, from Brooklyn to Ukraine. Working with Victor and the entire organization to drive their mission has been an enormous privilege.