In conversation with: The City Works

In conversation with The City Works

The City Works

Est. 2015 - Vienna, Austria 

"A city is never the same as it was yesterday. Something is demolished or rebuilt, some people are leaving forever while others are seeing it for the first time. Because mostly everything in a city is man-made, I think you witness the embodiment of human desires. And it’s total, loveable chaos!"
- Rowan Ottesen 


Intricate detail, Inception and a suede jacket... Jeya Narrative meets The City Works' Co-founder Rowan Ottesen to discuss cityscapes and architecture, and how they influence our identities.

Jeya Narrative: You started The City Works in 2015. What brought you to start your own business, how did it begin and how has it evolved since?

Rowan Ottesen: The City Works was founded by Sylvia Moritz on her 25th birthday. Sylvia is primarily an artist and printmaker who specialises in etching, notably her detailed ‘CitySphere’ series. It was this that inspired The City Works. It began as just a way of applying city illustrations to new ideas and forms, and after picking up a few stockists early on such as We Built this City [on Carnaby Street, London] and the Barbican Centre [London], the number of products and cities just grew gradually over time. Now we have designs stocked in around 50 stores in many cities around the world. We also collaborate with interesting companies from time to time, on bespoke illustrations and gift collections.


What does your brand stand for? What do you seek to achieve?

Cities have so many elements to them, so much to love, I think everyone feels as though they own a little piece of the cities they love. It’s our goal to be able to give people ways of remembering these cities and places in a physical object or image. We don’t like to specifically say ‘souvenir’, because of the negative connotations such a word has sometimes!


Who has been your biggest influences in terms of your work?

We admire and follow many illustrators and brands who put amazing work out there, but our biggest influences are really the places that we visit. The landmarks, the architecture and the layout of the cities we’re drawing.


The City Works office

Describe your workshop and the environment you work in. 

We have a home office in Vienna, and a warehouse space and workshop just outside of the city. We love our home office, it’s practical, clean, with lots of pencil pots and drawers. Our workshop is a bit more industrial, with many boxes of stock and supplies coming in and out. It doesn’t stay tidy for long.

Our studio desk has a nice story. The wooden table top is very large, very heavy, and probably 5cm thick. It was used by Sylvia’s grand parents, who were bakers, so it’s nice to continue its life. It must be at least 2 metres long and over a hundred years old!


What do you find inspiring and fascinating about cities - ‘urban sprawls’ as you call them?

We admire the way cities constantly evolve. A city is never the same as it was yesterday. Something is demolished or rebuilt, some people are leaving forever while others are seeing it for the first time. Because mostly everything in a city is man-made, I think you witness the embodiment of human desires. And it’s total, loveable chaos!


What is your favourite city and why?

Sylvia’s favorite city is New York City, she lived there while studying at Parsons on an Erasmus programme and found it hard to leave. Right now I love living in Vienna, for me it is a semi-secret, unspoilt capital of Europe, but I would need to see every city before I decide on a favourite!

The City Works for The Bodleian Library

As Charles Eames so famously said: “the details are not the details, they make the design”, which I think is particularly relevant to your cityscapes as they are incredibly intricate and detailed. Do you research cities before you draw them? Do you visit them to get a feel for them? How long does it take to create a new one, and what does the process involve?

That’s a great quote. We do a vast amount of research before drawing a city, it’s vital. Most of our research is derived from our own previous travels and photographs of the city. It takes a month of solid work to complete a collection. It begins as a hand-drawing, which is then ‘vectored’ (digitised). This is so we can edit, scale and recolour the drawing for its many purposes. 


What is your favourite part of the whole process?

I generally love the thrill of being a small-business owner. Although it involves very long and unpredictable days, being responsible for designing, marketing, manufacturing, and shipping our own designs is a very rewarding process. Before long we will need a few helping hands though.


People are very drawn to travelling and experiencing new cultures. How does connecting with and experiencing cities help us develop as a person?

I think it’s natural to be curious and to wonder what it’s like elsewhere. Surrounding myself with new scenery helps to provide me with a new perspective, which I think is really helpful when solving a particular puzzle.


Cult films like Inception play with the concept of reality as we perceive it and combine it with dreamscape, to be shaped and modelled by a ‘city architect’ - have you seen the film? What did you make of it? Did it influence the way you perceive spaces?

We’re very fond of Inception. It is fascinating how we can construct such vast detailed worlds in our mind. I liked the way it questioned our perception of reality.

The City Works | Sketch House mural

You occasionally bring your art to the streets and get commissioned to do artwork on walls and buildings - which building or street would you most like to see your work on?

We’re very privileged to have worked on great commissions, like the shopfront for We Built this City on Carnaby Street and for murals in the University of the Arts London hall buildings. A dream project for us would be to full illustrate the exterior of a building with a cityscape, it would look pretty cool. 



Place you call home: On the road
A colour: Cobalt Blue
A movie or book: Infinite Home by Kathleen Alcott
A sound: The London tube
A place: Coffee and Coconuts in Amsterdam
Moment of fame: A feature in the Guardian Xmas Gift Guide
Go-to accessory to dress to impress: We like our Freedom to Exist watches
Most coveted item in your wardrobe: A suede jacket I bought when I got my first paycheck
Favourite tool to work with: Tape dispenser
Favourite inspirational quote, or best piece of advice anybody ever gave you: “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish”
Why Jeya Narrative? Because they understand what quality is, and they gauge the male psyche.

The City Works | London notebook
The City Works | New York notebook
The City Works | Berlin notebook

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