Less Is More: The Evocative Film Posters of Akiko Stehrenberger

May 21, 2020   •   By Sophia Stewart

EVERYBODY ON TWITTER was talking about it. It was late November 2019, and Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire had just gone into limited release. The movie was earning critical praise, but its poster seemed to be attracting even more attention. I understood why: the poster is deceptively simple and utterly entrancing. A red-orange flame made of textured brush strokes licks up a black backdrop, practically erupting from its polaroid-style matting. But with a quick optical adjustment, the profiles of two kissing women emerge in the foreground, carved out of negative space.

“i can’t believe it took me this long to realize the Portrait of a Lady on Fire poster is an optical illusion,” one user tweeted. “Welcome to the resistance,” replied the official Twitter account for Neon, the film’s distributor. And there is indeed an air of resistance to the poster, the way it represents intense desire between two women with a fiery, sensual, and vaguely yonic image.

Soon my Twitter feed was clogged with retweets of the poster, accompanied by comments like “[fire emoji],” “my favorite movie poster this year,” and, my favorite, “Good lord.” It had clearly, and rightly, struck a nerve. But because movie posters never bear their creators’ names, I was left wondering about the identity of the artist. Finally, after several dozen minutes of scrolling, an answer. “The Portrait of a Lady on Fire poster designer’s name is Akiko Stehrenberger,” tweeted Black List founder Franklin Leonard to his 112,000 followers, “and my god.”

I eagerly Googled the name, only to discover Stehrenberger was responsible for some of my favorite film posters in recent memory, from The One I Love to Nocturnal Animals to The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Now, with Akikomatic: The Work of Akiko Stehrenberger, we have the opportunity to revisit these and many other visual treasures. In some 200 glossy pages, Akikomatic not only gathers 15 years of Stehrenberger’s film posters — over 80 in total — but also demystifies her design process.

The Los Angeles–based Stehrenberger is one of the most sought-after poster designers in the film industry. You’ve likely encountered many of her works in the last decade or so — she’s created posters for films by David Lynch, Spike Jonze, the Coen brothers, Steven Soderbergh, Alma Har’el, Sofia Coppola, Luca Guadagnino, Dee Rees, Gus Van Sant, Jim Jarmusch, and Harmony Korine. Her direct involvement with filmmakers varies depending on the project — sometimes she works for the movie studio, sometimes she’s contracted by an advertising agency, and sometimes she’s personally hired by a director. But no matter who’s calling, her phone is always ringing.

Akiko Stehrenberger has been called the “Bong Joon-ho of the poster world.” The compliment was originally in reference to how critically acclaimed her work is — Stehrenberger has won a whopping 15 CLIO Awards — but it also speaks to how inventive, detail-oriented, and tonally versatile she is as an artist. Like Bong, she plays with different styles and techniques, continually tailoring her approach so that “it changes with every single project.” “I try my darndest not to be a one-trick pony,” she says. 

For Stehrenberger, concept is everything. She tells me that part of what makes her unique is the way in which she bases her artistic approach on her conceptual approach. When she embarks on a new poster project, she first determines the poster’s central concept and then settles on a style that will best suit it. “This means my next poster can look completely different from the one before it,” she says. “I always look forward to switching up my styles if it helps communicate what’s best for each film.” What that means, to her, “is getting the concept across.”

But while Stehrenberger adapts her approach for each new project, there are certain stylistic threads that run throughout her oeuvre. In terms of form, painting and illustration are the techniques to which she returns most often. As for content, we often find close-ups of individual faces, usually as they gaze at us with an intensity that can be both intriguing and discomfiting. (See her posters for We Need to Talk About Kevin, Thelma, Blue Ruin, and La Laguna.) “The close up of a human face will always be engaging,” she says. “I think an expression alone can do so much heavy lifting.” She mentions her poster for Baskets in particular and asks, “If Zach Galifianakis’s face is painted, do you need to see his clown suit?” This instinctual minimalism governs all of her work. “I’ve always been a less is more type of gal,” she says.

Flipping through the pages of Akikomatic also reveals the breadth of Stehrenberger’s influences. She’s cited old Polish movie posters as having a particularly formative impact, but some of her work can also feel reminiscent of the iconic illustrated North American movie posters of yesteryear, like those of Bill Gold and Saul Bass. She also draws direct inspiration from other artists and styles when the project calls for it. Her poster for A Bigger Splash, for instance, channels David Hockney, while her poster for Love After Love takes cues from Post-Impressionist Pierre Bonnard. “I get very excited when I can pull from art history just as much as I do when I get to pull from pop culture,” Stehrenberger says. “I’m constantly researching new artists, or artists I never researched at great lengths before, and trying out new ways of painting.”

The first 750 buyers of Akikomatic also enjoyed a special-edition zine, which showcases some of Stehrenberger’s non-film work, much of which plays brilliantly with pop culture, referencing and remixing iconic imagery. The pieces featured in the zine span a variety of mediums; while there are many graphite and digital illustrations, some of Stehrenberger’s other canvases include a sticky note and a piece of toast. Standouts include a portrait of a middle-aged Alfred E. Neuman, the iconic Farrah Fawcett swimsuit poster with Miss Piggy as its subject, and Magritte’s The Treachery of Images updated to feature a vape pen. “In my non-movie-poster work, I try to make a hybrid of [art history and pop culture] with a sprinkle of eight-year-old boy humor,” she says, “because, let’s be honest, I never really evolved beyond that.”

Indeed, much of Stehrenberger’s work is informed by a refreshingly strong sense of humor. “Humor and comedy are so important to me,” she says. “Art and design don’t always need to be sterile or unapproachable.” While her comedic sensibility shines through more luminously in her non-film work, it’s also evident in some of her best posters, including those for Bad Milo, Deadpool 2, Veep, and, most recently, Have a Good Trip. “I gladly accept the challenge to not take myself so seriously,” she admits. “In fact, I’m surprised anyone takes me seriously at all!”

But once we get a peek into her process, there’s no questioning Stehrenberger’s seriousness as a craftsperson. The latter half of Akikomatic tracks the evolutions of several of her movie posters from concept to final form. She’s glad the book gives insight into her creative labor so that readers understand she is not just an illustrator, but also a designer and art director. “It’s my art director hat that comes before my illustrator’s,” she explains, and then walks me through each step in the development of a poster.

Step one: Watch the movie she’ll be designing for. “I used to jot down ideas as I was watching the films,” she says. “I later learned that for me it’s better to watch it uninterrupted and see what I take away from it after. After all, any tiny details I don’t remember at the end of the film won’t reside with the audience either.” Step two: Brainstorm and Google. “After seeing the film, I then jot down words or themes I think relate to the essence of the film. From there, I do a ton of image searches based on these words or themes.” Step three: Collect and organize materials. “I start a folder on Pinterest and build quite a collection of images that can possibly relate.” Step four: Prepare a concept presentation for the clients. “It’s only during my prepping my concept presentation that I narrow down my ideas,” she says. “I do rough thumbnail sketches to give a better sense of how an idea will visually work, which also quickly determines what will work better on paper than it does in my head.” Step five: Pitch like hell. “In the end, I try to only show the ideas I’m most excited about because the odds of my least favorite getting picked are always very high.”

All this talk of clients and pitching is a stark reminder of Stehrenberger’s dual roles. Movie poster design sits right at the intersection of art and advertising — worlds that, to some, might appear to be irreconcilable. Her work has to both move us and market to us. “In the beginning of my career, it was definitely a challenge trying to fulfill both [roles],” she confesses. “However, after 15 years of learning the language, I’m actually so proud of myself when I can merge the two and still have someone like the poster at the end of it. These days, I see it less like compromising and more like problem solving.”

In 2009, film journalist Adrian Curry crowned Stehrenberger’s poster for the film Funny Games as the best film poster of the decade. Like most of her work, the poster’s concept is simple: a hyperrealistic digital illustration of a crying Naomi Watts — lips parted, gaze fixed, hair tousled — sitting atop a black background and behind delicate Helvetica type. “I realize that it is ironic that this is my pick for the best movie poster of the decade,” Curry wrote, “since we all know that the enemy of good movie poster design is the big celebrity close-up or the floating head. […] But this poster both subverts and transcends that convention.”

More than 10 years later, Stehrenberger’s posters still subvert and transcend convention, all the while capturing attention and collecting admirers. Platforms like Twitter have also helped expand the reach of Stehrenberger’s work, and her Instagram @doyrivative (a handle which fuses the words “doy” — as in “duh” — and “derivative”) has given Stehrenberger a space to share her “movie posters, illustrations, [and] bad jokes” directly with fans and followers. “[N]ow with social media,” says Stehrenberger in an interview that prefaces Akikomatic, “movie poster designers and illustrators are definitely starting to make the name for themselves that they couldn’t before.”

And in the realm of design, Stehrenberger has certainly made a name for herself. Now, with the release of Akikomatic, a perfect coffee-table book, perhaps that name will also become a household one.


Sophia Stewart is a writer, editor, and cultural critic from Los Angeles. You can find her writing here and follow her on Twitter @smswrites.