Michael & Michelle Kempen, Ambient Temperatures

I first met Michelle when I attended Mount Mary University for my first year of college. When I reconnected with Sam Sablich from Milwaukee Adventure Girls a few weeks ago, she told me I just had to chat with Michelle (the two have remained close friends throughout the years) and her husband about Ambient Temperatures, their creative outlet presented as prints. 

Michael and Michelle's art showcases interesting textures overlaid with minimalistic line work – each print is cooler than the next. They recently welcomed me into their beautiful apartment to show me their work, and not only was I blown away by their artistic talent, chic decor, and modern apartment with a great view of Milwaukee, but Michael and Michelle showcased classic Midwestern kindness and were prepping for a party that night by cooking some terrific-smelling cuisine in a crock-pot. We're more alike than we are different, my friends.

Check out my Q&A with Michael and Michelle to find out more about them and Ambient Temperatures:


My Midwest Is Showing: What's the history of Ambient Temperatures?

Michael: I'd been messing around with another project that evolved into the production process and stylistic basis for Ambient Temperatures. The first things produced were just meant to be for us. We didn't plan on it going any farther.

Over time we kept coming back to work on new pieces in a similar style. I'm an identity designer by trade, so once there were half a dozen-ish pieces, I impulsively started to build a visual brand around it all. Again, this was still before we had any intent to sell. The ideas behind the name, the logo, the rigid stylistic consistency of the entire body of work—it all started as part of some conceptual experiment we were playing out.

Michelle: As things happen, an opportunity arose for us to get it out in front of people at a local Milwaukee shop, and it’s grown from there. We’re starting to make more of our pieces available online and are also talking to some new venues around town. We like working with others in the community whenever possible.


MMWIS: How do you create your art?

Michael: It starts with sourcing the background texture from old print samples. Printing over the last century has been continually refined to improve resolution and hide the method of production. Today, an image in a print magazine looks little different from an image on screen, but that wasn't always the case. The '50s-'70s is a real sweet spot, because you still get the technological/economical limitations of the time, but you also start to see a lot more color printing. We do a lot in black and white because we enjoy the high contrast, but you can get some interesting, and very diverse, results with color.

We've always liked thrift stores and antique shops, both of which offer plenty of printed curiosities we can pull from. We collect stuff we think has potential and then magnify the samples. In their magnified state, you lose the representational and contextual value of the image. Instead you're focused on the original printing process itself and its unique textural and tonal variations. Once we have these selections we chop them up and reassemble them with other samples in a collage-like approach.    

The line work over the top gives an added dimension to the pieces. Something to play against the texture. It's largely abstract. What you get out of it really depends on how in-tuned you are with associating feeling to the positioning of elements in a design. Motion, balance, constraint, expansion—the hope is that the forms are never completely stagnant. I think a lot of it is rooted in processes and forms that originate in our careers as designers, and we explore them in a more abstract way though the line work. 


MMWIS: How would you describe your style?

Michael: Brian Eno described ambient music as something "actively listened to with attention or as easily ignored, depending on the choice of the listener." 

That's what we want for our work in regard to its environment. Sometimes all people need is to fill a space with something that's engaging when considered, but isn't constantly screaming for attention. They're not looking for a statement, they're just trying to develop a more cohesive space. Our intent is to play to both sides by design, as opposed to some mass-market product from a box store that is easily ignored because it doesn't have a level of substance which can be actively enjoyed. Hopefully our work provides a more nuanced experience upon closer inspection.


MMWIS: What is it like working with your spouse? What aspects of Ambient Temperatures do each of you handle?

Michael: It's a lot of fun. I think we work really well together. Michelle has this strong passion for sharing what we're doing and she's been instrumental in increasing our audience. There's a very motivational quality about her. 

You do have to develop a certain sense of tact for the situation though, because it adds a business-like aspect to a personal relationship. You can professionally disagree with someone at work and, if it rubs them the wrong way, you can take some time, come back the next day and try to work through the issue again. Getting that reflective space is harder when you have to share a bed with that person.

Michelle: I really enjoying working on this with Michael, to share a creation with him. I think it is really exciting to work on something that brings together his passion for graphic and identity design with my knowledge of interior design. He challenges me to explore the balance and composition of a piece. 2D Design work comes more easily to him as I work more in the 3 dimensional. Michael is such a creative person, and I love feeding off his energy professionally and personally.


MMWIS: What's your favorite piece you've ever created?

Michael: I tend to like whatever I made most recently the best. If I don't think something is some of the better work I've done, I keep working on it or scrap it completely and start something else. That feeling doesn't always last though. In a couple days I usually come down from the new-idea high and get a better feel for a piece's true quality. Most of the time that assessment is the catalyst for me to make something new. And then the whole thing repeats.

Michelle: That's a great question and difficult to choose. I feel like every time we create something new, it is my favorite. I really enjoy the colored pieces. I think the hues are rich and dynamic. The woods may be my favorite.


MMWIS: Greatest business accomplishment so far?

Michael: The first couple sales we had were really important. We didn't arrive at our style because we looked at the market to see what would sell, we just made stuff that we liked. We made our first pieces for our own personal enjoyment, without intending for it to become anything more. So when we decided to put it out there, those first couple sales gave us some validation that what we were doing was resonating with at least a few people beyond the two of us.

Michelle: I was asked to speak about our process and creations by a group called Women in Design. This is a local organization focused on promoting and elevating design in our community. I am really honored that they considered me to speak as I was in the company of truly impressive and inspirational women.


MMWIS: What are you currently reading? Watching? Listening to?

Michael: I have this Eagles greatest hits cassette that has a pretty permanent place in my CRV's tape deck. It's probably the default soundtrack of me driving anywhere. It's starting to develop a weird wobble. I'm sure Michelle's waiting for the day when it wears out and she can listen to something else on the way to work.

Otherwise Chihei Hatakeyama is someone I'm always coming back to. It's great workday music—present without being intrusive. Spotify has made it so easy to consume piles of music from vastly different genres, sometimes I feel like I suffer from overload. Chihei's my default when I want something on but I don't want to pick.

Michelle: Fleetwood Mac's Rumours and Paul Simon records are frequent plays in our house. I like listening to ambient, instrumental music while I work. I think it partially steams from when we were in Toyko about a year ago and they were pumping bird chirping sounds into the subway. I always welcome calming, meditative music. I’m reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, an inquiry into values by Robert M Pirsig right now. It fits in with my current binge on travel-y themed books that explore finding and maintaining your true self.


MMWIS: If someone was visiting Wisconsin for the first time, what would you tell them to do first?

Michael: Come in the summer. Find a good lake. Then find some good cheese curds. And by good I mean fresh, squeaky and around room temperature.

Michelle: I would tell them to find a trail or a campsite near the lake if they were coming in the summer or fall. Personally I love being outdoors and cannot wait for the next time I can go camping.

MMWIS: Favorite thing about the Midwest?

Michael: How cold the winter is.

Michelle: How nice the people can be. People are genuinely interested when they ask how you are doing, and I feel a sense of community with others from the Midwest.


MMWIS: How does your Midwest show through your personality and/or what you do?

Michael: There's this very standard set of values that come to mind when you say someone or something is Midwestern. Honest, hardworking, friendly – and similar adjectives so generally applied they've lost a lot of their meaning. I'm not saying they're no longer true, but it's not all the Midwest is anymore. I think we're seeing an evolution of a creative mindset that fosters new ideas and, more importantly, encourages action. Those baseline Midwestern values are being used as springboard for success. And it covers such a wide area from music to food that it's impossible for it not to have an affect on the future of Midwestern culture. Hopefully we're somewhere in that mix, stereotypical Midwesterners with a little something new.

Find out more about Ambient Temperatures, and stay up to date with Michael and Michelle on Instagram!