The first time I saw Gary Hustwit’s 80 minute documentary about a font, Helvetica
, was at the ICA
; part of a competition with some friends to organise the geekiest Friday night out which had started with a screening of This is Tomorrow
(a documentary largely about a carpet*) at the Royal Festival Hall
with a live score performed by Saint Etienne
. Needless to say, I won, albeit by a fairly narrow margin!
From left to right: Erwin, Danny, Marieke. Poster part of the 'La Zafra de los Diez Millones' series, by Olivio Martinez Viera, Stedelijk Museum. (Photo by Karina Bisch)
, now my favourite film, was my introduction to a number of influential graphic designers, not least Wim Crouwel
and Experimental Jetset
I immediately fell in love with Danny, Marieke and Erwin, not only for their splendid design work, but also for their inimitable Dutch charm. I next saw them at one of the D&AD President’s Lectures
and their place in my heart was sealed.
So you can only imagine my excitement at spotting Danny van den Dungen
in the crowd at a Wim Crouwel event
at the Design Museum
in London. It took all my bravery to ask not only Wim Crouwel for an interview
, but then, shaking and garbling, to ask Danny for one too. I was on cloud nine as I left, having given two such amazing designers my little handmade business cards.
Marieke Stolk, Erwin Brinkers and Danny van den Dungen founded Experimental Jetset in 1997. They describe graphic design as “turning language into objects”, and focus on printed matter and textual installations.
Here’s what they had to say…
What’s the most important thing to know about you?
We recently came across a weblog in which we were described as “convicted users of Helvetica”. We can only assume the writer meant ‘convinced’, but that it somehow came out as ‘convicted’.
So yeah. Although this idea that we “always use Helvetica” is a total myth, maybe we should go down in history like that – as “convicted users of Helvetica”. It certainly has a ring to it.
'Club Céramique', A2 poster designed for NAiM / Bureau Europa (Maastricht), 2010.
Why graphic design and not any other discipline? How did you get into it? When did you know that was what you wanted to do? What’s so special about it?
Graphic design has always been a place where a lot of interesting fields overlap: art, politics, poetry, industry, printing, philosophy, literature, et cetera.
Modern graphic design came into existence at the crossroads of all these separate disciplines. We really see it as a prism where everything comes together. So it’s an extremely fascinating place to be.
Apart from that, we also think that it is a very accessible field for a bunch of working-class kids (because that’s basically what we are). For some reason, when you’re creative, but coming from a working-class background, this whole notion of ‘applied arts’ seems a more logical step than trying to pursue a career in ‘real’ art, or ‘real’ literature; disciplines which can still seem quite intimidating, at least from an outsider’s perspective.
Applying to art school already seemed quite a frivolous thing to do when we were young – so in order to make it a little bit more easy towards your environment, you would choose a discipline that “at least would earn you a living”. A terrible way of thinking, but one that was quite prevalent when we were young.
Now that we are older, we realize this whole reasoning is nonsense – we certainly don’t think of graphic design as a ‘compromised’ art, and besides, most artists we know earn three times as much as we will ever do as graphic designers, so we’re certainly not in it for the money.
But still, in some way of another, graphic design seems to be more accessible to creative kids with a working-class background. In many ways, graphic design started out as an extension of the printing industry, so this whole spirit of manual labour is still present in the discipline, no matter how academic it will ever become. You still have to get your hands dirty, if not physically, than at least metaphorically.
Selection of posters designed for Hyperlinks exhibition, Art Institute of Chicago. (Photo by James Goggin)
What are you most proud of?
Right now, we would say that we are most proud of ‘Two or Three Things I Know About Provo
‘, an exhibition we curated, compiled, designed and installed in the beginning of this year, at Amsterdam art space W139.
In short, the director of W139 asked us to create an exhibition
about Provo, an influential Amsterdam anarchist movement that existed between 1965 and 1967 (as it happens, Marieke’s father, Rob Stolk, was one of the main founders of this movement).
We only had a month to work on the exhibition, and in that short period we did the research, visited archives, interviewed people, photographed hundreds of documents, wrote and translated dozens of texts, designed all the printed matter, came up with an exhibition plan, printed out all the material and installed all the work in space. It was a very intense couple of weeks, and we had to work extremely hard, but it was completely worth it.
'Two or Three Things I Know About Provo', A6 postcard (front) designed for W139, 2011.
We also organised a one-night film festival on Provo, and compiled a 60-minute radio show
on the subject.
One of the reasons we’re so proud of the exhibition is the fact that it really feels like a culmination of everything we have been working on for the last 15 years. It almost seems as if all our past assignments were ‘exercises’ to prepare us for this ultimate project. To put together this exhibition, in just a month – if we were less experienced designers, we couldn’t have pulled it off in such a way. It was as if all the skills we acquired over the past 15 years were suddenly put to the test.
What advice would you give to aspiring designers?
We said this before, in a couple of earlier interviews, but we still think it’s true: “Slow and steady wins the race”. And there’s not even a race to win.
We recently came across a Wittgenstein quote that we found quite inspiring: “How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life”. A lot of students and young designers have this urge to jump from one idea to another idea very quickly, shifting styles in an almost nervous way – which is quite understandable, of course. But for ourselves, we realized quite early in our career (if you could call it a career) that this was not a mode in which we wanted to function. We are planning to keep designing until we are very old (we have to, as there is nothing else we are capable of doing). So we don’t have this restless urge to throw out one idea after another – we rather concentrate on a couple of central themes, and let it slowly evolve from there. We’d rather stick to a specific set of languages, and explore those languages in-depth, than to endlessly jump from one style to another style very quickly.
Installing 'Mobile ISO 216' at the Triennale Design Museum in Milan, 2011. Photo courtesy of Graphic Design Worlds.
Your website is amazing. It must have taken a huge amount of time. Why is it important to you to create such a comprehensive record and explanation of your work?
Thanks! To be honest, we are a little embarrassed that it hasn’t been updated for such a long time. But when you’re constantly busy, it’s always projects such as your own website that suffer first. We think most designers would recognize that.
Now, to answer your question, why it is important to us to create such a website – on the one hand, it has to do with a very basic assumption. In general, we love to read about ‘the making of’ – whether it’s the making of an obscure rock album, or the making of a particular movie, or building, or painting, etc. And because we enjoy reading about other people’s work, we sort of assume that there might be people out there who find it interesting to read about our work as well. We immediately admit that our website is not for everyone – it is intended for the very small group of people who really want to know more about our work.
On the other hand, the site also serves a more egotistical purpose – it is a good place for us to reflect on our own work. The actual process of designing is quite stressful, always rushed. You have to make decisions very quickly, almost on an intuitive, subconscious level. So once in a while, it’s nice to take a few steps back, and look at what you’ve actually been doing. In that sense, it’s also a way to learn from your own work.
'Mobile ISO 216', hanging sculpture consisting of standard ISO 216 (DIN 476) formats. The posters (displayed scale 1:1) were selected according to size
Desert island design time – which three items could you not live without?
Is it okay if we answer this question in the literal way: which three items would we take to a desert island?
Of course, in that case, the most sensible thing would be to choose some items that would make it possible to survive on such an island (a Swiss army knife, a Zippo lighter or magnifying glass to make fire, a set of gardening tools to grow vegetables, maybe some sort of filtering device to convert salt water into drinking water, a SAS survival guide, etc.), or better yet, some items that would make it possible to get picked up from the island as soon as possible (a satellite phone, a solar-powered laptop, radio equipment, etc.)…
However, all these items are much too obvious. And even more problematic, they emphasise the notion that important design should only serve some sort of urgent utilitarian or life-saving purpose, which might be the case on a desert island, but not in the constructed environment we feel part of.
So, as a thinking exercise, we were contemplating what role the sort of design we are mainly interested in (language-related printed matter, mostly reflecting on culture) could play within the context of a desert island. Which is a difficult question, as we see graphic design as inherently linked to the constructed environment, and even more specific, to the urban context.
Thinking about it, we suddenly came across the notion of the ‘cargo cult’. During World War II, the American military left containers and equipment on remote islands in the Pacific Ocean, around which the native population constructed all kinds of cults and religions. So we were thinking, maybe this could be an interesting way to tackle your question: which items should we take to a desert island, for future generations of islanders to construct a cult around, long after our deaths?
The Structuralists from Marx to Levi-Strauss
First of all, we would take with us this paperback called ‘The Structuralists: From Marx to Lévi-Strauss’ (edited by Richard and Fernande deGeorge, and published by Anchor Books, 1972). The front, designed by Fred Troller, is one of our favourite book covers of all time. (We were introduced to this cover by Mark Owens, through his excellent essay ‘Soft Modernist’ from 2003).
O Fino Do Fino
Secondly, we would take with us ‘O Fino do Fino’ by Elis Regina and the Zimbo Trio, a Bossa Nova album from 1965, featuring one of the most beautiful record covers we’ve ever seen (designed by Carlos Prosperi). Featuring Bauhaus imagery, set in a Tropical pop-cultural context, we think this sleeve would work really well on a desert island.
Sound Texts / Concrete Poetry / Visual Texts, Wim Crouwel
Finally, we would include ‘Sound Texts / Concrete Poetry / Visual Texts’, a poster that Wim Crouwel designed in 1970 for the Stedelijk Museum, for an exhibition on concrete poetry – he also designed a really beautiful catalog for that same exhibition, in collaboration with Jolijn van de Wouw (of Total Design).
We think these three items could be the foundation of a really interesting ‘cargo cult’. It would be fascinating to see the kind of religion future islanders would construct around these objects. ‘The Structuralists’ paperback could function as a secular bible, the Bossa Nova Bauhaus symbols could work as an alternative crucifix, and the text on the Crouwel poster could work as some sort of atheist mantra or hymn.
But then again, if you would ask us tomorrow, we would probably come up with a very different set of items.
Who or what has had the most influence over your work / who is your design hero? Is it Wim Crouwel, or is there someone who’s been even more influential? Why?
Obviously, Wim Crouwel has been a real influential figure – not just Wim Crouwel, but that whole generation of Dutch late-modernist graphic designers (Ben Bos, Benno Wissing, etc.). In many ways, they shaped the Netherlands of the ’70s in which we grew up as kids. The postal stamps, the telephone books, the school atlases: they were all designed by Total Design and like-minded studios. So we are really products of that particular graphic environment. And as a consequence, we regard this whole language of late-modernism as our mother tongue, as our authentic dialect. It is the language in which we have been brought up, so we now see it as our right, maybe even as our duty, to explore it, to expand it, to interpret it in our own way, and to tell our own stories with it. Above all, we see it as an authentic way of expressing ourselves.
Leaflet for the 2010 Shepley Bulfinch Summer Design Fellowship, by Experimental Jetset
So it is very important for us to point out that we regard our way of working not as ‘sampling’ a ‘style’, or as some sort of post-modern appropriation. And we certainly don’t see it as a ‘neo-’ or ‘retro-’ thing. It’s not that we do a late-modernist style this week, and a Tiki mid-century style next week, and a Baroque style next month. We don’t regard what we do as a superficial style, but as an actual language – an authentic part of our cultural identity, of our upbringing.
This is something critics find really hard to understand – from the beginning, they have dismissed us as some sort of pastiche act. We can still remember one critic desperately urging his readers “not to mistake Experimental Jetset’s work for anything more than a saccharinely ironic version of the International Style”. Thanks to these critics, we entered the ‘canon’ (so to speak) in a really unlucky way – we are often described as ironic hoaxers, cynical jokers, ‘default’ designers; exactly the opposite of what we are. And we don’t think we can ever undo the false image that the critics painted of us. But we learned to live with that, and to roll with the (verbal) punches.
Anyway, to return to the subject of influences – another big inspiration for us was punk. Whilst it was designers like Crouwel who created the graphic environment in which we were brought up as kids, it was punk that created the landscape in which we grew up as teenagers.
Although we were too young to actively participate in the original punk explosion of 1977, we could still hear the echoes of this explosion throughout the ’80s, and it really inspired us. As teenagers, we were completely fascinated by the many post-punk subcultures (Two Tone, Psychobilly, New Wave, Garage Rock, Mod, Straight Edge, etc.), and all these movements really shaped us. And it were post-punk artefacts such as record sleeves, badges, patches, DIY fanzines, mix tapes, t-shirts and xeroxed underground comics that made us aware of graphic design in the first place.
So in our work, we try to synthesise these two (seemingly conflicting) influences: the language of late-modernism of the ’70s, and the post-punk landscape of the ’80s. Both these influences have shaped us enormously, in our pre-teen and teenage years.
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Further reading for the especially geeky:
(*okay, so it wasn’t just about carpet, and it wasn’t just any carpet, it was Peter Moro’s wonderful net and ball carpet – and it was a fantastic documentary, and one which I’d love to get my hands on a copy of.)