Interview / Confessions
May 2011
In May 2011, we were interviewed by Katie Treggiden of the weblog Confessions of a Design Geek; the interview was posted a couple of weeks later. Below you’ll find a rough and unedited version of the interview; the edited interview can be read here.

A few months later, an abridged version of the interview appeared in print, in a booklet published by Confessions of a Design Geek.

Now, before we get to the interview, first a short note about interviews in general, and more specifically ‘our’ interviews: we do think that they date really, really fast. Not that we change our opinions so quickly – as a matter of fact, our opinions are quite stable, or so we like to believe. But the ways in which we try to formulate these opinions change quite often. We constantly need new and better words to formulate our views – it’s almost as if all these words are in orbit, circling around something that remains impossible to fully articulate, at least for us. So although our underlying views have remained pretty much the same throughout the years, our words are always changing, to the point where they sometimes even seem to contradict each other. That’s why it’s usually quite painful to re-read old interviews, or old texts in general – we seldom agree with what we said.    

Having said that – here’s the interview we answered for Confessions of a Design Geek.


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.

Why graphic design rather than 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 outsiders’ 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 “make dirty hands”, if not physically, than at least metaphorically.

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 (2011), at Amsterdam art space W139. A press release about that exhibition can be found here.

In short, the director of W139 asked us to create a project on the subject of 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.
Some pictures of the exhibition can be found in this Flickr set.
We also organized a one-night film festival on Provo, and compiled a 60-minute radio show on the subject. The radio broadcast is archived here.

One of the reason 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). 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 one specific language, and explore that language in-depth, than to endlessly jump from one style to another style very quickly.

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 egoistical 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.

Desert island design – what three (designed) items could you not live without?

Is it okay if we answer this question in the literal way: which three designed 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, urban environment we feel part of.

So, as a thinking exercise, we were contemplating what role the sort of design we find interesting (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?

First of all, we would take with us this paperback called ‘The Structuralists: From Marx to Levi-Strauss’ (edited by Richard and Fernande deGeorge, and published by Anchor Books, 1972). The front, designed by Fred Troller, is one of our favourite bookcovers of all time. (We were introduced to this cover by Mark Owens, through his excellent essay ‘Soft Modernist’ from 2003).
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.
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 catalogue 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.

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 unfortunate way – and as a result, we are continually 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. While it were 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.   

And finally, which button making machine do you use?

It’s an Astor KWR 5351, an incredibly heavy-duty iron monster, painted orange. It’s the sort of machine you expect in an industrial setting, screwed to a workbench. We don’t think they are still being made – nowadays, most badge machines seem lighter, and more streamlined.
Googling “Astor KWR 5351” gives no results; however, when you type in “badge machine” and "5351”, you actually get an image.

Experimental Jetset, 
May 17, 2011


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