Design & Art Reader
January 2006
Documents of Contemporary Art
Whitechapel Art Gallery / MIT Press

In January 2006, we were approached by UK art critic Alex Coles, who was working on 'Design & Art: Documents of Contemporary Art', a book that would be published a year later (in 2007) by Whitechapel Art Gallery (UK) and MIT Press (US).
Alex Coles' intention was that 'Design & Art' would function as a 'reader', a collection of previously published texts. In short, he was interested in including an interview with us, an interview that he read in Lucienne Roberts' 'Drip-dry Shirts' that was published a year earlier, in 2005. But in addition to Lucienne's questions, Alex also wanted to ask us some of his own questions. So we ended up rewriting the original interview a little bit, to include Alex' new questions. The finished text was then included in the 'Design & Art' reader (ISBN 978-0-854-88153-6).

The original interview (from 2005) can be read elsewhere at this site, at Drip-dry Shirts. Shown below is the revised version, from 2006.

01. Education and inspiration

All three of us studied at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy (Amsterdam). Marieke and Danny graduated in 1997; Erwin, who was in another year, graduated in 1998. At that time, Linda van Deursen was definitely a very influential person; she was one of our favorite teachers. She still is very inspirational to us.

A person that also had a huge impact on us was Richard Prince; we were introduced to his work through Linda. We especially liked his 'joke paintings'. We remember that seeing these paintings, displaying a few simple sentences in Helvetica, was really a breath of fresh air in a time when graphic design was more about layered compositions, techno- and grunge-typography, and clogged lay-outs.
Prince's work (not only his 'joke paintings', but also his 'gangs', his grouped photographs) showed that it was possible to analyse/deconstruct pop-culture, but without the 'deconstructivist' aesthetics (that were so fashionable in graphic design around that time, and that we disliked so much). His work had a hard and cool 'punk-minimalist' sensibility that had a huge influence on us. (It's funny; some people assume our work to be heavily influenced by Swiss late-modernists such as Josef Muller-Brockmann and designers like that, but actually, we only learned about these designers quite recently. Richard Prince had a much larger influence on us).

Another person that influenced us was Bob Gill. In the library of the Rietveld Academy we discovered a dusty copy of 'Forget All The Rules You Ever Learned About Graphic Design – Including The Ones In This Book'. Gill's work had an immediate impact on us. What impressed us most was his consistent use of the 'problem/solution' model. It's a dialectical model that some might find outdated, rigid, one-dimensional, didactic, archaic. To us, the problem/solution model is most of all beautiful. Of course, it has a tragic side, as every solution only brings forth more problems; and besides, we all know there is no such thing as one perfect solution. But it is exactly this inherent tragic side which makes this model so beautiful and useful to us.

Last but not least, we would like to mention Wim Crouwel. What influenced us most is the fact that, in his work, you can't distinguish between his form and his approach. In Crouwel's work, form and approach are the same.
There's an idiosyncratic quality in his designs: Crouwel's work is highly systematic, but it's a highly personal system, organized according to Crouwel's own logic. From the smallest logo to his body of work as a whole, his pieces are systematic worlds in itself.
To be confronted with such systematic work is quite powerful; it's ecstatic and disturbing at the same time. To feel your own logic clash with another logic, to be suddenly drawn into another rhythm, another rationality, a different set of rules: it's a profound experience, causing you to see the world with different eyes. Crouwel's work can certainly trigger experiences like that. (It is often thought that design, to have a subversive potential, has to be unexpected, irrational, rebellious; anything as long as it's not 'boring'. We very much disagree: in our view, it is consistency, and an iron logic, that can really throw you off your feet, and change your way of thinking).

02. Modernism and functionalism

Whether we consider ourselves modernists or not is an impossible question. The answer would depend completely on the definition of modernism one employs.

For example, there's the idea of modernism as a very defined, historical classification, starting, let's say, in the 1850s, peaking around 1910, and rapidly fading away after that. That's quite a feasible definition.
Another definition would be the more 'Habermasian' idea of modernism, as something yet to be fulfilled, linked to the notion of modernity as a project that started with the Enlightment. That's also a very plausible definition.
In between these two definitions, there are hundreds of others. And since we are torn between all of them, it's quite difficult for us to answer this question.

What we do know though, is that we aren't functionalists (in the common use of the word), as we aren't just interested in the 'narrow' definition of the word 'function'. To us, a chair isn't simply something to just sit on; it also functions as the embodiment of a certain way of thinking. This 'broad' definition of function is actually closer to early modernism than to late modernism.
To give a simple example of this, in the brilliant 'Theory and Design in the First Machine Age', Reyner Banham shows that Rietveld's arm-chair is in fact a highly symbolic structure. The design of the chair cannot be simply justified as being 'functional'; the chair is also a statement about the infinity of space. This is something we're quite interested in: the function of design as an embodiment of ideology.

03. Aesthetics and utopia

We are firm believers in the utopian dimension of design. It's something we're absolutely convinced of. It's our main drive. But we aren't sure if this utopian dimension can be found in utilitarianism, or social messages. Those particular forms of engagement can be strong sources of inspiration for the designer, and in that sense they certainly play an important role, but they often lack a real dialectical potential. In our view, a true utopian design should change people's way of thinking, not just their opinions.
If we are indeed living in a fragmented society (and we believe we are) then perhaps the only way to shock us out of this alienation is to counter the fragmentation of society with the wholeness of design. In that sense, the utopian dimension is to be found in the internal organization of the designed object, its inner-logic. Which brings us back to the idiosyncratic quality of Crouwel's work which we mentioned earlier, or the example of Rietveld's chair as an embodiment of ideology. You can define it in many different ways: Herbert Marcuse speaks of 'the aesthetic dimension' (in a very good essay of the same name, 'The Aesthetic Dimension', published by Beacon Press, 1978), you can also refer to it as the dialectical dimension, or the critical dimension, or the inner-logic, or the internal whole. In our view, these are all names for the same thing.

We recently stumbled across a quote by the artist John McCracken, who said "I've always felt that it was possible that a piece could change or transform reality, or the world. A work being so tuned that it somehow alters the constitution of things". This almost musical idea of 'tuning' is precisely where we locate the utopian potential of design. (We know, this probably sounds hopelessly idealistic, but that's exactly what we are).

To elaborate on this last remark, we see the work of minimal artists such as McCracken and Donald Judd as profoundly political. The modularity in the work of Judd is especially subversive. Modularity, which is the repetition of standard units, always seems to point towards the idea of infinity; after all, repetition is a phenomenon that suggests a movement 'ad infinitum'. And in our view, it is exactly this idea of infinity that has the potential to shock us out of the alienation of the everyday. It is no wonder that some of the most radical artworks share this sense of infinity, and therefore possess the subversive potential to let us see the world in a different way.
Interestingly enough, we think it is precisely his modularity (and not necessarily his attempts to produce furniture) that caused Judd to touch the world of design. To put it boldly, we think that design, intrinsically linked to diverse processes of repetition (serial production, graphic multiplication, etc.), is closely related to the modularity of minimal art.

04. Advil and Excedrin

Graphic design is enormously important to us. It occupies every minute of our lives. We have to admit that every single thing that we do, even when seemingly unrelated to graphic design, we immediately try to place in the context of graphic design. Watching a documentary on TV, listening to pop music, taking a walk, going to a rock show, teaching, hanging out with friends, even sleeping: it all becomes part of the design process.

Recently, we wrote a short text for U.K. graphic design magazine Grafik, to answer their question "2004: How was it for you?". In that text, we wrote that "since we started in 1997, the usual rhythm of weeks, months and years gradually disappeared. We're now marching to the beat of deadline after deadline. The only constants are the daily pressure to perform, and a steady diet of Advil 400 (against common headache), Excedrin (against tension headache) and Maxalt (against migraine)."
So your question if it's worth it is a good one. Because the practice of graphic design is causing us a lot of physical discomfort. All three of us are slightly dysfunctional, and slightly oversensitive. Which means that we don't have the right personalities to deal with the deadlines we have to deal with on a daily basis. The responsibility that comes with working on large projects, and the constant pressure to perform and to live up to expectations, is really killing us, resulting in headaches, overeating, dizziness and sleeplessness.

But we still think it is worth it. We're living a world that seems dominated by postmodern tendencies (movements such as neo-conservatism, right-wing populism and religious fundamentalism). Working in graphic design, a discipline born out of modernism, gives us the chance to explore values and themes that we can't find anywhere else. For us, there is a lot of consolation to be found in graphic design.
In our answer to one of your earlier questions (about the political dimension of graphic design), we wrote that, in our opinion, "the only way to shock us out of this alienation is to counter the fragmentation of society with the wholeness of design". This is not just a rhetoric statement; for us this is quite personal. The practice of graphic design is also a way to shock us out of our own alienation.

05. Design and art

We don't see graphic design as art, but we do see art as a form of design. Although it's hard to define art, it's not difficult to define its context: there exists a clear infrastructure of exhibition spaces, galleries, museums, art magazines, art publishers, art history, art theory, etc. Art can be seen as the production of objects, concepts and activities intended to function within this specific infrastructure. In our view, this production can certainly be seen as a specific form of design.

Speaking about art and design, it's interesting to see how the view on the relationship between art and design changed during the course of modernism. Striving towards a synthesis of art and design was quite an essential characteristic of early modernism, quite possibly its most defining one. Early modernists such as Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and El Lissitzky were absolutely driven by the idea to unite art and the everyday; the idea of art, not as an added, decorative layer, but as something fully integrated in modern life. While late-modernists, such as Wim Crouwel and the late Gerrit Rietveld (as opposed to the early Gerrit Rietveld) were (and in the case of Wim Crouwel, still are) radically against such a synthesis of art and design.
In the conclusion of 'Theory and Design in the First Machine Age', Reyner Banham seems to suggest that the late modernists more or less sacrificed the early-modernist ideal of synthesis (of art and the everyday) in favour of late-modernist ideals such as functionalism and utilitarianism. Which is an interesting observation. Nevertheless, in our view, there is certainly a necessity to restore the historical, modernist link between design and art.

Experimental Jetset
20.02.2005 / 15.01.2006

Afterword: when we wrote about seeing "art as a form of design", we weren't necessarily talking about 'arty' design, or 'designy' art. We were simply trying to recognize the material conditions of art, trying to define art as a form of cultural production (and thus as a specific form of design). It was in no way an attempt to belittle art; in fact, it was quite the opposite. By 'grounding' art in its material context, its cultural infrastructure, we were trying to show art as what it is: a concrete activity, in a concrete world. Too often, art is seen as this sphere of floating, disconnected images, almost as a form of branding or advertising. We view art as something completely different than that: we see it as a very conscious act of shaping the material world around us. And in that sense, we do see it as a specific manifestation of design. Because, after all, that is exactly what design is: the conscious act of shaping the material world around us.

Filed under:

Texts / interviews

( c ) 1997 – 2024