Drip-dry Shirts
February 2005

E-mail conversation with
Lucienne Roberts

In February 2005, Lucienne Roberts (formerly of UK design studio Sans+Baum) interviewed us through e-mail. Around that time, she was working on 'Drip-dry Shirts', a publication that would be published a year later, in the beginning of 2006.
In this publication, Lucienne set out to investigate the relationship between contemporary design practice and modernist design practice. It turned out to be quite an interesting conversation, that's why we decided to publish some fragments here. The full interview can be read in 'Drip-dry Shirts' (AVA Publishing, 2006).

Questions by Lucienne Roberts, answers by Experimental Jetset:

01. Where were you at college? Which designers' work did you admire?

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. As for designers we admired: Linda van Deursen was of course a very inspirational person, being one of our favorite teachers at the Rietveld.
Another person that had an 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, whose fabulous 'Forget All The Rules You Ever Learned About Graphic Design – including the ones in this book' was hidden in the library of the Rietveld [more about Bob Gill in the 'About this site' section of this website].
So that's it, basically. As you see, you can locate us somewhere in the twilight zone between Richard Prince and Bob Gill. We know, that's quite a weird place to be.

02. In what way has Wim Crouwel's work influenced you? In its form / his approach / both?

What influenced us most is precisely the fact that 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 designs 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 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: it is consistency, and an iron logic, that can really throw you off your feet, and change your way of thinking.

We fully realise that Crouwel would never think of his work as having the potential to trigger such strong and destabilizing experiences. But then again, there's always a difference between the designer's intention and the way the design is interpreted. That's what keeps it interesting.

03. Would you consider yourselves to be modernists?

That totally depends 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 1850's, 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 traditional sense of the word), as we aren't really 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.

04. Crouwel talked about the idealism of his generation of designers. Do you share any of his beliefs that design can make the world a better place? Has graphic design an important role in society? Would you turn down a job on political grounds?

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 certainly 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), but you can also refer to it as the dialectical dimension, or the critical dimension, or the inner logic, or the internal whole.
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 exactly where we locate the utopian potential of design. (We know, this probably sounds hopelessly idealistic, but that's exactly what we are: hopelessly idealistic).

To answer your second question: we would absolutely turn a job down on political grounds. We have done so on quite a number of occasions.

05. When Wim Crouwel set up he was one amongst a few. Now it is very competitive. When did you set up together? Have you found it hard?

The level we're operating on is not so competitive as you suggest. We're a three-person studio operating in the margins of graphic design. In that way, we feel very much like a band.
We guess that there is a lot of competition in the world of advertising, and among larger 'Dutch Design' studio's, but we isolated ourselves from these spheres completely. We never participate in unpaid 'pitches', we never participate in advertising award shows, we don't go to industry receptions, etc. It just isn't our world.

By the way, the whole idea of a band as model for a studio is quite important to us. The idea of a small group of people operating as one unit is quite a powerful cultural/economic concept.
On the one hand, you have the advantage of a cooperative, collective way of working. On the other hand, the 'smallness' of the unit ensures that every member is responsible, and nobody is alienated from the end-product. This 'smallness' also prevents that the unit slips into the traditional boss/worker hierarchy (or, as they say in design, 'senior designer' and 'junior designer'; our stomachs turn when we hear those words).
This is also the reason why we never take interns. We would feel like complete hypocrites, telling other people what to do and letting them do all the mind numbing work. It just wouldn't feel right. We want to be responsible for the whole design, and that includes the boring part.

06. How important is graphic design to you personally? Wim Crouwel felt his first marriage failed partly because he worked so hard. Is it worth it?

It is enormously important to us. It occupies every minute of our lives. 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. It's beyond Total Design, it's a Total Existence.

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 divided between neo-conservatism, right-wing populism and religious fundamentalism. Working in graphic design, a discipline that is born out of modernism, gives us the chance to explore values and themes that we can't find anywhere else. So 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 ourselves out of our own alienation.

07. Do you teach? What advice would you give to a new designer?

Since 2000, we teach at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy (Amsterdam). There's not really one single advice we could give to new designers. In general, we hope to inspire our students to form their own design groups. To speak with Mao, 'let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend'.

If we had to narrow it down to one advice, it would be this: don't ever let someone call you a 'junior designer'.

Experimental Jetset,
February 2005

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