Image: book cover for Prometheus, Niels Meulman and DK/ 1991
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Written by Gerard Forde
Published in Emigre Magazine, winter 1993
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In the fall of 1993 Gerard Forde, a young and brilliant art historian with a special liking for photography and Dutch graphic design, visited Niels Meulman and myself for an interview in Emigre Magazine. Niels and I had just started our own studio under the name of Caulfield & Tensing. We had met at Studio Anthon Beeke and became friends, both grown up in Amsterdam-Zuid and fascinated by typography. Gerard put his recorder on the table and the three of us talked for hours, in one long continuous and concentrated flow. When we stopped I believe we all felt that we had come to a deeper understanding of our (professional) selves. The next day Gerard called to tell us his recorder had failed and we had to redo the interview. Although we all knew we wouldn’t be able to repeat our earlier experience, we got seated again around the same table and tried to approach the sensational sense of discovery that we remembered. Rereading this interview after twenty years I realise that Niels and Gerard helped me to express the worries, beliefs and ideas that have been driving my professional life till today.
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In the World’s collective graphic design imagination HOLLAND has, over the last decade and a half, been raised tot the status of a Mecca – a graphic design Nether-Nether-Land. HOLLAND: that low country with impossibly high standards. HOLLAND: that fabled land where graphic designers can become museum directors, and company directors actually care about graphic design.
No country’s graphic design culture has been subjected to as much enquiry and as much superficial praise as that of HOLLAND. AMERICA in particular seems to be suffering from an acute form of tulipmania, windmillfanaticism, clog-o-philia – call it what you will, the stateside love-sickness for the printed matter of the land of dijks and VAN DIJK had reached epidemic proportions.
This very magazine you are reading is just the latest symptom of this unstoppable disease – or is it just a mild case of homesickness in one Dutch emigré? The last year alone has witnessed an exhibition of Netherlandish ephemera at the COOPER UNION in NEW YORK, an entire issue of the august and prestigious journal PRINT devoted to the same subject, and even as you read (sic) these words a survey exhibition of Dutch graphic between 1918 and 1945 is being planned at the MASSACHUSETTS COLLEGE OF ART.
The intense focus on the admittedly remarkable forms of Dutch design over the last decade has been largely at the expense of any rigourous examination of the ideas behind them. Is this perhaps because there are no ideas? Have we all been taken for a ride? Isn’t it high time that the rollercoaster was brought back down to earth with a healthy bump?
Back to Basics
The two members of the recently formed and improbably named AMSTERDAM-based design studio CAULFIELD & TENSING are singularly unimpressed with the hype surrounding Dutch graphics and indeed with the graphics themselves.
In their opinion most designers in HOLLAND have forsaken communication in favour of speaking a rarified and near unintelligible code – most probably Double Dutch. They view the visual complexity that has come to characterise much recent Dutch graphics as a veil to hide the vacuousness of both the designers and the clients.
One of the root causes of this phenomenon, as they see it, is the exclusively visual approach to design in HOLLAND accompanied by an almost total indifference to the value of language. This attitude has been encouraged by a design education system that focuses on formal experimentation which promotes the obtuse, the ambiguous and the associational, and which is disdainful of the witty, the obvious and the illustrational.
The result is that many designers confuse the functions of image and text, and saturate their images with so many pseudo-poetical associations that the only remaining rôle for the text is as decoration. Furthermore, graphic designers in HOLLAND vainly consider themselves to be artists and as CAULFIELD & TENSING say, ‘when designers make art it’s usually very bad art.’
‘Graphic design as a job is so young and so primitive, but because it’s mirrored in the arts we think we are developed, that we know how to speak, how to make images, that we know how to balance text and images. But there is no grammar, there are no methods. Only a few form principles have been formulated. We are at the basic level of communication. People have tried to fly before they could even walk.’
The other major problem, as they see it, is that designers are working in the main for clients in the cultural sector, clients who in CAULFIELD & TENSING’S opinion have little or nothing to say. ‘All this work on catalogues, that could have been done much more efficiently, could have taken less time, without losing quality. It’s something they choose to do, because they care not to talk about other things – they simply find no messages. There’s a concentration of designers around the subsidised sector that’s really bad because the messages are elsewhere. In the subsidised we all understand each other and we’re all very tolerant so when you make a noise, we believe you’re talking sense. That’s a code. And it’s too easy, because the people you work for, they’re expecting something artistic, they’re into showing off. But that’s usually talking in code. It’s intellectualism. It’s part of a very small subculture. There are a lot of young artists in Amsterdam who make catalogues with young designers. And all this art, it’s about nothing. It’s a waste of time, a waste of ink, a waste of paper. We feel like designing for an audience that needs messages and clearness. We think that’s important.’
These graphic designers pride themselves and congratulate each other on their professional purity, while far below the moral highground one of the largest fields of graphic communication, namely advertising, is left in the hands of marketing cretins.
CAULFIELD & TENSING are concerned that, ‘the power of marketing people is growing. They are analysing the market, but in a feedback way, so they’re always running after the crowd. They do not lead the crowd so it’s a kind of slow motion.’ The advertising executives merely reinforce the ideas of others rather than suggesting new possibilities.
CAULFIELD & TENSING believe, perhaps rather naïvely, that had graphic designers been willing to get their hands dirty for commerce, there would be no room for the crass opportunism that has reached its absolute zenith in the recent BENETTON campaign. Perhaps what Dutch designers fear most about advertising is that it would force them to concentrate on concepts, and they just might not be up to it. Even if they were willing or able to grapple with important messages their attempts would be unsuccessful, because they have never been taught to articulate clearly. Surely there is no point in addressing a rally with a mouth full of plums.
If graphic designers in HOLLAND are going to make work that is more than just a form of masturbation, then what is required, in CAULFIELD & TENSING’S opinion, is a return to basics. So let us begin at the beginning. And just who the hell are CAULFIELD & TENSING anyway?
DINGEMAN KUILMAN and NIELS MEULMAN, the two members of CAULFIELD & TENSING, were, until recently, designers at Studio Anthon Beeke and it is with him that they developed their ideas about design. Both came to graphic design from different fields, DINGEMAN having trained in medicine before studying at the RIETVELD ACEDEMIE in AMSTERDAM, while NIELS gained a certain notoriety as a graffiti activist, going by the name of SHOE. NIELS could have gone the way of other (in)famous spraycan friends by transferring his activities from the street to the gallery, but he never considered graffiti as an artform, rather as a vehicle for spreading messages.
Despite NIELS’s lach of formal graphic design education he was ANTHON’s assistant for three years, a rôle he was ideally suited to because as DINGEMAN explains, ‘ANTHON distrusts the academic designer, he likes the designer who works on intuition – natural talent’
It was during DINGEMAN and NIELS’s tenure at his studio that ANTHON suggested the need to return to basics. For DINGEMAN the idea had appeal in that, ‘it was something new and it gave me a reason to go back to the clichés, the simplicity, the meaning – not to refer to intellectual associations but to things themselves.’ Despite having fled the nest to establish their own studio, they remain close to ANTHON and have become the head evangelists of the back-to-basics roadshow.
The cornerstone of their philosophy is generic design, a term that, at least in their usage of it, was coined by ANTHON’s girlfriend LIDEWIJ EDELKOORT, who works mainly in PARIS, forecasting trends in fashion, textile and car industries. Much like ANTHON’s, her work is based mainly on inuition and keeping her eyes open as she travels the world. DINGEMAN and NIELS compare her with the Oracle of Delphi: ‘there’s nothing scientific about it, there’s a lot of smoke and a lot of enthusiasm. She’s like a Style Messiah.’
‘She mentioned this trend two years ago and in her opinion it’s part of a more general one, in fashion, in furniture design, etc.: back to basics, back to nature, back to the earth, back to simple things.’
Generic design can be simply defined as design that takes its shape from existing forms. It requires a fresh way of looking at things that one can find everywhere, things that are not obviously designed. As DINGEMAN explains: ‘it’s not sophisticated, it’s not technological, it’s not intellectual. It’s basic.’
But isn’t his just a fashionable reaction to the densely layered work of the eighties and as such just the most recent chapter in the story of ever-changing tastes – a fickle fad that may blow over as quickly as it emerged? Aren’t these guys just jumping on the anti-intellectual bandwagon and doing their best to hide their opportunism by intellectualising after the fact? Indeed LIDEWIJ EDELKOORT considers this recent trend to be exactly that, nothing more than a trend.
ANTHON< DINGEMAN and NIELS think, however, that there is an important difference between how this trend has manifested itself in fashion and in graphic design. Where fashion by its very nature is in a constant state of flux, and in time a new and possibly contradictory idea is bound to eclipse the current preoccupation with fundamentals, in graphic design, ‘it has nothing to do with taste, it's just a fact. The grammar of graphic design is so primitive, it's good to accept that we are at the base, so let's be basic first, then we can see what happens. It started as a trend but for us it's a necessity.’
For ANTHON it was the kick he needed to take stock of his oeuvre and re-examine his design principles, principles he had begun to lose sight of. DINGEMAN, who has been rummaging around ANTHON's archive researching a forthcoming book on him, observes that, ‘when you look at his work form the last thirty-five years it always has this element of basicness. It's always rough materials, very direct in its attitude, with an open eye for things that are already there. Simple in it's technique and also with a great love for the orphans of design: pocketbooks, tabloid newspapers, shopping bags etc. – the things that nobody likes.’
Graphic Design as Tautology
DINGEMAN and NIELS recognise few allies in the struggle for a clear and uncluttered visual language and those they do feel as kinship with tend to be veterans like PAUL RAND, SAUL BASS, MILTON GLASER and on home soil DICK BRUNA and GIELIJN ESCHER. BRUNA’s almost banal relationship between text and image is a special source of inspiration, as DINGEMAN explains ‘the thing with BRUNA is that he usually doubles everything, the image is the very precise illustration of the title.’ DINGEMAN feels that this form of visual tautology has a cultural basis: ‘it’s a good experience when you read something and it’s the same as what you see. There’s no doubt anymore. That’s very close to the way people in HOLLAND used to learn to read. They got images with the words under them, and they learned to see the words as an abstraction. Later when they’re adults and they’ve forgotten about all that, they still get a warm feeling when they see it happen again, when doubts and insecurity are excluded.’
ANTHON recently said that he admires BRUNA because he ‘is someone who always tells little children whether the rabbit (one of the most popular characters in his children’s books) is happy or crying’ and that in his opinion ‘adults need to be told exactly the same way what it’s all about.’ Many designers in HOLLAND see this attitude as patronising, that is an insult to the public to lead them by hand. DINGEMAN, however, is adamant and believes that the current phase of graphic design can be compared with the genesis of film. ‘When film started and they took films to small villages, a guy had to stand next to the screen and tell them, ‘Well, here is a man, he’s walking, now he’s opening the door’.’ He had to make the audience trust and understand pictures. And now we trust that we someone stepping out of a car in front of a huge apartment building, and the we see him in his flat, we believe that he walked into the building, took the elevator etc. We trust the makers, we trust that it’s reality. I feel very much that things that are made now in design are not to be trusted, and that’s what people feel.’
But isn’t the danger that theirs is a formula for boring and unoriginal design that people will soon tire, or have in fact already tired of the clichés?
DINGEMAN and NIELS counter that the reason certain representations of ideas have become clichés is because other people have recognised their strength and have found no reason to abandon them. Clichés are a form of shorthand, a kind of code, but one that is recognised by everyone within a given culture. DINGEMAN notes that, ‘when you take a look at language there are values that within a certain group of languages are the same and it’s no use discussing them, for example the way a good metaphor works.’
DINGEMAN and NIELS question the concept of originality, insisting that the basic human concerns: love, death, sex etc. are universal and timeless and that one should not be embarrassed to rely on conventional representations of these issues. DINGEMAN admits that originality for them, ‘goes no further than a personal approach to clichés,’ and NIELS adds that, ‘using a worn cliché in a new context can give rise to unexpected originality.’
For continued reading: Less is more, more or less (2)