Intervista: Experimental Jetset


Exper­i­men­tal Jet­set is an Ams­ter­dam graphic design unit founded in 1997 by Marieke Stolk, Erwin Brinkers and Danny van den Dun­gen. Focus­ing on printed mat­ter and instal­la­tion work and inspired by mod­ernism and rock cul­ture, Exper­i­men­tal Jet­set has done work for clients such as the Ams­ter­dam Stedelijk Museum (SMCS), Pur­ple Insti­tute, Cen­tre Pom­pi­dou, Colette, Dutch Post Group (TPG), Réu­nion des Musées Nationaux (RMN), Le Cent Qua­tre (104), De The­ater­com­pag­nie and t-shirt label 2K/Gingham. Since being formed, Exper­i­men­tal Jet­set has emerged as one of the most respected stu­dios in Europe.

How long have you been design­ing?
Marieke and Danny grad­u­ated in 1997; Erwin, who was year below them, grad­u­ated in 1998. But all three of us have been design­ing even before we went to art school: small fanzines, mini-comics, hand-drawn t-shirts, stuff like that.

Who or what turned you on to graphic design?
Def­i­nitely punk. Although we were too young to par­tic­i­pate actively in the orig­i­nal punk explo­sion (we were pre­teens in 1977), we still feel it has had a very big impact on our lives. As teenagers, in the mid-eighties, we were com­pletely absorbed by all kinds of post-punk move­ments: psy­chobilly, garage punk, new wave, two tone, Amer­i­can hard­core. What intrigued us was not only the music, but also the graphic man­i­fes­ta­tions of it: record sleeves, badges, patches, t-shirts, fly­ers, posters, mag­a­zines, band logos, mix tapes. We are absolutely sure that it were things such as these that stim­u­lated our inter­est in graphic design.

Who or what are your influ­ences?
Right now, we would say, mod­ernism and rock culture.

These are seem­ingly com­plete oppo­sites of each other, but the more we think about it, the more we real­ize they are quite sim­i­lar. Both rock and mod­ernism sur­faced around the same time: blues music started in the sec­ond half of the 19th cen­tury in the US, while the first mod­ernist move­ments (impres­sion­ism, art nou­veau) began around that same time in Europe. Both rock cul­ture and mod­ernism refer to ‘prim­i­tive’ roots (African beats in rock music, African influ­ences in Cubism), but they are both equally inspired by futur­ist visions (Ike Turner’s ‘Rocket 88′ is widely acknowl­edged as the first rock and roll song, while one of the ear­li­est white rock and roll bands was Bill Haley and His Comets; just two exam­ples to show the influ­ence of tech­nol­ogy and sci­ence fic­tion on rock and roll). Both mod­ernism and rock cul­ture have this hid­den theme of class strug­gle: the unre­solved ten­sion between bour­geoisie and pro­le­tariat. In mod­ernism, this theme entered through Marx­ism, while in rock cul­ture, this theme has its roots in slave music. But most impor­tant of all, both mod­ernism and rock inves­ti­gate the var­i­ous ways in which the indi­vid­ual can deal with moder­nity: praise it, embrace it, accept it, manip­u­late it or resist it. Some­times they over­lap (Pop Art), some­times they clash (Adorno’s attacks on pop­u­lar music). But all in all, we think mod­ernism and rock cul­ture are like twins, sep­a­rated at birth. Rock and roll is Amer­i­can modernism.

What is your favorite type­face?
Some peo­ple might expect us to answer ‘Hel­vetica’ here, because this is a type­face we use often (but cer­tainly not always). But we can’t hon­estly say that Hel­vetica is our favorite type­face, in the same way that we can’t really say that Dutch is our favorite lan­guage. Sure, Dutch is the lan­guage we use most com­monly, and feels most nat­ural to us. It is a lan­guage we feel emo­tion­ally attached to, and a lan­guage we are will­ing to defend. We not only speak Dutch, but also think it, and dream it. But that doesn’t mean that we nec­es­sar­ily think that Dutch is the most beau­ti­ful lan­guage. For exam­ple, we love Ital­ian, because the words sound as if they are spit out, with great pre­ci­sion. Esperanto is a inter­est­ing lan­guage, because it is com­pletely arti­fi­cial as well as trag­i­cally beau­ti­ful. Eng­lish is a great lan­guage, because it is so com­pact; the way adjec­tives can be used in Eng­lish is almost magic. We adore the way Brazil­ians speak Por­tuguese; lis­ten­ing to Trop­i­calia songs, it’s hard not to fall in love with that lan­guage. So, in a way, all these lan­guages can be con­sid­ered as more beau­ti­ful than Dutch. But still, if we go to the bak­ery to buy a bread, we use Dutch. To order a bread in Esperanto would be non­sense. The way we use Hel­vetica can be com­pared to that. We use Hel­vetica not because it is our favorite type­face, but because we feel it is our mother tongue. It is our nat­ural tone of voice, the type­face most close to us. If nec­es­sary, we use dif­fer­ent type­faces, in the same way that we some­times speak dif­fer­ent lan­guages (for exam­ple in this inter­view, done in Eng­lish). But when it comes down to it, we speak Helvetica.


What is your favorite color palette to work with?
The color most dom­i­nant in our work is white. Or bet­ter said, the color most dom­i­nant in our work is the color of the paper. In most of our designs, we try to show the paper; this is really impor­tant to us. By show­ing the paper, we hope to give the viewer/reader a bet­ter under­stand­ing of the con­struc­tion of graphic design. We try to design in such a way that the result is clearly rec­og­niz­able as ‘just’ a piece of printed paper. We try not to catch the viewer/reader in some kind of illu­sion, or float­ing image; we want our work to be totally hon­est about its own mate­ri­al­ity. It is a printed piece of paper, not an imma­te­r­ial image.

Can you explain your cre­ative process from brief to com­ple­tion?
A lot of think­ing, a lot of read­ing, a lot of talk­ing, a lot of sketch­ing. It’s just work­ing very hard. We can’t describe it any other way.

Do you use a grid sys­tem when design­ing and how do you feel about them?
We use grids in our work, but we think we use them in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent way than, for exam­ple, Swiss late-modernist design­ers such as Josef Muller-Brockmann. Although we really admire grid-driven work, we wouldn’t dare to call our­selves proper gridniks.

In the sec­ond issue of French mag­a­zine ‘Ink’ (pub­lished by Super­script) we answered a long inter­view, solely about grids; so peo­ple inter­ested in our detailed views about the grid should try to get a hold on that par­tic­u­lar issue of ‘Ink’.
In that inter­view, we took a poster we designed (below) in 2003 as an exam­ple. It was a poster we designed as a con­tri­bu­tion to ‘Pub­lic Address Sys­tem’, a group exhi­bi­tion that took place in the begin­ning of 2004 in London.


In short, the given theme of the exhi­bi­tion was ‘speech’, or ‘spo­ken word’. We decided to make a poster show­ing a text by the writer Ste­fan The­mer­son: “My lord arch­bishop; your excel­len­cies, your graces; my lords, ladies and gen­tle­men, men and women, chil­dren; embryos, if any; sper­ma­to­zoa reclin­ing at the edge of your chairs; all liv­ing cells; bac­te­ria; viruses; mol­e­cules of air, and dust, and water… I feel much hon­oured in being asked to address you all, and to recite poetry — but I have no poetry to recite.” (What we liked about this text is that it is like one big intro­duc­tion, an intro­duc­tion that could be seen as the open­ing words of every speech in the exhi­bi­tion). As you notice, Themerson’s text is quite hier­ar­chi­cal: it goes from large (‘arch­bishop’) to small (‘mol­e­cules’). So in our poster, we wanted to make this hier­ar­chy clear, by putting all the words in the form of a list. In the mid­dle of the paper, we put the list of nouns, from ‘arch­bishop’ to ‘mol­e­cules’. On the left, we put all the adjec­tives and prepo­si­tions (‘my’, ‘liv­ing’, etc.), and on the right, we put the con­junc­tions, adverbs, verbs etc. The actual grid that exists in the poster is com­pletely depen­dent on the length of the words. The longest noun is ‘sper­me­to­zoa’, so this word deter­mines the width of the mid­dle col­umn. The longest adjec­tive is ‘all liv­ing’, so this word deter­mines the width of the first col­umn. And the longest word on the right col­umn is ‘reclin­ing’, so that deter­mines the width of the third col­umn. So what you have here is a com­pletely irreg­u­lar grid, each col­umn in a dif­fer­ent width. The first col­umn is nar­row, the sec­ond col­umn is wide, and the third col­umn is nar­row, but not as nar­row as the first col­umn. The lead­ing (the space between the lines) is deter­mined by the sim­ple rule that the descen­ders shouldn’t touch the ascen­ders. In the poster, this basi­cally means that the word ‘graces’ shouldn’t touch the word ‘lords’. So all the lead­ing in the poster is fully depen­dent on the rela­tion­ship between those two words: ‘graces’ and ‘lords’.

So how we see it, here the grid is com­pletely gen­er­ated by the poem. If the writer would have writ­ten ‘sperm’ instead of ‘sper­ma­to­zoa’, the whole grid would be dif­fer­ent, and the whole poster would have looked com­pletely dif­fer­ent as well. The most impor­tant for­mal deci­sion was the choice of the poem. Any other poem would have resulted in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent poster.

So that is, in short, the role that grids play in our work. Every sit­u­a­tion results in its own grid. And those grids are often irreg­u­lar, gen­er­ated by lan­guage. Def­i­nitely not the way proper grid­niks would do it.

Who do you feel is cur­rently doing inno­v­a­tive work?
’Inno­v­a­tive’ is a bit of a tainted word, we think. Right now, so many design insti­tutes are try­ing to sell graphic design to the busi­ness world by using words such as ‘inno­va­tion’. So for now, we’d rather not use that word; we rather talk about work that is inter­est­ing, work that has a cer­tain aesthetical/conceptual integrity.

Hav­ing said that, we are actu­ally very opti­mistic about the state of graphic design. It seems that there are really excit­ing things hap­pen­ing. When we look at the stu­dents that have grad­u­ated from the Rietveld Acad­emy the last cou­ple of years, or the stuff that is being shown on web­sites such as ManyStuff, VVork and FFF­Found, we get the feel­ing that there is some­thing quite inter­est­ing going on. It’s almost a punk/DIY explo­sion of graphic design: bold geo­met­ric forms, bright col­ors, large sheets of printed paper, exper­i­ments in fold­ing. Peo­ple proudly dis­play­ing posters that they made, by sim­ply hold­ing them in the air. Work that is unapolo­get­i­cally graphic. When we were stu­dents, in the early 90s, graphic design was in a very dif­fer­ent state. There was a cold­ness in the air, a cer­tain dark­ness. Amer­i­can crit­ics were preach­ing the end of print, the death of mod­ernism, stuff like that. You felt almost ashamed to be a graphic designer. It was such a sti­fling, reac­tionary period. Now, after ten years, we have the feel­ing that the frost is out of the air, and the sun has finally bro­ken through. When we look at all these young stu­dents, shap­ing their imme­di­ate envi­ron­ment in such a con­crete, direct way, we feel really happy.

All those sites show­ing pic­tures of peo­ple car­ry­ing their own posters, it really moves us. It’s such a proud, phys­i­cal ges­ture: hold­ing an object in front of you, high in the air. The hands (that are hold­ing the posters) are vis­i­ble, which is sig­nif­i­cant: when you look at the ety­mol­ogy of the word ‘man­i­festo’, you see that it is related to the Latin ‘manus’, mean­ing ‘hand’. These peo­ple, show­ing their hands, show­ing their posters… they are actu­ally show­ing their man­i­festos. It’s a very pow­er­ful act.

We notice that some crit­ics dis­miss this new gen­er­a­tion of stu­dents as ‘non-critical’, or ‘post-critical’, but we absolutely dis­agree with that. We think that the beauty of these posters con­tains more crit­i­cal poten­tial than ten years worth of post-modern design crit­i­cism. As we see it, only beauty (by which we mean the aesthetical/conceptual integrity of the designed object) can make us look at the world in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent way. And that poten­tial, to make us look at the world in a dif­fer­ent way, is the most crit­i­cal force there is.


What are you work­ing on now?
We are work­ing on the graphic iden­tity and sign sys­tem for 104 (Le Cent Qua­tre), a French cul­tural insti­tute that will open its doors later this year. It’s an assign­ment that is eat­ing us alive; it’s huge, very com­pli­cated and very bureau­cratic. It’s com­pli­cated, because we are expected to design a graphic lan­guage that other design­ers will use. Usu­ally, in pre­vi­ous projects, we design every­thing our­selves, from the small­est flyer to the biggest poster. In the case of 104, this is more com­plex. More par­ties are involved. This is appar­ently very much a French thing. So how it works, is that we are devel­op­ing the under­ly­ing graphic lan­guage for 104 (Le Cent Qua­tre), and that other design­ers will then use that lan­guage. It’s a slightly awk­ward sit­u­a­tion. It’s a bureau­cratic project, because 104 is also very much a ‘pres­tige’ project for the city coun­cil of Paris. So every­thing has to be approved not only by the direc­tors of 104, but also by the coun­cil, some­times even by the mayor him­self. This makes it a very slow process. But we basi­cally reached the point of no return, and the peo­ple con­nected to 104 are very friendly, so we decided to keep on keep­ing on, and roll with the punches. Most impor­tantly, it is an extremely inter­est­ing project; it’s excit­ing to be involved.

For those who are inter­ested in this project: more infor­ma­tion (in Eng­lish) on 104 can be found on the MySpace page. On that page, you can also find a link to the first ver­sion of the graphic man­ual (just a rough draft; it still con­tains mistakes).

Shown below is a scale model that we made as part of the sketches for the sign system:


In the mean­time, we’re also work­ing on some other, smaller projects. We’re still design­ing posters and brochures for De The­ater­com­pag­nie, an Ams­ter­dam the­atre col­lec­tive (see www​.the​ater​com​pag​nie​.nl). There are some things we are work­ing on for Amer­i­can artist Vanessa Beecroft. We will be work­ing on some new projects for direc­tor Gary Hus­twit really soon. Things like that.

What is your favorite color?
We like the com­bi­na­tion of blue, white and red as used in the film titles in the movies of Jean-Luc Godard, the black and white in the work of Brid­get Riley, the rain­bow of col­ors in Ellsworth Kelly’s paint­ing ‘Blue, Green, Yel­low, Orange, Red’, and the yellow/pink in Jamie Reid’s record sleeve for ‘Nev­er­mind the Bol­locks’. We also like the con­cept of ‘exclu­sive’ col­ors, such as Yves Klein’s ‘Inter­na­tional Blue’ and Bill Drummond’s ‘Inter­na­tional Grey’.

What is your favorite album?
An album we are lis­ten­ing to almost con­tin­u­ously is ‘Odyssey and Ora­cle’ by The Zom­bies. It’s such a good album. The songs are so sweet, it’s like pure honey. On top of that there are the lyrics, that give those songs a really sur­real after­taste. It’s pop per­fec­tion. Another album that we play con­stantly is ‘For­ever Changes’ by Love. The music itself is beau­ti­ful: folk pop, with a hint of mari­achi. But under­neath that sur­face there is some­thing quite dis­turb­ing going on. When you really lis­ten, you can hear it’s an almost apoc­a­lyp­tic album, antic­i­pat­ing the down­fall of flower power: Cal­i­for­nia in the late 60s, bad trips, Charles Man­son, Alta­mont. It’s a mas­ter­piece that is both sweet and sin­is­ter. ‘Friends’ by The Beach Boys is another album we’re play­ing non-stop in the stu­dio. It’s an odd choice; when it comes to The Beach Boys, we guess most peo­ple would pre­fer ‘Pet Sounds’. But although we imme­di­ately admit that ‘Pet Sounds’ is one of the great­est albums of all time, we secretly pre­fer ‘Friends’. Sure, ‘Friends’ is less rich, less sig­nif­i­cant, but those are exactly the rea­sons why we play it more often. It is looser, more relaxed, more non­cha­lant than ‘Pet Sounds’. It doesn’t carry the same load, which makes it a lighter, less con­trived lis­ten. Another per­sonal favorite is ‘Psy­che­delic Jun­gle’ by The Cramps. It’s a very atyp­i­cal album for The Cramps: it’s slower, more laid-back than most of their other work. We some­times feel it’s the most under­rated album among the early records by The Cramps, which is unfor­tu­nate, because it is such a good selec­tion of songs. From ‘Green Fuzz’ to ‘Green Door’, it’s a really con­sis­tent work, almost a con­cept album, as each song deals with the ten­sion between moder­nity and prim­i­tive urges. It’s with­out doubt one of our favorite albums, by one of our favorite bands.

What is your favorite movie?
Right now, we would say ‘Blow-Up’ by Michelan­gelo Anto­nioni. It’s such an incred­i­ble piece of work. It deals with issues very rel­e­vant to graphic design: the way every­thing is depen­dent on con­text, on inter­pre­ta­tion. A bro­ken gui­tar, very rel­e­vant to the crowd in a rock club, becomes a use­less object in the street. A pro­peller, once a piece of func­tional tech­nol­ogy, becomes a piece of art in an antique store. Abstract images (the mod­ern paint­ing that the neigh­bor is work­ing on, the blown-up pho­to­graph that becomes the main theme of the movie, etc.) are con­stantly being inter­preted in dif­fer­ent ways. It’s a movie that works on many levels.

It’s also a movie that inspired us in a very direct way. A while ago, we did a photo shoot in our stu­dio, fea­tur­ing Dutch design leg­end Wim Crouwel. The goal was to cre­ate a pho­to­graph that we could use for the invi­ta­tion and cat­a­logue for an exhi­bi­tion on Wim Crouwel, an exhi­bi­tion that took place in Galerie Anatome, Paris. For that photo shoot, we cre­ated a typo­graphic set­ting, based on a clas­sic cal­en­dar designed by Wim Crouwel. In that set­ting, we pho­tographed Wim Crouwel. We have to admit that the idea of doing a photo shoot was partly inspired by ‘Blow-Up’. Shown below are three images: on the left, a still from ‘Blow-Up’. In the mid­dle, a quick snap­shot show­ing the typo­graphic set­ting in our own stu­dio. On the right, the result­ing pho­to­graph (taken by Johannes Schwartz).


Most impor­tantly, ‘Blow-Up’ is a movie that offers a thor­oughly mod­ernist view on Lon­don in the swing­ing six­ties. Added to all that, it has a sound­track fea­tur­ing Her­bie Han­cock, The Lovin’ Spoon­ful, The Yard­birds. In other words, what’s not to like?

Inter­vista is a series of inter­views con­ducted for AisleOne with some of todays top tal­ents in graphic design.


11 Comments on "Intervista: Experimental Jetset"

  • johno says

    Bril­liant inter­view with a very tal­ented bunch of peo­ple. Breath­ing life back into the Swiss. Would love to see them do some work with Hel­mut Schmid!

  • Antonio says

    John, this is def­i­nitely an excel­lent inter­view. Very insight­ful. I love the part about how the grid in one of their designs was dic­tated by the actu­ally content.

  • Renato says

    Great inter­view, please keep ‘em coming!

  • nice inter­view :)

  • Remush says

    Quot­ing “Esperanto is a inter­est­ing lan­guage, because it is com­pletely arti­fi­cial as well as trag­i­cally beau­ti­ful. “
    Esperanto is not “com­pletely” arti­fi­cial. It is quite dif­fi­cult indeed to find a fea­ture of Esperanto that does not exist in sev­eral other lan­guages, includ­ing ori­en­tal ones.
    I do not under­stand the oxy­moron “trag­i­cally beau­ti­ful” when applied to Esperanto.
    The pur­pose of Esperanto is not so much order­ing a bread in your local bak­ery, but to be under­stood when you address a group of for­eign­ers com­ing from dif­fer­ent coun­tries. The tragedy is that most peo­ple pre­fer to learn the cur­rent dom­i­nant lan­guage just enough to make a fool of them­selves in such a situation.

  • Antonio says

    Take it easy man. It’s no that seri­ous. No rea­son to insult people.

  • Experimental Jetset says

    Remush, when we say that Esperanto is arti­fi­cial, we aren’t talk­ing about the vocab­u­lary (obvi­ously, all the words in Esperanto come from exist­ing lan­guages, that’s the whole con­cept behind Esperanto), but about the way the lan­guage is put together: it is con­structed, built by humans, rather than that it evolved organ­i­cally. In fact, Wikipedia calls it a ‘con­structed lan­guage’. Con­structed equals artificial.

    “Trag­i­cally beau­ti­ful” is not an oxy­moron. Esperanto’s never-fulfilled utopian dimen­sion is both beau­ti­ful and tragic. We really see a poetic qual­ity in that, too bad if you can’t see that.

    When you say that the pur­pose of Esperanto is not to order a bread in your local bak­ery, you are say­ing EXACTLY what we said in the inter­view. So we don’t see your point.

    Any­way. The whole point of that para­graph is this: we can think of many lan­guages that we find more inter­est­ing than Dutch (Esperanto, Eng­lish, etc.), but in the end, Dutch is the lan­guage most close to us. In the same way, we use Helvetica.

    So we used Esperanto just as an exam­ple. To call the lan­guage ‘arti­fi­cial’ and ‘trag­i­cally beau­ti­ful’ is for us the short­est way to explain what we find inter­est­ing about it. It was not dis­re­spect­ing Esperanto; we were in fact prais­ing it.

  • Just a quick update to the inter­view.
    First of all, since the inter­view took place, we stopped work­ing for De The­ater­com­pag­nie, so the web­site we men­tion in the inter­view (www​.the​ater​com​pag​nie​.nl) doesn’t con­tain any work from us any­more.
    Sec­ondly, the final ver­sion of the graphic man­ual of 104 (that we also men­tion in the inter­view) can be seen here:

    We’re just try­ing to keep the inter­view up-to-date!
    Best, EJ.

  • Antonio says

    Thanks guys!

  • Inspi­ra­tional views from the jet­set. I have recently pressed their talk at d&ad onto a 2 x 12″ vinyl. Check it out: http://​www​.paramdeep​bahia​.co​.uk/​e​x​p​e​r​i​m​e​n​t​a​l​_​j​e​t​s​e​t​.​h​tml

  • An inspi­ra­tional resource focused on graphic design, typog­ra­phy, grid sys­tems, min­i­mal­ism and modernism.