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.theatercompagnie.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.
17 thoughts on “Intervista: Experimental Jetset”
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!
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.
Great interview, please keep ’em coming!
nice interview 🙂
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.
Take it easy man. It’s no that serious. No reason to insult people.
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.theatercompagnie.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!
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.paramdeepbahia.co.uk/experimental_jetset.html
An inspirational resource focused on graphic design, typography, grid systems, minimalism and modernism.
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