Adrian Shaughnessy | Books

Statement and Counter-Statement

Publishers get twitchy at the mention of contemporary graphic design monographs. They say that books devoted to the work of a single designer or studio no longer sell in sufficient quantities to be economically viable. Like triple live albums by dinosaur rock bands, mega selling monographs by Neville Brody or David Carson are a thing of the past. 

It’s not hard to believe that sales of contemporary monographs are not what they once were. Is there a current graphic designer or studio whose work cannot be studied online in its entirety? Who needs a book when everything is available online—and free? And no new project is denied the benefaction of social media exposure. Liked, loathed, or merely “meh’d,” it fizzes through the arterial networks of the internet for our instant admiration or condemnation. 

Statement and Counter-Statement (the title comes from Walter Benjamin) is a new book by Experimental Jetset. It’s just what might be expected from the Dutch graphic design trio. For a start, none of their printed design work is presented in its completed form. Instead we are given fragments of work – cropped, chopped, folded, creased, and mashed-up in a way that only Dutch designers seem to do. If you want to make a forensic study of EJ’s design work, you need to look elsewhere. 

This search, however, will only be partially met by the group’s website, which they describe as an “online diary and archive”, and not a portfolio site. In fact, it’s a simmering stew of reflections, justifications, history lessons, anecdotes, and opinions. And it will come as no surprise to their many admirers that their book offers a similar conceptual mix. The fragmentary images are echoed in an alphabetically arranged text section called An Index of Fragments – over a hundred pages of words sieved from the group’s many interviews, lectures and correspondences over the past decade or so. 

Essays from Linda van Deursen, Mark Owens, and Ian Svenonius further boost the textual content of the book. These authors make no attempt to explain or eulogise EJ. Rather, they offer a parallel commentary that echoes the group’s interests in modernsim, pop music and the manipulative force of language. Linda van Deursen offers meditations on three modernist photographs. Van Deursen is a sort of patron saint of this book. She is one of a handful of individuals, along with Stanley Kubrick, Guy Debord, Regis Debray, and Wim Crouwell, to receive a separate entry in the Index of Fragment section. She is the group’s former teacher, and is described as their “favourite designer.”

Ian Svenonius offers a Burroughsian riff on the indoctrinating power of “letters and type.” He writes: “… each and every word – even the most innocuous one—is complicit in guiding humanity to mimic and perpetuate the typically barbaric acts outlined in whatever texts.” But it is the affectionate and elegant tribute to famous trios in rock music by Mark Owens that comes closest to offering a critical view of Experimental Jetset, but without ever actually mentioning them. Is this intentional? Perhaps. Yet repeatedly he writes about his chosen bands in language that could be applied directly to EJ. 
Discussing Young Marble Giants, Owens writes that their songs “had all the hallmarks of post-punk—spare, alienated, tech-savvy—but writ small, trading volume and bombast for quiet and interiority …” Intentional or not, it’s hard to find a better description than this of Experimental Jetset and their work.

To find the designers’ own words we have to turn to the Index of Fragments. Here we are served a high protein banquet of firmly held, often contrarian views about such diverse subjects as the design world, design critics, modern architecture, Marxism, LSD, Saul LeWitt, The Jam, and the role of materiality in their practice. With the same seriousness that they reference Herbert Marcuse’s The Aesthetic Dimension, they list the music they like: "Odyssey and Oracle" by the Zombies; "Friends" by the Beach Boys; "Psychedelic Jungle" by The Cramps; and "Forever Changes" by Love. 

Though undoubtedly engaging and insightful, the selection of fragments would have benefited from some robust editing. There is too much repetition and too often the message is drowned out by the sound of axes being ground. If you want to incur their wrath, tell them you think Dutch designers have it easy because of the Netherlands' generous system of cultural grants and subsidies. And it has to be said that their unwavering use of the plural pronoun stretches belief on occasions (“we do believe that modernism and psychedelic rock are two sides of the same coin”). No internal disagreement is ever alluded to. Do all three of them really think the same on every topic? 

But they are never bitter, even when they confess to making no money and being over worked, and they are always sufficiently self-critical and self-aware to put their sincerity beyond doubt. They are principled without being sanctimonious, often dryly witty, and possess enough historical knowledge of various avant-garde artistic and political movements, and of the contemporary scene, to be able to comment with authority and clarity on design’s place (and in turn, their own place) in the world. 

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Comments [1]

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Taposy Rabeya

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