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An Interview with Niessen & De Vries

Niessen & de Vries are an iconic duo of the Dutch Design world, composed of Richard Niessen and Esther de Vries. Whilst their styles are quite different, they share many design values and a love of conceptual work. The pair have produced some really exemplary work in recent times, Richard’s exhibition for Une Saison Graphique at La Havre was an intriguing architectural myriad of posters and poles which create a city like structure. Esther creates stunning conceptual editorial projects for the likes of Auke de Vries, an artist for whom she created a book about nests which can be transformed into a nest itself.

Niessen & de Vries Website
Esther’s Website
Richard’s Website

What words would you use to describe the Niessen & de Vries style?

Richard: Well first Esther and I tried to be a real studio for a while, for one year now we work together and we do some projects together, but really we have two studios, Esther works mainly on books, both our styles are different. Last year we had an exhibition in Istanbul with both our work and I tried to figure out what we have in common and I think what overlaps is maybe a sort of layeredness, trying not to come up with one simple answer to a clients question, but to trying to make the answer layered and ambiguous. My work is more systematic and graphical, I always work with building bricks and try to build something out of that. I think Esther works more on translation – translating the work of artists into actual the actual object of a book. We are both interested in the way that the graphical outcome is autonomous in a way.

What are you working on at the moment?

Richard: At the moment we are working together on an issue of a publication series called 1 to 1 to 1. We’ve make 6 issues up until now, it’s something that we initiated ourselves. Each time that we do a interview with an artist or a designer we try make a sort of printed documentary out of that. In most magazines you have text and you have some images of someone’s work, what we tried to do is to incorporate them, to make it into one new thing as it were. We always try to combine the text and the images into one world, while you read you also see it, and the way it’s designed is very much based on the work itself. So you are actually reading and looking through a portrait of that person. And we do this together with the printer, who prints it for free for us. And that’s why it’s called 1 to 1 to 1, because the first 1 is us, the second 1 is the artist or the designer, and third 1 is the printer. Instead of a client-designer situation the three of us are working together on one project. With each issue we also keep the sketch book because the process is quite interesting, its really a search for the right form.

All printwork is printed in full colour and all the images are like the real world so you don’t realise that you are looking at something that is only referring to something. I think what we try to do is to find a way to let people realise that they are actually looking at a reproduction of something. You can compare it to poetry which is not normal language it’s maybe more difficult language, and sometimes you really wonder what is written here, and you have to read it again. Suddenly you notice the rhythm, or a certain metaphor or an image, and it finds a way into your head never to be forgotten. It’s another kind of information, another layer that you can add to the printwork.

1 to 1 to 1 Niessen & de Vries Dutch Design

Can you tell me about some of your favourite Niessen & de Vries projects?

Richard: I think the exhibition of my work this spring was really nice. (Une Saison Graphique) I was thinking of making a compendium, it’s a sort of collection of things. For instance you have a game compendium and a lot of my posters are like game boards, and the exhibition is a collection. From the very beginning I was looking for way to create a world out of the posters and it was just a way to connect them. I was very dissatisfied with the fact that the posters were always flat and in one dimension so I made a lot of sketches, at first it was more of an ordinary exhibition. An intern made an installation and I became really angry and I put all the poles through the posters. Because I wanted to make one thing out of it. It was a challenge, also technically. We calculated that if you have 3 poles and they are connected then it would be strong enough. We cut the holes in the posters by laser cutting, they all have different angles, so there was only one way to build it.

Une Saison Graphique Niessen & de Vries Dutch Design

Invitation to the exhibition Niessen & de Vries Dutch Design

What sources inspire all the motifs that we often see in Niessen & de Vries projects?

Richard: When we go to museums we both like ethnic museums, places where you have more folk art, for instance illuminated manuscripts from the middle ages, or decorated objects, the applied arts in a way. I really like the fact that people always have the urge to decorate everything. I think I noticed when I started out that it’s a way to make printed work more precious, and people like to keep the more precious print work. So when we make an invitation or a book I like the idea that people treasure it and that they can find something new in it when they look at it, instead of one clear idea, or format of a book that you already know. I like the idea that you really have to find your way through it, and in this way you have a connection with the object. When information isn’t structured in a way that you expect it to be structured then you don’t realise anymore that you are reading. You’re not aware of what you are doing. That’s what we’re trying to do with the to 1 to 1 series.

I’ve seen your work at many French design events recently, what attracts you to France? Or is rather that France is attracted to Niessen & de Vries ?

Richard: It’s actually more the other way round! Last year I went to Une Saison Graphique to meet to organisers and I was very enthusiastic about the energy in France right now. I think compared to 10 years ago, I don’t know, somethings happened! We we’re on a tour of the city and I was talking to some French colleagues, and what I like about it right now is a sort of energy, there are still some commissioners that are giving assignments to graphic designers who can do outstanding things, maybe in Germany it’s the same thing. There is still a big poster culture and I think french design is more based on the image or typographical image, and I think Dutch design, right now, is more based on typography. I like to use fantasy and translation to communicate in a visual way, and I think that you see that more there than over here. Plus there are a lot of events organised which is nice, and there’s a good atmosphere which is really nice. What really stuck me was the enthusiasm of the people in La Havre, how they organised this event, there’s a lot of energy there. I think maybe in the Netherlands we are so convinced that we are the best designers in the world that maybe we are all spoiled a bit!

Are you a fan of grids here at Niessen & de Vries ?

Richard: I am but Esther is not.

Esther: Esther: oh no!

Richard: It’s difficult for me to work without it, because I don’t trust my own handwriting. There’s always a system behind the design, I can’t just produce something random just like that, it’s always like a building actually. I think I can let go of the grid a little bit more than a few years a go, but it’s still difficult! Esther doesn’t think that systematically, so she doesn’t like them. I think that she always feels limited to grids. I always find them very useful, for me this limitation is necessary. Esther can place all the images without any grid and it works out well. For me, I could never do that. I would not feel sure about it. I also like the idea that there is no grid at all. When you’re not working on the computer, when you make an installation like a showcase in a museum, you would always move it around until it looks good. So why would you do it all on a grid on a computer? It takes the energy away.

The book Toeval Niessen & de Vries Dutch Design

Are commercial projects too restrictive for Niessen & de Vries?

Richard: Yeah, the problem with commercial assignments is that there is always an idea about what to do. So that makes it difficult to work in the way that we work, because the outcome is never clear, with our projects the entrance to the book cold be on the back, with commercial projects, they don’t believe in that! It’s difficult to convince them, at the moment we are working for a museum and they have very defined ideas on how people read! I think, we’ll we’ve been working for almost 20 years in this business! We do things more on intuition, we don’t always know about the outcome, maybe the poster won’t work well on the street, maybe it will work reeeeally well! We don’t know. They want to be in between, and they want to know everything for sure. You get things which are too much of a compromise. It’s hard to deal with that. With really commercial clients, there’s also an ethical thing, like if I had to do a commercial for a car or something, I don’t know, it’s hard to talk about something that you are not really interested in. Once we were asked to a cigarette assignment, you have to convince other people to buy these cigarettes or this car or whatever, for me that doesn’t work. Haha! It’s hard, maybe when you really believe in a product you can use your voice, but most things are not really necessary or not that interesting.

In what way are Niessen & de Vries projects tied to the Dutch design scene?

Richard: I think maybe the systematic approach, concept based. The concept is worked out to every detail, I think that’s something that maybe a French designer wouldn’t do immediately. When I look at French work, when they do books, the cover is beautiful and maybe the title is beautiful, but maybe the rest is really boring. It stops somewhere then it becomes sort of normal. Maybe that is also changing. Maybe that’s Dutch design, I don’t know! Maybe clarity too.

Esther: A courage.

What advice would you give to young graphic designers?

Esther: Make use of the fact that you have just begun. You can ask printers a lot of things, also other graphic designers. Ask a lot of things! Connect with other people that do other things than graphic design that are your age. Because they are the future commissioners.

Richard: We had to do that haha. Leave your computer every now and then!

Esther: Go out and see what other people are doing.

Richard: And try to connect with that also in your own work.

Esther: You can also make a contribution to what other people are doing. There are people who want to do something for society, or whatever, and you can help them.

Selfie Niessen & de Vries Dutch Design

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