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The joys of being an Amateur (even after 10 years)

To celebrate their 10th birthday, Typotheque commissioned four renowned Dutch graphic designers to design T-Shirts that they would want to wear themselves. We catch up with founder Peter Bilak who reflects about the practice, the benefits of making mistakes and why young designers should do what they believe in.

By Jeanne Tan / 08-10-2009

Graphic design studio and type foundry Typotheque (Peter and Johanna Bilak) decided against the idea of a pat-on-the-back book or retrospective exhibition to mark the ten year anniversary of their design practice.

Instead, they commissioned four successful Dutch graphic designers to design T-Shirts for the occasion. Their brief was clear: design something you would wear yourself. These particular designers - Irma Boom, Max Kisman, Karel Martens and Catherine Zask - have not only had exceptionally long and successful careers, but more importantly, they still produce the work themselves, a principal which strongly governs the work of Typotheque.

The result is four limited edition T-Shirts which are available for sale from the website. Catherine Zask used Indian ink with rough gestural brushstrokes to spell the name T Y P O T H E Q U E. The simplicity and brutal power of black and white makes this type composition an intriguing and powerful image. Irma Boom used the recurring theme of her work and created a ‘colour bar code’, of her favourite colours. Karel Martens revisited his Mecanoo games on the t-shirt spelling T 10 made from a single Mecanoo part. Max Kisman used his signature style to reduce complex symbols to its most minimal form, spelling the number 10 as a result. caught up with Peter Bilak to talk about the last ten years of Typotheque.

A very big happy 10th Birthday! How does it feel to be running a design studio for ten years?
Thanks. I am pleased to say that it feels pretty much the same as the first years. Because our projects are very diverse, varying from books, typefaces, exhibitions to dance performances, we still keep the same excitement with every new project. After the first couple of years when the studio situation stabilises designers start facing a new challenge: The usual scenario is to grow, and the founders become gradually studio managers. We decided deliberately to keep it very small, and to continue doing what we enjoy most - the actual design work. So we create all the work in house, with little outsourcing, no employees and no interns.

So what do you feel has changed in graphic design/typography for the better and worse over the last ten years?
Graphic design reacts to everything that happens around, so it is sensitive to economic changes and is different from place to place because of the social / political situation. So we can't simply answer the general question. In our own practice, the change was that we stopped doing web design almost completely, which at the beginning was most of our income. Web design changed to database driven systems, where design is developed separately from the content. The charm of content / form integration disappeared and we lost interest in making empty web templates. We work more with printed matter now, and spent a lot more time developing our typefaces too.

When you set up Typotheque, what did you hope to achieve with your work?
We only hoped to create a structure that allows us to work on all projects that we find interesting. To the general public Typotheque is mostly visible as type foundry - creating and marketing our typefaces. It is a general trend to become very specialised, reaching for niche
markets. Since our student times, we always work with various disciplines, and had a hard time describing the work in two words. On our business cards, we simply put our names, not the medium in which we work. We wanted to set up a studio that is as flexible as our projects are, so we can work on a typeface at the same time as we propose concepts of modern ballet performances or write essays.

Highlights over the last ten years?
It is usually the latest project that we find most exciting. As soon as the project is completed, we lose interest in it. This way, we use our fonts before they are finished, but rarely after completion. We don't look backward much, but projects which are most visible and we are confronted with them almost daily are the postage stamps projects for both the Netherlands and Slovakia. Physically, it is one of the smallest pieces of design we made, but they are printed in editions of hundreds of millions, and it's nice to see them continue doing their little job.

Where/what do you think the future of graphic design/typography will be?
We don't know. People are fascinated with future forecasting, and forget that whatever they do right now creates their future. In this way, we are not much interested in future telling, but focus all our attention on the current project. That's the only way to have some influence on the future to come.

Anything you would do differently now given hindsight?
There are plenty of mistakes, errors, missteps that we have made. But all of them were very important to us, and allowed us to learn new things. We don't think you can create anything new without making errors. Once you stop making errors, you became a professional whose results are stable but rarely surprising. We prefer remaining the amateurs.

Where do you see Typotheque in another ten years?
We don't know. We don't even know if we want to know. Let's speak in 10 years...

What's your advice to young designers who are now setting up their own practice?
Many designers work in the dichotomy between creating commercial non-interesting work during the day and compensating it with making interesting fun work at night. This rarely works on a longer term, as what you spend most time doing, will lead to more of the same, and you in fact became good in doing it. So allow yourself to do what you believe in, and it will surely pay back.

Main image & image 1: Irma Boom
Images 2&3: Catherine Zask
Images 4&5: Karel Martens
Images 6&7: Max Kisman

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