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What happens when you cross cartography and geography with graphic design? The result is Ultralight, a hands-on, mobile exhibition of Amsterdam-based graphic designer Harmen Liemburg.

By Katie Dominy /asdf 29-10-2009

In the lead up to the Graphic Design Festival Breda (GDFB) next May, the organisation gave us a preview exhibition: Ultralight by the Amsterdam-based graphic designer Harmen Liemburg.

And Ultralight it is - the set-up of Liemburg’s show itself travels around in a flexible, easy to transport shipping crate that unpacks to function as light table, display case and poster, weighting in at just 110 kg and described by Liemburg as a ‘Show-In-A-Box’

Just finishing in Breda this October, the show has also been touring universities and colleges in North America this year, from Minneapolis and Pasadena to Charlotte, North Carolina and moves next to Strasbourg, France this December.

However, speaking to the designer, the title is actually “inspired by the world of backpacking, something I love to do myself whenever I can take a break from my work. Ultralight is about striving to be out in the wilderness with lighter and less equipment. At the moment I see myself as a ‘classic’ backpacker, someone who takes an average of 20 kg of food and supplies up into the mountains. I’m working on being Lightweight, the category in between. Ultralight is therefore something to strive for in the future. A philosophical and practical ideal that is difficult but certainly not impossible to reach. Ultralight also refers to the usual light tone of my work, and to the exaggeration of advertising and packaging where I find part of my inspiration.”

Liemburg’s understanding of nature and landscape can be more obviously understood when one learns that his background is as a cartographer; he graduated in Social Geography/Cartography at Utrecht University before deciding to study Graphic Design at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam.

The process of making maps and diagrams has been a clear inspiration and Liemburg describes himself as a hands-on designer – a designer who likes to print his own work. At the Rietveld, he developed a love for silkscreen printing (going on to work at Interbellum, the studio of his former teacher Kees Maas) and through a career spanning both digital media and traditional techniques, he has developed a hybrid practice that puts the emphasis back on the ‘physical’ side of print making. “Now, the computer has become a mere tool. After the initial design in Illustrator, I do not simply reproduce my design, but rather start more or less anew, playing around with layers, inks and color separations.” Ultralight shows the source materials, colour separated printing plates (transparent), uncut printing plates, and final products to show the essential research and processes by which these products are created.

Historical print traditions are important to him, such as Japanese woodcuts. “By trying woodblock printing during a 2004 masterclass with Hiroshi Watanabe, I found out that the technique of screenprinting definitely fits my need for speed, scale and high output in a more efficient way. The physical elements (touch, smell, layering) of screenprinted matter add a distinctive richness to the work.”

“The amount of craftsmanship, time and energy that are invested in those prints, are still like a beacon to me. On the other side of the spectrum is the fleeting character of modern everyday consumer goods, which I study with the same interest.” Japan is a strong inspiration, “I have a long fascination for their sense of abstraction and perfection. I'm very interested in how modern graphics like packaging design and cellphone icons link to the past ….There's a different set of rules there when it comes to selling goods in terms of colour and the use of (extremely cute) illustration. This is also seeping through to other Asian countries, such as China.”

Ultralight will be travelling to ESAD school of Arts, Strasbourg in December and in February 2010 to the Willem de Kooning Academie, Rotterdam. At both venues, Liemburg will be leading a lecture and screenprinting project. After that, Liemburg tells us, after that “It's open to any school that wants it. The idea is that at every location, students curate and install the work - it’s very simple and open...”

Main image: Ultralight Poster, GDFB
Image 1: UNCC Gallery, University of North Carolina Charlotte
Image 2: Graphic 'jewels' on display at the UNCC Gallery, University of North Carolina Charlotte
Image 3: Dutch Flood: screenprinting workshop
Image 4: Have Faith, lecture by Harmen Liemburg
Image 5: Interbellum studio

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