feibisi / 2019年1月5日

Jon Burgerman: Dispatches from the Edge of the Burgerworld

Ninety Nine U recently visited the artist known for bringing new realities everywhere, from the Tate Modern to Instagram Stories, for a cup of tea in his new workspace in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It wasn’t only Burgerman in the studio – the space is crowded floor to ceiling with paintings of the creatures who inhabit “Burgerworld,” plus a puppet sidekick he uses in his Skillshare class and a 3-D printed doll of Burgerman that sits next to his assistant’s computer keyboard to make sure she’s working. “I used to have my whole head as the wallpaper on the iMac, but I thought it was a bit much,” Burgerman says.

We asked Burgerman about his early days developing his signature style, what his art has in common with the music industry, and the one thing we can all do to be more creative.  

***

Q. You started out doing a fine arts degree. What did you plan to do with that degree, and what did you envision your career being?

A. I did start a fine arts degree and finished it in Nottingham. I never fit in any way. For my degree show – people go all out for their degree shows – I really couldn’t think of what to do. So I just collected all of the stuff I’d been making. I had a little cabinet of objects that I’d customized as sort of fake products. One of them was a Pepsi can, and I used a rubber band and a sticker and I put a flag on the top and people thought I was crazy. I remember having a really vivid dream of a toy train with my name, J-O-N, in wooden letters on the carriages of the train going around in a circle. I spent a week and ran to all the toy stores looking for it. Thank God I didn’t do that. I put them all together, and that was my show.

And all the tutors, friends of mine, asked me the same question: “What are you going to do? What are you going to be?” It’s weird when people ask you that. Well, I thought, Isn’t it obvious? Surely, all this suggests a really successful career.

Burgerman dressed in an 8-bit style hoodie working on a colorful ink piece in his studio. Photographed by

Burgerman working on a colorful ink piece in his studio.

Q. What career were you picturing?

A. I had a vague dream of being a painter and having exhibitions. But whilst on the course, I was really into sort of design, sort of illustration – I didn’t know it was those things – like record sleeves, T-shirts, crappy merchandise. I was really torn. I liked going to galleries and museums, but I was particularly fascinated by the gift shops. You know, here are the Van Gogh sunflowers. And now, here they are as a tea towel. It’s so weird, but yeah – that is what I want to wash my dishes with. Even now, I just came back from London and I went to the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition. And the gift shops are full of crap: weird toys and things.

Q. Do you think it’s crap?

A. I mean, in a good way.

Q. How did you decide to move to America and why did you give everything away before you did?

A. Not everything. You know Michael Landy? He’s the artist that did Breakdown. It’s an amazing project. He destroyed everything he’d owned. I did a really mini, puny version of that.

Q. So it was an artistic gesture?

A. Not really. I just wanted to live somewhere else. I’d been traveling a lot and I’d come into New York for exhibitions and things, and I was having a great time coming here. And I said, “Well, I could be somewhere else; live another life.” I had a really successful run of it and decided to start again; hit reset. I came here with two suitcases and nowhere to live. If I had known what I was going to do, I would never have done it. I went to see an immigration lawyer in London. I was like, “I want to live in New York.” And she was like, “Do you have a job there?” “No.” “Do you have family there?” “No.” “Are you getting married to someone?” “No.” “Are you going to start a business there?” “Not really.” And then I left her office and I was like, “Shit, what have I done?” I just thought I should challenge myself a little. I’m not normally like that. I’m very lazy by nature.

Q. You are?

A. Yeah, completely. What you’re seeing – this is the least of what I could be doing. I do the bare minimum, which is why I’m always a bit down on myself. I know I could do more, be better.

Burgerman moving around his studio adorned with handmade shelves and doodle covered walls. Photo by

Burgerman moving around his studio adorned with handmade shelves and doodle covered walls.

Q. So how do you manage yourself?

A. I don’t know. I just work. I work all the time. It’s not just that I go home and I take off my hat and I’m done for the day. It’s 24/7. It’s a lifestyle business. I know I am a freelancer, but I don’t really think of myself in that way. I have to be careful not to become President Business. I don’t want to be a company or a brand. I just like being a human being that makes stuff. I have to be a business to stay alive and stay in New York. But I can’t really get my head around it, because a lot of what I do is terrible business. Risks are not great business decisions.

Q. What’s a risk you’ve taken?

A. When I first moved here, I was in a band. That was a risk of time. Time is the commodity that I gamble with the most. Why would you spend all this time rehearsing and writing and performing? The only people who are going to come and see you are your friends, and people accidentally coming to the venue too early or too late. It was a completely frivolous thing. We painted backdrops on cardboard boxes and we’d get people onstage and then we’d do silly things. We’d auction our paintings during a song. I miss it a lot.

Q. Did you write lyrics?

A. Yeah, I would write the words and do sort of a skeleton of the song, like this chord and then this chord. And then [another bandmate] would flesh it out to an actual, real song. I still like making music, but the length of a song I’ll write now is only like 15 seconds.

Q. That’s the attention span we all have.

A. Exactly. It’s Instagram Story length.

Q. Do you remember lyrics from any of the songs?

A. Yes.

Q. Can you tell me?

A. No. It’s too embarrassing.

Q. Please?

A. There was a song called “Salad Ballad,” and I was always proud of the line. It’s…I can’t do it; it’s too embarrassing.

Q. Please do it.

A. A lot of the songs were about heartbreak, and obviously that’s what “Salad Ballad” was. So it’s a song saying to a girl, “You should come over and watch Columbo.” And then, “Don’t be such a dumbo.” Everyone asked us if the band was serious. And the sad thing is, it was. But it was really silly and goofy at the same time.

That problem with the band, I think, relates to my art practice. There are a lot of people who say, “Are you serious? We get that it’s funny or silly, or colorful – playful.” People find it difficult to think about it the way they would if the artwork was about heavier, weightier things. Because it’s casual and funny and weird, they treat it in that way.

Burgerman in New York City.

Q. Can you tell me how you think about color? Thinking about what makes people take work seriously, I feel like there’s pushback when something is brightly or joyfully colored.

A. I can’t make stuff without color. It’s just a gut thing. Look at this paper. Just look at this paper. [Rifling through construction paper] Look at it; look. You don’t need to do anything to it. The yellow is really amazing. I love color. I find it very similar to music. The black and white is like the structure of the work. It’s the rhythm section. And maybe if you do a big swell of black, it’s a bit bass-y, and has some deep heaviness to it. I love drum and bass. I like rhythm and beats. But man can’t exist on beats alone. We can’t live just on rhythm. We need flavor. We need taste. We need sour and sweet. And that’s where all the color comes from. And these are all the notes. These are all the chords. The pink is all the high notes, the highlights, the squeaky voices, and little cheeky details. That’s why a lot of my work is very colorful. Black and white is good. And you’re right – I think people take it seriously because it’s more chic. If you go to an event and you’re wearing all black, people think you’re cool. “Oh, she’s a designer. An architect, maybe,” something like that. If you go dressed wearing bright yellow – yellow shoes, patterned trousers – they’ll think you’re a hippie. I’m getting aware, as I’m getting older, that maybe I should tone down wearing bright colors, because people are going to think I’m some strange-uncle weird guy. Coupled with my googly eyes, I’m not doing myself any favors in trying to be taken seriously. What can I do? I like working with colored paper and Play-Doh. Those are the materials of children.

Q. What is Burgerworld?

A. Burgerworld is the title I gave an exhibition a few years ago. It’s this imaginary place where all this work lives. This is how I explain it to myself, but I never had to articulate it before. All these different things in my practice are connected. Imagine it as a world. In this country, there are these colorful, goofy characters, and they look very clean and well produced. Then, in the neighboring country or village, they’re a bit scrappier, gruffer, weirder. Maybe they’re a bit more liberal. It was a way of thinking, because I really struggle with, What is all this stuff? Where does it all fit together? So I kind of imagine it in that place. And then there’s a Burgerworld book, which is a coloring book.

The cover of Burgerman's coloring book of the intricate land of Burgerworld. Image courtesy of Jon Burgerman

The cover of Burgerman’s coloring book of the intricate land of Burgerworld. Image courtesy of Jon Burgerman

Q. I thought Burgerworld might be your imagination, but it almost sounds like this is a thing that is beyond you.

A. It could live on once I’m gone. A big part of my practice in the last 10 years is getting other people to make stuff and sharing the world. If you love a thing, set it free; that kind of thing. I’m inspired by a lot of stuff, and so it’s really amazing if people are inspired by what you do, right? Rather than try and protect all this stuff, I think you have to purposely get rid of it. And then make something else.

People coloring in a Burgerworld mural during an interactive art exhibit at Hudson Yards in Manhattan

An interactive Burgerworld mural at Hudson Yards in Manhattan. Photo courtesy of Jon Burgerman

Q. Talking about the things that you’re inspired by, I’m thinking about your Jeff Koons adaptation or about the Infinity Room adaptation, where you created small models of both.

A. That’s the thing. They put out something, and then you can take it, tweak it to your end, and then put it back out into the world. That’s what music does. “Oh, they sampled this.” “Oh, this sounds like the ’80s.” They’re taking it, tweaking it, and putting it back.

Art does it a lot. I really love the idea of subverting it and playing with it. And I hope it doesn’t really upset anyone. But that’s what we should all be doing. It is kind of funny to see someone reinterpreting what you do. I know Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, used to collect all the fake Simpsons merchandise. Because that’s a huge form of flattery, right? I’ve got folders on my computer of stuff that I know is a knockoff. And most of the time, it’s very innocent.

Q. What advice do you have for people looking to add some more creativity to their lives?

A. One thing you can do: read more. I guarantee you, it’ll increase your creativity. Reading is the number one thing that any human being can do to increase their creativity, because it’s fertilizer for your imagination. You’re reading these little black shapes on a white background, converting them into words, and then those words become sentences and those sentences are telling you something. And then in your head, you’re feeling and imagining things: what it looks like, what they sound like. That’s the best thing you can do for your imagination and your creativity and your general well-being.

Q. Would you like to be more in the fine art world?

A. Fine art seems like the best thing, right? You just make what you want to make and put it in a gallery, and there are no clients or briefs. I’m in a kind of limbo world. Do I want to do more paintings and drawings just for the sake of it? Yes. But I don’t know if I would actually say I want to do more fine art. I’m happier on the edges of things.

feibisi / 2019年1月4日

Tea Uglow: Shed the Armor of Identity to Embrace Creative and Personal Transformation

I met Tea Uglow on a misty day in New York City, where tourists in Chelsea were braving the threat of rain for sidewalk cafés and city strolls. Uglow herself was coming from the second of two brunches when she met me at Soho House, squeezing in meetings before she flew back to Australia and her role as Experimental Person in Charge at Google Creative the next day. She brewed – appropriately enough – tea in blue china cups.

Perhaps it was the rainy day and comfy armchairs, which dwarfed us as well as our cups and saucers, that gave me the sense of time traveling into a British novel. But maybe what was really transporting me to another world was the feeling of talking with Uglow, who, in an age of glib answers and press-ready catchphrases, pushes at the unfinished edges of ideas like time, self, and creativity. “This perspective would change massively if you interviewed me on a different day,” she told me. Her ideas are shifting and in progress, just as Uglow herself – and all of us – are ever-transforming works in progress, from who we are to our creative output.

In our conversation, we returned often to Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Welcome to a transformative cup of tea with Tea Uglow.

***

Q. Your one bio says, “She writes, talks, arts, geeks, queens, parents, and humans.” What does it mean to human?

A. There are lots of things we are expected to do that don’t make all that much sense to me. Well, they do make sense within the conventions, the values, and the expectations of society. But often you don’t really know where these things come from. We don’t stop and examine them. “Humaning” is where you do all the things that don’t really make any sense to make everyone else understand that you are also human. If you weren’t human and you came to be human, it would be a fairly fundamental culture shock. We see that in sitcoms all the time: “Hey, it’s an alien in a human body. Aren’t humans weird?” And you go, “Yeah, they really are.”

Q. That’s not at all how I expected you define humaning.

A. What did you think I was going to say?

Q. I think people sometimes say things about working to be more human in a more true-to-themselves sort of way.

A. I don’t really buy into the self thing for mental health reasons. I don’t have that solidity of self, that constancy that you’re talking about, that idea of having a set of values or a set of principles. I’m not amoral, but I have assorted value sets, and they’re often in conflict with one another. When I’ve had nervous breakdowns, often what happens is you strip away – especially if you’re transitioning – lots of ideas of identity and self, anything which you feel is being constructed by society, which you’ve been told you have to be. And you find yourself with very little. There is very little. My friends might call it the spirit or the soul. The only thing I really thought I had was certainly not a sense of self; it was the place that ideas come from. It’s why I’m comfortable with the notion of creativity.

Uglow sporting a tropical dress sitting in front of an orange backdrop.

Uglow sporting a tropical dress.

Q. Can you describe that for me?

A. Yeah, sure. We often ask ourselves, “Who do you want to be?” For me, that’s always been a very collaged thing. I am different things for different people at different times, which is difficult – partly because I’m trans. From the age of three, I’ve been assembling myself as a boy to fit in, to get along, and to not get killed. You learn to assemble the self according to what is asked of you, not what you feel you are. I never really had an opportunity to find that idea of true self. As I was transitioning, I assumed that’s what would happen: I would find my true self.

Funny enough, having gotten to rock bottom and stripped of all the things I thought I was to other people, all the things I was scared of losing – Who am I without those things? Will you still like me? Will I still have any meaning? – it’s very like getting naked, but getting all of your invisible armor off as well. It turned out there wasn’t really anything there, apart from this thing I clung to: The ideas were still there. The things that I thought about remained constant. I still think about time. I still think about space. I think about information and how we relate information, culture, and art. So that’s what I had. And all the other bits are quite constructed. So I don’t really believe in self.

Q. It sounds like a very unnerving process to go through.

A. I wouldn’t recommend it. Our idea of self and identity is armor. I think that it’s fundamentally something we construct in order to keep ourselves sane.

Uglow hudled on a sidewalk in New York City

Uglow hudled on a sidewalk in New York City.

Q. You gave a talk a few years ago, and you mentioned that moving from England to Australia and physically distancing yourself allowed you to experiment and think about new things.

A. I don’t have those memories. I remember the talk, but I couldn’t tell you one thing I said in it. Someone else completely gives my talks. I have no idea who they are. They’re very good at it. They just turn up, they do the talk, and then they move on. And every now and again they turn up in emergency situations, like I had to give a little speech at a pronoun party and it was really not going very well, because who likes doing public speaking? I was really struggling and started to cry and all of that. And then someone who was just significantly more comfortable and confident than me turned up and was like, “Oh, get out of the way.” And gave a very good speech. I don’t really know what she said.

Q. Can you describe her?

A. Yeah. She’s about a foot taller than me, and more confident, more present. She’s funny. She understands how to do work with audiences, and she’s watching for stagecraft. I’m not; it’s wild. They’re just more competent and funny. They’re quick on their feet. They know how to move on. And it’s why I quite like being on stage.

But that thing of moving to Australia was really important. You physically extract yourself from a place where people have expectations of you – where you can limit control and access to you. I didn’t realize it at the time, but clearly, based on my work and for my personal transition, that was an essential step: to go find somewhere a really long way away, where we could just cocoon ourselves and get through this.

Q. When you say “get through this,” are you through it?

A. Sort of. The trans bit’s fine. Apart from this weird sense that, every now and again, you forget quite how persecuted trans people are all around the world. And then you forget you’re one of them, which is obviously ideal, because ideally you would forget. It’s like being tall or being Welsh; it shouldn’t really affect your life.

But it does affect your life in these huge ways. Because people kill trans people. And I’m very, very much aware that I am out and proud and public and happy to represent for that community. But I’d rather not have it painted on my forehead.

Uglow in a colorful chevron dress posing by the water and the staircase of a brick building

Uglow venturing around the city.

Q. I read that one of your favorite ways of getting correspondence is via postcard.

A. This is true. I like all the postcards. It is something that gives me great joy.

Q. What is it about postcards?

It’s the physicality of the thing. When we were at university, I had friends around the world, and we used to send each other really strange things through the mail to see if they’d go, like lumps of wood. Or you’d send a T-shirt where the address was on the T-shirt. Someone sent tea bags and those sorts of things. Tea bags were actually very common because it’s like a thing where you’re going, “Oh, tea. We’re having a cup together!” I used to get letters and cards, and my mother has always been a great writer. This is before email. There’s a certain sort of tragedy to the decline of physical mail, because there’s something really lovely about that. I really like it when people send me odd postcards. All of that thought and effort that’s gone into that. It’s quite meaningful. The best ones, obviously, are the ones where you draw something.

Q. It’s ironic, given that your career is so founded in totally new digital concepts.

A. One of the weirdest things about my career is this opportunity to try to make adverts for things that people didn’t know were things. Like Chrome. When we started trying to get people to use Chrome, people didn’t know what a browser was.

Q. Is there a particular project that was fun to work on?

A. It was one of Google’s early adverts. When Google Plus came along, we really wanted to explain to people that all this photo stuff was bundled into it. There’s a setting so that when you take a photo, it uploads to an album that’s in the cloud. The whole idea was really novel, and we were trying to think why this would be useful. Up until that point, humankind had managed fine without phones that automatically upload your photos. And then we found this lovely story of this guy. He had a kid. He took lots of photos of the kid. And then he lost his phone. All the photos of his kid were on the phone, and he thought he’d lost all the photos of his kid. And then it turned out that he had the feature turned on. So he gets back home and finds all of the photos have already been saved.

Q. That’s a perfect little nugget of a story.

A. Yeah. But he didn’t want to use the photos of his kid for the story. And I had just had a kid and I was taking a lot of photos. My partner at the time was like, “What’s it going to be used for? Is anyone going to see this?” “No, no, no; it’s just an online ad,” I said. “No one watches these.” So she said yeah. And we uploaded them. And then it got shown on TV at the Grammys or Oscars or something. It’s had like 20 million views and it got translated into Portuguese. I’m not sure whether the firstborn will be more bothered that we used his photos to sell the company, or whether his younger brother will be more upset that he doesn’t have a video. That’s the lot of the second child.

Q. Was becoming a parent transformative?

A. Oh, it’s astonishing. You’re not aware how much your goals will change, how much your life will require you to take on new value sets, and how hard it is to remember that other people who don’t have children don’t share those values. Every child turns every new parent into a very new being. And it will  – almost without fail – affect relationships and change how you relate to the world. For me it was peculiar, because that whole idea of performing gender immediately became tighter; there was less space for me to not be this idea of masculinity.

We generally don’t talk about it being a difficult time, but it’s incredibly difficult. And we don’t give moms space to struggle, or we don’t give moms credit for doing it in the first place. It’s really difficult for me to talk about because I’m not the mom. I’m not their mom; I’m their parent. And I have enormous love and respect for their mother, who is doing an incredible job.

Q. In a funny way, has Google been one of the most consistent things in your life?

A. Yes. They’ve been incredibly supportive. Their main thing is like, “What can we do?” You read about people who transition or have mental health problems or disabilities or anything. We spend most of our lives at work. The idea that that would be a hostile environment to a challenge that you’re facing just feels wrong. Why would that ever be the case? But it is.

Q. There’s a trope that goes around the creative world a lot, which is the idea of bringing your whole self to work. What do you think about that idea?

A. The idea of bringing your whole self to work should really be understanding that every single person is completely different, which is much more what it is, because there’s no point in bringing your whole self to work if it’s not accepted. “Yeah, maybe not quite that much – perhaps half of yourself. How about these selves? Can you just do these parts?”

If you make sure that the environment that you’re working in is supportive, and that people believe that it’s alright to be in a caring environment when they’re at work, it makes it easier. And I have never met anyone who’s taken advantage of that. You don’t repay that by exploiting it; that’s not what you do. You tend to respond to love with love and creativity.

feibisi / 2019年1月3日

Erik Kessels: It’s Not the End of the World

From the age of five, Erik Kessels knew he wanted to dress store windows.

Growing up in a small town in Holland, it was the most creative job he could imagine. So when he was old enough, he enrolled in a window-dressing program at a polytechnic school.

Immediately he realized that working in a delicate glass box wasn’t for him. “There are all these lightbulbs in there, you have nails digging into your fingers, you have to use fish wire and little clips to put everything together,” he says. “It was kind of stupid of me to have this dream for 11 years without trying it beforehand.”

It was one of many valuable mistakes he would make in his life. Kessels ended up studying painting and applied art, and ultimately became the founder and creative director of KesselsKramer, an internationally renowned advertising agency based in Amsterdam, with offices in London and Los Angeles.

At 52, Kessels doesn’t just accept his mistakes, he embraces them. And he wants others to do the same. He has even published the book Failed It!, which explores the necessary role failure plays in the creative process. It’s a message he feels is especially important now that technology has made perfection so accessible.

In the interview, Kessels explains the risks of striving to avoid errors and offers advice to creatives on how to keep their juices flowing.

***

Q. Failure is a pretty broad concept. Are you talking about deliberately going in the wrong direction, or going in the direction you think you should but being open to changing your route?

A. Both. It’s all about finding methods to come to new solutions. Our brains are very much directed to certain solutions, very much colored in certain ways. You need disruptive things to shake those standardized solutions up.

To get to an idea, sometimes you deliberately have to make a mistake in your own head. It’s not like when you’re driving and you know for sure that, without making any mistakes, the navigation system is going to bring you to your destination. For creativity, it doesn’t work like that. You have to go down a wrong street. You have to ignore the voices of people saying, “Don’t go here; please turn around.” That is exactly what you have to do when you look for new ideas.

Nobody is born with the talent to come up with brilliant ideas. You have to work for that. You have to make mistakes and be vulnerable. The moment you find something, that’s great, but the way to get there is not always same road.

Kessels reclining in what appears to be warped metal, but is actually a functioning chair. Photographed by

Kessels reclining in what appears to be a piece of warped metal, but is actually a functioning chair. Photographed by Bert Teunissen.

Q. You say technology has made it easy to perfect things earlier in the creative process. Why is that a problem?

A. I often compare it to the front and back garden of your house. Computers, 3-D printers, and other tools are there to help you finish creative works, and that’s all in the front yard of your house, metaphorically speaking. The backyard is where all of your ideas are hidden; it’s where you have your unfinished messes.

Ideally you have an idea in your backyard, then you go into the house and use tools and technology to bring it to the front garden to show it to the rest of the world. But nowadays people don’t even go to their backyard because it’s so easy to finish something without that. Computer programs are better than ever. People have access to everything. Technology is going toward perfection, which is good, but a lot of creatives use this in the wrong way. They think this is their starting point.

The starting point should be with yourself. What do I bring to this creative discipline? What do I like to make? When you do that and you have an idea, you can use the best tools to create it.

When I do student workshops, often the students immediately start looking at Pinterest or googling some words that were in a project briefing, and that’s how they start to make an idea. Sitting by the computer doesn’t mean you are getting a good idea. It can happen, of course, but sometimes it’s nice to walk around the block and listen to some conversation or look at something that’s not within your discipline.

Kessels sitting under a disco ball in a red room with a large display of cameras

Kessels photographed by Bert Teunissen.

Q. What’s the risk of only existing in the “front yard”?

A. The risk is that, at first glance, the work looks very finished, beautiful, perfect. There’s nothing wrong with that. But when you go a little bit deeper, you see that there’s actually no substance to it or that it doesn’t really belong to the person.

I once met a person who graduated cum laude in graphic design school and had a fantastic portfolio. I mean, I’d never seen anything like it. He was like 20 years old and wanted to work with us. But it was too good to be true. It was almost painful, because as I spent more time with him and was learning more about his ideas, suddenly the work and his personality didn’t fit at all with each other anymore. All of his work had been made in the front yard.

Q. Tell me about a time in your own career when going against your typical thinking led to something wonderful.

A. When we started KesselsKramer in 1996, Hans Brinker Amsterdam Hotel was our first client. It’s a 500-bed budget hotel in the center of Amsterdam. The owner called us and said, “Listen, I’m getting really sick of complaints from people who visit the hotel. You really have to help me. Anything you can do to get rid of the complaints?”

So I went to the hotel a day later and it was a huge shithole. I expected something bad, but this was something quite worse. My partner and I really didn’t have an idea of what to do for this hotel, because anything good would be a total lie.

Then we thought, Maybe we’ll turn it around. We felt like maybe honesty was the only luxury they had.

We promoted the hotel very negatively. People said, “You’re crazy.” We did posters that said, “Now a bed in every room.” We made a hotel brochure where we put the word “Not” in front of everything. For example, “Not with a swimming pool.”

Our “anti-advertising” campaign turned out to be very successful. The hotel had 60,000 overnights when we started. Now they have 160,000 overnights. Backpackers and students really loved the total irony. It was a very risky proposition to call it the worst hotel in the world. And that’s what they got famous for in the end.

A poster by KesselsKramer showing all items not included in your stay at Hans Brinker Budget Hotel.

Poster for a Hans Brinker Budget Hotel campaign. Images courtesy of KesselsKramer

Q. That’s hilarious. What’d the hotel say when you first told them the idea?

A. We still work with them. The manager of the hotel, I saw a twinkle in his eyes and felt that he understood. He had to sell the idea to the owners, who told him he was crazy. But they went with it.

Q. A lot of people might love your approach, but they’re in a position where they can’t take such risks. They might work for a big agency where things are standardized, or where there’s no time or budget for failure. How do you respond to that concern?

A. It’s in people’s own hands. Now more than ever, people can start their own companies. How much investment would you need to start your own company nowadays? Almost nothing. I think that when the frustration is too much and you work in a place where you can’t be happy, then you should leave. You should make a drastic change in your life.

It’s very important as a creative that you take a risk. That is hard work. When I’m at work, it’s not that I can lean back. Nothing comes automatically. When I start with a new brief, it’s as difficult as it was 20 years ago. There is no direct solution on the table.

Q. You started your own advertising firm more than 20 years ago. What were you doing before then?

A. My business partner, Johan, and I were working at an agency in London. Before that, we were working at another agency, where we were eventually fired. At the time, the company was going through a tense period and people were nervous, so they took us on a weekend trip. On that weekend away, we appeared at a meeting in chicken suits. One half of the agency loved it; the other was quite pissed off that we disturbed a meeting like that. Two weeks later we got fired. It’s funny; when we were recruited there, they picked us up in a limousine from the airport. A year later we were standing with boxes on the street.

Q. Why has your firm been successful?

A. From when we started in 1996, we’ve tried to keep certain standards in the work. Advertising is a very optimistic industry. If there’s a client who brings a bag of money, everyone opens their doors. Certain ethics are very far away then. But we’re quite strict about that. We’ve stopped working with clients. We’ve fired clients that are not going in the right direction. I think sometimes more agencies should do that. Sometimes creatives end up working for clients they don’t want to work for because they think they can’t do creative work for them, which is often true. So I think this is an agency where creative work should deliver that and have principles.

We’re not afraid to do things differently. In Amsterdam, our office is in a church. We acquired it in 1998 and built an office in it. At that time, people fell over when they came in. We came from a time when design agencies had a big reception with everything in white. Everything had to be luxurious. For us, it was very reactionary. We had built up quite a lot of frustration over the years. We wanted to be different.

Kessels photographed at the KesselsKramer Amsterdam office. The office is an old church and features stained glass windows and a diving board on the balcony.

Kessels photographed by Bert Teunissen at the KesselsKramer Amsterdam office

Q. What are your views on the future of your industry?

A. In the year we are in now, it’s fantastic that people can make many crossovers with different disciplines. This was something like 10 to 15 years ago, when it was much more difficult for people to do that. Now you see that when students are in art school, before they even graduate, they’ve done two or three different disciplines, like photography, graphic design, and illustration, for instance. I think that in the future there will always be specialists who are very good at something, whether it’s typography, architecture, design, or photography, and they are almost subliminal in that. But there will be more people who can work across different disciplines and do very interesting work. When an architect can do product design or a graphic designer can make a building, that’s very exciting. You’ll see that more and more now.

It’s easy to be frustrated about how things happened in the past, but the future is a clean slate.