Reputations: Rick Vermeulen
‘I don't think anything designed should be considered as art. It's not only about the experimentation with form. There is always a client’
Rick Vermeulen was born in Schiedam, the Netherlands in 1950. He studied graphic design at the Rotterdam Academy, graduating in 1972. From 1975, he worked regularly for the publisher Bert Bakker and was a participant in Rotterdam’s Graphic Workshop, where designers and artists produced material for cultural organisations in the city and events such as the Rotterdam Film Festival. From 1978-82, Vermeulen was an editor of Hard Werken magazine, along with Willem Kars, Henk Elenga, Gerard Hadders and Tom van den Haspel. The cultural tabloid made a considerable national impact and the group became a design studio operating under the name Hard Werken, with each designer supervising his own projects. By the end of the 1980s, in a changing business and cultural climate, Hard Werken was in financial trouble. In 1994, the company moved from Rotterdam to the Amsterdam area and amalgamated with the packaging design company Ten Cate Bergmans, subsequently changing its name to Inizio. In 1993, Vermeulen, a regular visitor to the United States, with teaching experience at Cranbrook, CalArts and North Carolina State University, moved to Los Angeles, where he took over the position formerly occupied by Henk Elenga as Hard Werken LA Desk. After two years in the city he decided to return to the Netherlands. In 1995, the retrospective exhibition ‘From Hard Werken to Inizio’ was staged at the Karmeliterkloster, Frankfurt am Main and the Kunsthal, Rotterdam, marking the end of an era for Vermeulen and the original founders. In recent years, Vermeulen has designed two typefaces for Fuse. He collaborates with Inizio and works on freelance projects for publishing and other clients.
Rick Poynor: Your recent exhibitions in Frankfurt and Rotterdam traced the history of Hard Werken from its early days through to the amalgamation with Ten Cate Bergmans in 1994, when the new company Inizio was formed. What sort of reception did these retrospectives receive?
Rick Vermeulen: In Holland, Hard Werken is viewed as one of the more influential design companies. It showed a different attitude towards the existing design world, and it has definitely left its mark here. As you know, Germany has a completely different design culture and most of our work has never been seen there. the opening in Frankfurt was very crowded, but I think it was mainly students. In Rotterdam, the exhibition at the Kunsthal was the first in a new series of graphic design shows. We were chosen because we are from Rotterdam, so it felt like a home game. The reactions to the show were very positive and for us it was the end of an era.
The book [Hard Werken > Inizio] is both a history of Hard Werken and a history of the packaging design company Ten Cate Bergmans, as well as a portfolio we could use to get new clients. I have to say I’m unsure about that side of it, but it was very successful. I don’t know if it’s like this in England - it’s certainly different in America - but in Holland you’re not supposed to come right out and say if you like something. The Dutch have an expression: ‘When your head is above the mowing field you have to chop it off.’ But new clients are actually interested in what we have done.
RP: You were in Los Angeles operating as Hard Werken LA Desk while the merger of the two companies was taking place. Had you left the Netherlands because you had misgivings about it?
RV: I was fairly unsure about what was happening and I needed a change. I wouldn’t say it was to do with becoming “commercial”. I believe that all graphic design, whether it’s a business card, or a logo for a big company, or a museum catalogue, is commercial, But if you have a big company there are things that you can’t do anymore - I’m talking about design - because some projects become to expensive. I’m a designer and not a very good businessman. I wasn’t sure if the combination of Hard Werken and Ten Cate Bergmans would work, or if it was the right thing for me. I decided I needed a break to find out what I could do on my own.
RP: Why America?
RV: I’ve visited the US often, and I’ve taught at CalArts, Cranbrook and North Carolina State University over the last ten years, so I’ve got some friends there. I’m also goods friends with ReVerb in Los Angeles, who offered me studio space, and with Henk Elenga, who started Hard Werken LA Desk, which was completely independent from the Rotterdam Hard Werken. I’ve always been interested and influenced by America’s mass and subcultures, and what the country could do for me and what I could do for it, once I stayed there. Then there was the possibility of being completely away from the soft bed of Holland and Rotterdam, where I know a lot of people, which can be constricting. I liked the idea of the anonymity of LA, of just having a couple of reference points, opening your mind and seeing what would happen.
RP: Did your experiences there live up to expectations?
RV: To a certain extent. Actually I found it really hard. I found it difficult to live in Los Angeles and find out how things worked. I’m pretty open to that culture, but you go to a party, for example, and you’re introduced as, “Hey this is Rick Vermeulen from Europe and he’s the best designer in the world!” and then five minutes later someone else is introduced as the best designer in the world. That makes finding out how companies and clients work with designers fairly complicated.
Sometimes it was like running into a wall. When I showed my portfolio, clients couldn’t place me. I went to a movie poster company and showed my stuff and they said “do you do movie posters?” so I show them my Rotterdam Film festival posters and they said “that’s a festival poster. What about movie posters?” It was all about specialization: you’re in the music business, or you’re in the movie business.
RP: Weren’t you able to build on what Henk Elenga had achieved there?
RV: Henk went there in the early 1980s and he’s always worked on his own. When I replaced him he introduced me to all his clients, but I had to prove myself. Our approach might be similar but my work is very different. Another thing is I’m 45 now and have a certain status, but some clients, especially in record companies, would rather hire a 25-year-old in house designer. They think they are more involved with what is hip and what is happening, while someone like me might be difficult.
Another thing I had to learn was how hierarchies and attitudes in big companies worked, how to get through to the person I wanted to speak to. If I call you four times in four weeks and I keep saying “we should meet”, by the fifth time you feel bad and think “Should I call him again? No, I can’t do that.” You start thinking they have lost interest in you, but afterwards you hear they hadn’t: they say you should have carried on and called at least twice a week. With most European clients in the entertainment industry, if you work on some proposals and they are refused, you don’t expect any more work from them. In LA, after ten refusals it’s “Hey, I’ve got this job for you. You’re the right man for the project.” The whole way of thinking is completely different.
RP: What finally prompted the decision to return to the Netherlands after two years in LA?
RV: To build a better practice and get more work I would have had to stay on another couple of years. The main reason I returned was that I felt if I stayed in LA – and it was a 50-50 feeling – then I would have to stay for at least another 5 years. That would have been seven years in the States and I would have been almost 50. By then everyone back home would have forgotten me. That would have been a killer.
RP: How involved were you in the discussions about the future direction of Hard Werken which had been happening while you were away?
RV: I wasn’t at all. I had a weekly correspondence with Willem Karrs (fellow founder of Hard Werken). He told me what was happening. We talked on the phone. He came to see me. But I wasn’t completely aware of what was happening. What I heard afterwards, was that everything went so fast – the decision making, the reorganisation, the merger, the move to Amsterdam. At that point, I had enough to worry about in Los Angeles.
RP: So you really didn’t see a future for yourself within this expanded version of the company?
RV: Not at that moment,
RP: Wasn’t that hard? Hard Werken was your baby. You’d helped create it.
RV: Well that’s one of the reasons I left. Something that you’d worked so hard on, expended so much energy on…to see that kind of work disappear into another company with a very different vision …On the other hand, I’m not complaining. I understand completely why that happened because Hard Werken was nearly bankrupt at the time.
RP: So take us back – what went wrong?
RV: It’s obvious. When we first started out in Rotterdam, there was nothing, there was hardly any interest in design. We were the first design group. Theatre, dance, music, film festivals – we were all connected. It was such a small community that we were all really involved with our clients. It was also a time when there was money for cultural events. Up to 1985, we would get some bigger commissions, but we were always seen as being on the culture circuit. Then around 1985, more design groups began to start up and flourish and the cultural work disappeared. Clients still thought we did all the work, but we hardly did anything in Rotterdam. We had started off as freelancers and found out by the mid 1980s that we were a company, which was a bit late. By 1989 we were almost bankrupt. We needed a new business partner to get ourselves straight financially and get us into bigger ventures.
When we finally moved from Rotterdam, a lot of people said, “Oh why did you move? You’re so Rotterdam! What a pity, you are part of the cultural scene.” But once we had moved to Amsterdam, we started getting clients from Rotterdam again. It’s psychological. Also, Inizio is taken far more seriously outside of the culture circuit. That’s why this merger is good step.
Ten Cate Bergmans was a packaging company which earned a lot of money, but needed creativity. And it’s working, except that I miss the smaller scale experimental work which is interesting enough to keep the designers happy and also gives them experience they can apply to the more “commercial” design. But I know Willem and Tom (van den Haspell), the only remaining Hard Werken directors are working on that.
RP: In the book there’s a lot of discussion about how, in the mid 1980s, the requirements of the Dutch business world had changed. At one point a statement from some early Inizio literature is quoted: “We don’t know what we do for form’s sake.” The book claims that this demonstrates a clear break with the original ideas and principles behind Hard Werken, as though form had been Hard Werken’s primary motivation. Do you accept that as an analysis?
RV: It’s not my statement, but I kind of agree with it. I don’t think anything designed should be considered art. It’s not only about the experimentation with form. There is always a client. A piece of work has to communicate directly – if it’s a bookjacket or a CD package, it has to be picked up, and preferably, bought. If it’s a poster, people who see it have to be sufficiently intrigued to want to see the show. If it’s a business card, you have to remember the person who gave it to you, and it had to reflect that person. So you can’t say it’s “only” for form’s sake: it is always meant for something.
RP: Well let’s consider this poster (reproduced in Hard Werken > Inizio) for the play Marienbad. We could argue about whether the formal experimentation, the kooky “M”, reflects the play, but as something that catches the eye in an unexpected way without clichés, it works extremely well. So many of the early Hard Werken pieces work well on that level. They value form, but value it for its powers of communication.
RV: I totally agree and its one of the things I’m afraid of with Inizio is that what you’re saying will be forgotten, and it’s more now that they have to run a business and that business is design. Also some clients still come to us from the Hard Werken side and actually want that kooky “M” ad that’s what the book is for, to try to get them to want it.
RP: Do you have any stake in Inizio?
RV: No. I’m not one of the directors, I’m completely independent. I do my own work at home and Inizio hires me when they need to.
RP: How much of a relationship do you see between what Hard Werken was doing in the early 1980s and what is happening in design now? For instance, Hard Werken anticipates what some theorists later called “anti-mastery”. It was deliberately crude and incorporated the vernacular. At the same time Hard Werken’s work was a collage of quotations.
RV: Well, one of the things to remember is that it’s a real miracle that the five of us came together with such similar ideas and attitudes about design. As I mentioned before, we were the only ones in Rotterdam. We hardly had any other contact with any other designers. We only had each other as a reference. Sometimes designing was like a battle. Henk came in with this, Tom brought something else in, and Gerard (Hadders) would be saying “Have you seen this?” It’s an old fashioned word, though I’m still completely for it, but we were trying to be eclectic. You would find something that has a certain feeling, that reflects the needs of the project and attracts attention, and then combine it with a typeface that was produced a week before and do a little invention yourself. I find that more interesting than mimicking yet another Blue Note album cover.
But I wouldn’t want to theorise about this too much. I think a lot of American designers still have this weird frustration with the Bauhaus, Modernism and the American emperor, Paul Rand. A lot of the stuff has to be completely theorised which, from the beginning when I went to the United States and worked with students I found so strange. It always seemed like nothing notable happened in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s or 1980s in the US, so why not dig into the richness of American history and create something new? Why not combine a modernist piece of design with some 1950s photography or some punk? A couple of years ago Paul Rand did an interview and half the audience was totally amazed and happy and the other half were totally amazed and unhappy because he showed some work and said, “Well I did that because I thought it looked good and it worked.” So the audience was like: “Where’s the theory?” But I thought it was great. I mean it – it may sound negative, but I hope you’ll see what I mean – it’s good enough for who it’s for.
RP: Can you explain that?
RV: Well Hard Werken didn’t have a style. I always see it as more of an attitude, a method. When a client comes to Hard Werken on the basis of previous work, Willem talked to him, analysed the problem, what had to be done and why, what the work was needed for, how the design would be constructed. It could end up as something completely different from what the client originally came in for. That’s what I mean when I say the client’s get what they deserve. I find it a very satisfying way of working, both for the designer and the client, who gets something tailor made.
I don’t want to be down on Émigré, but now and then I start reading an article in it and stop half way and think “I want to know something about the actual design and the reasons why it works.” I’m all for critical writing and analysing design, but what I can’t stand is over-explanation.
RP: Coming back to the Netherlands after a couple of years, you must have found that the scene had moved on to some degree. Some observers feel that a new conservatism has taken hold. What are your views of what’s happening there now?
RV: I’ll compare it with something else. When I was teaching a class with a friend of mine, who’s an artist, we had a discussion with two fashion students who were saying “We don’t know what to do anymore. Everything is possible these days. You can combine an Armani jacket with shorts and women’s shoes – it’s all possible. So if I design a collection, it’s not shocking anymore. I study the history of fashion and the only thing I can do at this moment is combine all that stuff – and it’s always good, never bad.” And I think at this point in Holland that’s also the feeling. People are waiting for something to happen and that’s a weird thing. I don’t think people are working on it to happen, but waiting.
In this digital age, some of them imagine it might happen because of some new program. But I believe we need strong ideas too. I also believe that Dutch design as it was could be a burden for young designers. I think it’s just ticking along at the moment, though there are some designers, like Mevis and Van Deursen, who are doing exciting stuff. One of the things I find positive is that a lot of young designers have become more professional: they can see what’s happening, they know why they do what they do, and they can live off it. But on the other hand when it comes to risk, a lot of them go for the safe option.
RP: In a way you’ve come full circle. Even when you were part of the original Hard Werken you were working for yourselves under the group umbrella. And your situation now is not so different to that. How is it going?
RV: It’s almost like starting again. That’s what makes it difficult sometimes. I’m not there yet, but I’m slowly getting there. In the three years since I’ve been away, clients have gone elsewhere. A couple of publishing companies I used to work for employ other designers now, which is fair enough. So I have time to find new clients, which I enjoy, although it takes a lot of time. What I’d like is to have a small studio, preferably with one assistant, and do my own work as well as collaborating with Inzio on some bigger projects, because I believe I can contribute something extra there.
I’ve done a book on multimedia design and some books on architecture. I’m working on a couple of private projects and with Inzio I did a promotional project for KLM for Anne Frank’s birthday – KLM invited 25 girls from different countries to do a diary and I combined them into a book. I like collaborating with Inzio on certain projects, that’s where the attitude still carries on. It may sound old fashioned, but the hands-on thing, that’s one of the reasons why I started. I like making things.
First published in Eye no. 21 vol. 6, 1996