Winter 2005

Mooren and Van der Velden: Argyle charm

The Dutch design duo see decoration as a way to convey messages that are not direct statements

Earlier this year the Dutch designers Maureen Mooren and Daniël van der Velden designed a new identity for the Holland Festival. The campaign – which comprised a series of posters, printed materials and advertisements – was evident throughout the Netherlands until the end of June. The designers met as students at the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam during the mid-1990s and have worked together in a studio in Amsterdam since 1998. They used the project to critique contemporary Dutch society – images of stained glass windows are threaded through with images of crushed beer cans and soda bottles. They also used it to re-think the possibilities and potential of a ‘sign’ which they see as ‘capable of attracting a multiplicity of meanings and interpretations’, as distinct from a ‘logo’, which, as they put it, is ‘a product of corporate culture’ and ‘like a marriage based on a dating profile’.

The patterns are an integral part of the identity. They are used on the insides of envelopes, the backs of letterheads and within the festival poster as windows to reveal and interweave what the designers refer to as ‘rather apocalyptic imagery’ which is part of the narrative of the ‘sign.’ The patterns are far from flat; instead they are structural elements used to build the sign architecturally. The patterns come from the argyle sweaters and socks favoured by the festival’s target audience, which they see as being middle-aged, educated, wealthy consumers of culture. ‘These argyle patterns stand for a conservative, yet playful aesthetic as they originate from the costumes worn by players in seventeenth-century Commedia dell’ Arte,’ says the duo. ‘Almost all of our work uses ornament and pattern, but we’d never say, “right let’s add some pattern” or “let’s do some ornament now”.’ The impulse will come from a project.

Mooren and Van der Velden think that the use of pattern or ornament as a visual strategy is only interesting ‘when its hierarchical relation to a main message is undefined, and constantly shifting.’ In their opinion ornament and decoration in twenty-first century patterns, are ways to convey messages that are not direct statements. ‘We think that patterns are interesting to the extent that they promise discovery, mystery,’ they say. As part of a corporate identity they designed for Stockholm Kunsthall, for example, they used leaves to form intense patterns that worked on several levels. The leaf motif, derived from the park setting of the museum, acted as a metaphor for the idea of information overload being a phenomenon more comparable to nature than to culture. Mooren and Van der Velden’s work was also exhibited in the museum. They presented their work for Archis magazine (see Eye no. 45 vol. 12) in an installation that was itself a pattern, ‘an information landscape.’ The floor was covered by pages (or leaves) ripped out from the experimental magazine, which visitors could pick up and take home. The designers have an interesting perspective on the reasons for the Modernists’ rejection of ornament. In addition to the usually stated reason – ornament is not structural and therefore not essential – Van der Velden and Mooren offer another: ‘It contains commentary and narrative of a generally affirmative relationship to those in power,’ they say. ‘The lions and gods and mythological figures of Versailles were there for the sake of the sovereign and nothing else; they definitely did not allow for an open dialogue. Perhaps Modernism did away with ornament because it was inherited as a visual carrier for power?’

The designers continue with this train of thought: ‘Nowadays, however, businessmen, lawyers and politicians are seated on Eames chairs instead. It is clear that Modernism has, to a great extent, replaced classical ornament as a staged way of conveying power. Just think of the übermensch-sterility of a Prada store, which reminds one of the film Gattaca.’

‘Ornament nowadays is a very strategic affair,’ say Mooren and Van der Velden. ‘It’s about influencing the associative wavelength of design without touching its contours or shape. If one looks, for instance, at [the Swiss architects] Herzog & de Meuron’s use of pattern, it is clear that they are trying to smarten up and give a visual twist to their Swiss boxes while still preserving austerity.’