Through cultural commissions and public sector projects – from stamps to urban identities – Armand Mevis (1963-) and Linda Van Deursen (1961-) of MEVIS + VAN DEURSEN have played a critical role in modernising Dutch graphic design and redefining it as a dynamic medium.
Both as designers and as teachers Armand Mevis and Linda van Deursen are influential figures in the dynamic Dutch graphic design scene. After meeting as students at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam during the 1980s, they worked as interns at Total Design before opening their own studio in Amsterdam.
Operating from a small studio with just two assistants Mevis and van Deursen have combined cultural commissions from the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art and the Netherlands Architecture Institute with projects for the fashion designers Viktor & Rolf. The catalogues they have created for artists such as Mechac Gaba, Carlos Amorales and Gabriel Orozco are projects in their own right rather than simply representations of the work.
Mevis, born in 1963, teaches at the Werkplaats Typographie in Arnhem while van Deursen, born in 1961, is head of the graphic design department at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy. They act as mentors to younger Dutch graphic designers such as Maureen Mooren and Daniel van der Velden, Jop van Bennekom and Experimental Jetset.
Q. What were your early design influences? What drew you to graphic design?
A. Without being aware of graphic design we were both really attracted to book covers made by Jan Vermeulen for Jan Wolkers in the early 1970s in Holland. They were just very poppy. He only used type with wonderful colours. Also a lot of record covers, especially the one Andy Warhol made for the Rolling Stones. We both went to art school without knowing that there was such a thing as graphic design. More or less after the foundation year we decided to study it. Armand was attracted to the idea of visibility through multiplying something. He was also excited by the idea of working with a problem, a question and trying to solve it. Linda was really happy to find a field in which she felt she could make herself useful. Next to that she especially liked the idea of working with language as well.
Q. Do you feel that your education (design or otherwise) influenced the way you work now?
A. We both studied graphic design at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. The teachers at that time were not specifically interesting or important to us. We were really never confronted with questions about graphic design. It was something that we somehow had no access to. Maybe because there were no computers then and we felt that the old letterpress did not provide a language we were interested in. So we more or less educated ourselves. The work we made had more to do with art – it involved a lot of image-making – and we both graduated with installations. But that lack of education in graphic design certainly had a big influence on how we started working together after finishing art school.
Q. Where did you meet and how did you start working together?
A. We got to know each other at the Rietveld Academy. We occasionally worked together in school. After we graduated it was hard to define what we wanted to do. We had both done internships at Studio Dumbar but somehow we did not like the idea of working at someone else’s office again. At that time, it was rather unusual to start your own business. We had no clear idea how we could work as graphic designers or whether we wanted to work as designers. But we were able to rent a big space with a lot of other people working in different fields. We were all just starting out and, even when we did not have any work, it was great to have a workplace with people who shared the same interests. We both applied for grant (a start-up subsidy for young artists and designers). At the time, the foundation happened to be organising a big exhibition and was looking for young graphic designers to create the catalogue and other publicity material. As the foundation was interested in working with one of us, we proposed doing the project together. That is how we started working together.
Q. What were Mevis + Van Deursen’s earliest design commissions?
A. The project we did for the foundation was quite successful and after that we started getting jobs from other clients in the cultural sector. Our work was very different from what leading graphics teams like Studio Dumbar, Total Design and Hard Weaken were doing at that time. That was probably because of our complete lack of knowledge of and education in design. The biggest difference was that we were very serious and the visual appearance of our work was very dry. We were interested in telling a story through design. We used our projects to research those possibilities within graphic design and to explore how form could become content.
Q. The Dutch graphic tradition is characterised by a willingness to experiment, twinned with an understanding of technique. Does your work relate to that tradition?
A. There is certainly a willingness to experiment. Since we did not recognise ourselves within existing design ideas, we had to find out why and how we could work as graphic designers. You can only do that by trying things out and taking risks.
Q. Peter Bilak has described the current Dutch scene as one of “solid tradition and respect for graphic design; open progressive education; funding to begin practice, and a broad range of clients with subsidised projects”. Is this a scene you recognise, do you feel part of it?
A. Obviously that is about us.
Q. Recently you made the decision to concentrate on publication design. What is so special about books?
A. We did not make that decision consciously. It just happens that we are making a lot of books lately. But it is great to be able to make books. We like the aspect of time in a book. It takes time to read and study a book: we use that in our designs. It gives us the possibility to develop an idea throughout the book. The editing of a book is very important to us. Besides those books are also objects, they have a physical appearance that very little other graphic design work has.
Q. Many of your design projects concern art, architecture and design. How did you first become involved in these areas?
A. We have never really pursued certain jobs or defined a field that we wanted to work in. The work we did more or less selected our clients. It was rather clear that we were not interested in working for commercial clients. Most of all we like to work with interesting content. That is not always possible but, for sure, it is much more exciting to work with people who make work themselves like artists, fashion designers and architects.
Q. Do you work collaboratively with the artists and the designers who are the subjects of the books
A. Most of the books we make deal with reproducing art. It is not a very easy thing to do. We try to be very specific every time we make a book for an artist. Making a book for one artist is very different than making a book for a group of artists. Books have limited possibilities but it is interesting to find a way to reproduce time-based work in a book, for example. The process of making a book for an artist can be very different. Most artists are really interested in collaborating with us. Although they can initially be very protective of their work we hope to convince them to be more open to a translation of it or to think of their work in terms of a book.
Q. You have both taught a great deal. How do you think this contributes to your own work?
A. We like to think that by teaching we contribute to a more interesting design climate in the Netherlands. It is stimulating and inspiring to see how our former students develop ideas about graphic design.
Q. What are you working on
A. More books.