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Room: Von Wersins Kitchen

Hansje van Halem & Mienke Simon Thomas in conversation

Hansje van Halem & Mienke Simon Thomas in conversation (text), The Palace of Typographic Masonry - a guided tour, 210 x 297 mm (364 pages), 2018

Strolling around between the scaffolding and flamboyantly ornamented cabinets are Hansje van Halem, and Mienke Simon Thomas, curator of applied art and design at the Boymans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam. Whereas Hansje Van Halem is known as a graphic designer for ornate and extravagant patterns, Mienke Simon Thomas obtained her PhD with a research investigating the manuals instructing the application of ornament from 1850 to 1930. Let us eavesdrop on their conversation and see what we can pick up from that.

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Mienke: Lately, I’ve been working on Bauhaus from morning to night. That movement had no patience for ornamentation. Walking around here, I need to return to the perspectives I was studying for my thesis. What fascinated me about this subject at the time is that there was a historical period in which people not only believed that decoration was necessary and important but that it was subject to laws that you could deduce from nature and cultural history. And that you could translate these laws into a series of prescriptions and rules. Between 1850 and 1930, you saw books being published across Europe about the theory of ornament. They presented a vast morphology, which in turn served as the foundations for the rules and laws of ornamentation.

By now, of course, we consider these scientific pretentions misguided. They’re based on an interesting fallacy, though, and what actually underlies the misconception itself? Where does this idea come from? I was particularly fascinated by those discourses about correct and incorrect, functional and non-functional ornaments. And how ornamentation developed over time – the gradual move from an increasingly riotous proliferation and excess of ornamentation towards a more sober approach. In the 1930s, they even eliminated ornamentation altogether.

Hansje: I’m mainly interested in patterns – infinite repetition, how it works. I was educated at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. Both of my parents are artists, and I expected art school to be rather easy-going. The Hague proved very different. They were strict. They said: the only correct colour for letters is black. They were very into the Doctrine of Typography there. I stuck it out for two years and then switched to the Rietveld Academie. Over there they’re more interested in crossing boundaries, of course; experimenting and making mistakes. Although I did learn a lot during my time in The Hague.

During my final year in 2002-2003, I got myself a digital pen, which meant I could start filling in font volumes by hand. This produces vector files that you can scale up without losing any resolution detail. At a small scale, the letters look messy but uniform. But when you increase the scale you start to see quite a few differences. This is also due to my not following any fixed system: I turned my drawing pad upside down and worked in a number of different directions. Then I started stacking these drawings. The darker tones are produced by superimposing multiple layers. This allows you to give completely different values to letters. More delicate, more spatial, more ambiguous. The entire process of using letters becomes more tangible, more physical. It’s no longer just bold and light, but an infinitely sophisticated scale of hues and forms. And at a certain point, I started thinking ‘Who cares whether you can read it or not?’ – that’s when I started working outside the boundaries of the letter itself. That was quite a big step for me. I had been trained by teachers who evaluated everything in terms of a concept: any elements that weren’t functional in this context needed to be eliminated. This new work had no function, concept, story or substance – it felt like something forbidden.

Hansje van Halem, Scratched Letter, 2003

Mienke: If I understand correctly, you see patterns and ornaments as two different things. I think you see them as patterns, not ornaments. You aren’t decorating anything.

Hansje: Well, it’s more a case of me excusing myself for the lack of a concept or function: the fact that it’s something I cooked up: a pattern, and nothing more. And still, that non-functional aspect starts to lead a life of its own. I asked the publisher, who is also the printer, whether we could also print the endleaves. Without consulting the client first. I was afraid it would lead to arguments, but everyone loved it. They were pleasantly surprised. Later on, people actually started calling me because of those patterned endpapers. Patterns like that appeal to a particular sentiment; a feeling of reassuring order. They suggest a safe place for feelings. And it really works that way. They have a calming effect.

Mienke: People have a universal urge to decorate objects in their surroundings. I’m convinced of this. And recognising a pattern is basically a form of joy. It applies to both complicated patterns and simple chequered fabrics. We acquire this desire for empty space and simplicity as we grow up.

Hansje: It isn’t so much driven by a desire to decorate; I’m interested in methodology. My point of departure is often the technical possibilities created by a new form of complexity. I want to mobilise this love of patterns. So that after a while, people feel that they see what it’s about – that it makes sense. I always find the innovation in these patterns in technology; in the opportunities presented by the process. I need to try stuff out. For example, one time I used Riso printing as a starting point. I followed lines through a variety of print runs. I also did a lace-making course for three years to understand the connection between lines and their choreography. A line is a method of construction. My mother designs clothes and works with lines and threads – in the old days, she used knitting machines. And my father makes line drawings, he’s a draughtsman. With my digital drawing tools, I actually combine those two things.

Mienke: Still, I think it’s a good idea to clarify that what you’re doing is markedly different from what the Victorians did with ornamentation. According to that Doctrine, every ornament supports the function and meaning of an object or surface. What you’re doing would have been out of the question: exploring and trying out things without a fixed purpose. You would have been breaking a taboo!

When they made a cup, they would include a decorative edge along the bottom to show where the cup ends. The fluting on Corinthian columns refers to the stem of the acanthus plant, the epitome of linearity and strength. That’s the essence of the column. And you would mark the end of the column with a capital decorated with acanthus leaves. When you designed a vase that was used to hold cut flowers, you added a decoration across the middle of the vase that expressed this binding together of flowers. With a belt or a cord with a knot. A form that draws attention to the act of binding. People thought of ornaments in those sorts of terms: ‘holding’, ‘binding’.

Nor were you allowed to suggest a third dimension that wasn’t there. So no naturalistic, spatial representation of flowers on a carpet. That would look like you were trampling the flowers! You were permitted to include stylised floral motifs on a flat plane. The same applied to wall coverings. It was truly seen as a science, with the whole iconography and symbolism of plants and flowers playing a role. The meaning of lilies versus lily-of-the-valley. And you weren’t supposed to include Neo-gothic ornaments in the ladies’ drawing room, but rather something in a Rococo vein. These were considered laws of nature.

Decorative brickwork, from Architectonische Vormleer deel 01, Eugen Heinrich Gugel, 1880

Hansje: There’s a new interest in ornamentation nowadays. In using patterns to change spaces and books. But we no longer have a straightforward Doctrine. I myself am mainly interested in the generative process and the option of enlarging things. I’m fascinated by their ability to create depth and movement. Something physical. This also creates opportunities to use those ornaments in other ways, outside graphic design. Architects ask me to think along about buildings’ interiors, so that people feel at home in them. Facades and fences too.

I want my work to look contemporary. It’s OK for people to see that I use modern technology. I’m not interested in nostalgia. For my generation, computers are more than just a tool that you mainly use to make lay-outs. They’re a medium in their own right. You work within this environment, explore things and experiment. My method of working is a lot more manual, intuitive, less conceptual. And you often see that from a certain point on, this produces something wonderful; something enchanting.

Mienke: If I understood you correctly, you’re not so much interested in patterns’ meaning or history as in free experimentation; drawing and searching; trying things out. Simply for the fun of it. And out of curiosity.

Hansje: It’s also a reaction to those art degree programmes where everything has to be considered and accounted for; conceptual and functional. Of course, things like this go in cycles. Maybe in a few years, people will want to strip everything down again and simplify things. There was this whole trend of glorifying the design craft, but I didn’t really fit in with that because I work with computers.

Mienke: That glorification of the craft and making things by hand has winded down by now. But it’s still striking to see how designers continue to explore materials. When you go to Dutch Design Week, you see that a lot of work is about gaining a deeper understanding of the material and finding new ways to utilise material aspects.

Hansje: You’re right. It’s also has to do with the democratisation of the technology. Things you used to need a whole plant for – like laser cutting or 3D printing – are now within the reach of ordinary people. I have a plotter that can draw digital patterns using a biro. Techniques like this from the ’70s have become accessible to everyone. It may not be about handmade anymore, but it is about authenticity, about material aspects. About new and individual ways to use specific materials. Because you won’t get there with just a concept. You need to delve deeper into your medium and explore its possibilities. That’s the only way you can make something that other people can’t copy. Sometimes I myself don’t even remember how I made something exactly.

Mienke: You’ve touched on an important point. One of the key forces that drives applied arts forward – from the very first examples we have ever found – is one-upmanship. Surpass people; astonish them; increasingly delicate; technically impressive.

Take silverware from the 17th century. It starts out with some fine engraving, and the silversmiths hammering a flower motif, for example, in the metal somewhere. At a certain point, they start trying to outdo each other: the flowers are raised further and further from the object’s surface. With increasingly spectacular results – until you end up with a salt cellars that isn’t even recognisable as such. Although it is a technical tour de force.

Of course, you could spare yourself the trouble. But apparently, the pleasure of competing, of achieving these results, was reason enough for people to make this extra effort and invest all this extra time and money. Ornamentation can also be comforting. It takes your mind off things; it serves as a counterweight to banality, emptiness, the daily grind.

Hansje: Do you own silver salt cellars like that yourself?

Mienke: The weird thing is: even though I know my predilection for restraint and purity is quite snobbish – and basically part of this mind-set where you’re striving to rise above the hoi polloi, the people who do need ornaments in their life – I’m stuck with it. Deep down I really don’t like ornamentation. So whenever I see something and think ‘Oh, I love that – I wouldn’t mind having one at home,’ it tends to be very austere and minimalist. Scandinavian design, for example. That really touches me, I find it very beautiful personally. But professionally, I just as much enjoy researching rococo furniture if the opportunity presents itself.

Hansje van Halem, Koppermaandag endpaper, 2021

Hansje: My home is rather plain and practical. Maybe because I’m already staring at patterns all day. But I’m very grateful for having been educated in the Modernist tradition. I’ve learned how to set up the scaffolding for a design. It’s a great starting point for working in a freer style later on. And I’ve noticed that my decisions are already different to those made by today’s design students. They don’t have that same relationship with the scaffolding. They often think it’s enough to make a really intense image. Their work often goes in the direction of ‘noise’ – in other words, a lot of RGB colours; glitches; superimposed layers. And then they top it off with an aura and turn into in an animated .gif so that everything moves. Pure experimentation – no sense of direction. What I do see is that fluidity is becoming more important. Some shapes and letters can take on all sorts of guises – simply by writing the right code.

It’s difficult to animate my work because it already moves as it is. I’ve put my desire for movement into the still image, which means that I would have to come up with a new set of rules if I decided to animate it. My designs often have a subtle balance and suggestive effects. They’d become a mishmash if you animated them: the image would collapse like a house of cards. It would no longer be legible. But still, I’m very interested in the idea of making designs fluid…