What can go wrong in a chicken suit? Can making mistakes lead to great success? We had a chat with Erik Kessels the ‘Kessels’ of KesselsKramer about chasing a dream for 11 years and have it disintegrate in 1hr—Erik discovered his path to Graphic Design and starting up his own studio with Johan Kramer.
What are some of your earliest creative memories and what lead you into design? I grew up in a very small town in the South of The Netherlands. It was pretty and quaint but not exactly brimming with creative inspirations and opportunities. My earliest creative memory is of watching a shop window-dresser that I frequently saw and followed in my hometown. I loved watching him take ordinary objects, bits and pieces and turning the window into (what I deemed) a work of art. At just five years of age my mind was made up. I wasn’t going to be an astronaut or a fireman, I was going to be a shop window dresser. 11 years later my dream hadn’t changed and I was finally old enough to enroll at the school where you could study to become a professional shop window-dresser. I did the job for one whole hour and hated every minute of it. The space inside the window display was cramped and hard to move. I was too tall and had no fingernails, which made the already fiddly work down right frustrating. On top of everything else the lighting in the window was baking me like a ham in an oven. My dream died a slow, sweaty, well-lit death.
I was disappointed at the time, but more than anything I was shocked at how unprepared I was for the realities of the profession I had been aspiring to for so many years. After this I started concentrating on graphic design, which was probably a better fit for me in the first place. But hey, you can’t say I didn’t follow my dream.
Where did you study and what were some of your first jobs? So, after the window dressing disaster I moved from the polytechnic school to art school. In my early twenties I started my first job at Ogilvy & Mather in Eindhoven and Amsterdam. From there I moved to another creative agency in Amsterdam. Two years later I met Johan Kramer and we decided to team up. We moved to London together to work as a creative team for Chiat Day. It was all going great until we got fired for showing up to work in chicken suits. I guess you could say that two chickens inspired us start our own agency KesselsKramer in 1996 in Amsterdam.
“I was disappointed at the time, but more than anything I was shocked at how unprepared I was for the realities of the profession I had been aspiring to for so many years”
What qualities and skills do you look for in a graduate? I’m looking for backyards that match the pretty front gardens. What the hell do I mean by this? I meet a lot of young creatives and see even more portfolios. The people and the portfolios that always stand out for me are the ones who have obviously put in the time to really get to know who they are creatively. People who are not afraid to tell you about the projects they worked on that pushed and even broke their creative boundaries. I meet so many students and graduates these days who can do a little bit of everything, but are too afraid to pick one thing and master it. All of the technological bells and whistles available these days make it easy to create beautiful work; but it also makes it easy to fall into the trap of creating purely execution driven work (the front garden) without giving any real thought to the ideas, the concept and the processes that justify and underpin the finished product (the backyard).
“I meet so many students and graduates these days who can do a little bit of everything, but are too afraid to pick one thing and master it.”
I’m not anti technology, it definitely affords a certain level of creative liberation. However, being able to skip what used to be time consuming manual techniques makes it tempting to bypass the brain racking, sweat blood and tears part of the creative process too.
What have been some of your biggest disasters and how have you learnt from it? In many ways you could say that a lot of my success has been built on mistakes. I’ve made a career out of them.
I’ve become fascinated by imperfection and am wholly convinced that making mistakes is a crucial, and often unappreciated aspect of a successful creative process. What I love about mistakes and imperfections is how sometimes they are beautiful and maybe even brilliant, and sometimes they’re not. The difference is in taking the time and the risk to really look at something that, at first glance, seems “wrong” and see where it takes you.
What has been your highlights since you started out? I could pick out specific projects or moments, but a lot of the highlights since starting the agency have in many ways been made possible by decisions we made early on in how we wanted to run the business and the kind of work we wanted to make. We took risks, calculated ones (most of the time) but risks nonetheless. When deadlines have come and clients are breathing down your neck it can be tempting to make concessions in the type and quality of the work, particularly when you’re starting out. But at the end of the day this does no one any favours; not me, not the agency and not the client. We’ve always had a really clear vision of what we didn’t want to become and protecting our identity as an agency meant (and means) knowing when to say no. Saying no to potential clients or projects can be fucking scary, wondering if you made the right decision. I’ve learnt to trust my gut, which might sound cheesy or cliché but as an artist and a creative I think it is one of the greatest skills you can hope to develop; knowing when to keep going and when to cut your losses.
What advice would you give students starting out? Dare to say no. Trust me, I know this is easier said than done. When you are starting out it’s great that you are keen for any work you can get your hands on, including the occasional job that will help pay the rent. But I think it’s really important to build a portfolio that balances quality and quantity, and this means knowing when to say no.