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Designer Dialogues: Maartje & Merel

06 January 2022

9 min. to read

© Anniek Mol
BLANK SPACE MAGAZINE portrays different creative makers in their workplaces while interviewed by colleagues. What fascinates, inspires and drives them to do what they do? Especially for, BLANK SPACE MAGAZINE edited the interviews into interesting short stories. Designer Nicky Liebregts went to the design duo Maartje & Merel for an interesting conversation and a lot of laughs.

Maartje & Merel, how did you 2 find each other?

Maartje: We were at the Design Academy together. I had a large garden where we were putting projects together and ate cocktail nuts. We weren’t collaborating yet, but at some point we started having shared frustrations about the educational programme, the dos and don’ts.

Merel: So we quit for a year, and registered as a design studio together ... from then on, we figured we were in business, even though we had no clear idea of what that meant. That’s the year our collaboration started.

Maartje: We marked our graduation by breaking a champagne bottle on an artwork in Amsterdam: DO SOMETHING in really big letters. That had to be our sign, and we still stick to it. It’s better to do something than nothing! There’s theory, and there’s the real world: in the real world, things never work the way you want to; it is what it is, so you adjust. It always turns out differently, often for the better though, like when we made the Underground Bar. 

Nicky: Can you tell a bit about that, how do you come up with an idea like that together?

Maartje: When we noticed that Eindhoven was lacking an underground scene, we wanted to give the city an underground bar – by literally digging out a bar underground. 

Merel: And there we stood, at the edge of a huge hole. First, we made a bar, then we found out that it's pretty hard for people to find a bar which is under the ground. So, we started to make videos of people digging, and used these to promote the way to the bar. Maartje is more the one to say: Let's start and see where we end. I am more of an investigator and planner. Without Maartje I would be more hesitant to do something.

Maartje: We didn’t have the license yet, but the idea was there. We will figure the rest out along the way.

Merel: The thing I really appreciate about our collaboration is Maartje’s radical honesty. She can’t hide it when something doesn’t excite her. People around me just tend to be surprised by anything creative. My mom thinks everything is marvellous. So it’s important to have someone who shares the same taste, who gets it, someone really critical who speaks up as well.

Maartje: Merel is a good researcher, for instance, and I’m definitely not.

Merel: I always file our tax returns too.

Nicky: It does sound as if the best ideas arise in the present moment. Do you actually need that time pressure as well?

Maartje: Yes, we do. And when there is more time, you just start later. If there’s no deadline, it’s not going to happen. At some point it takes a real hard push.

Merel: Sometimes, sitting together for 15, 30 minutes is all it takes to get it out. We both contribute to the ideas: we have this kind of super fast mechanism that allows us to constantly respond to each other, improving the idea as it goes back and forth. It’s something we trained. Because we’re now occupied full-time besides running our company, we need to keep our process short. That’s the proposition you sign up for when you work with us. We really go all the way though.

Nicky: To what extent is the client still involved in your creative process?

Maartje: At KesselsKramer we experienced an anti-common-brainstorm culture, which is quite unusual for a commercial communication agency.

Merel: We might hate brainstorming, but we have still trained ourselves in making sure that other people can follow the steps we take and our way of thinking.

Nicky: Still, the development in recent years has increasingly been towards co-creation. To make the client part of your creative process.

Maartje: It’s incredibly important that you discuss things together, that someone gives you the ingredients to work with. So you respond to each other, but you don’t lock everyone up in a room for a day to come out with the best idea. 

Merel: We’re actually a bit anti-brainstorm, anti-co-creation. If that means everyone is trying to cram in their own little piece, you get a very awkward puzzle. It might be really nice as part of the process, but if you love strong, clear ideas, as we do, you run the risk of seeing them scattered all over the place.

Maartje: It doesn’t really matter who made what. We try to tell a story and it’s the impact that counts. Someone needs to be moved, someone needs to change their behaviour, someone needs to see something they previously didn’t understand: that is much more important.

Nicky: It also sounds as if you never have a dull moment.

Maartje: We are extremely allergic to boredom. We’re anti-boring. Merel is writing a paper now, dry as dust, and she still gets feedback that science is no place for humour.

Merel: I never deliberately try to be funny. I don’t see myself as a comedian at all. I do enjoy it if I can tell things clearly and understandably within this rather woolly scientific context.

Maartje: That’s anti-boring, isn’t it?

Merel: No, I don’t want anyone to laugh but…

Maartje: ... you do want people to get it within 5 minutes. They shouldn’t be laughing all the time, but they should be curious. So you don’t lose them.

© Anniek Mol

Nicky: That seems like a strong contrast to me: the advertising world that’s really fast and edgy versus science that moves slowly and takes time.

Merel: They are very different and very similar at the same time. They are both busy solving problems. There’s a method involved, there are specific steps, there’s a need for clarity. But the culture that surrounds it is quite different.

Maartje: I’ve become the measure of that clarity. Merel tries to write everything as intelligibly as she possibly can and then lets me read it.

Nicky: And what if we would look back after 20 years?

Merel: To me it’s very important to be working on something bigger than myself.

Maartje: We may not be doing this consciously, but we do hope to create timeless projects. The advertising world is very transient, but we’re definitely not trying to be trendy. Being trendy is nice for a year, but then you start thinking: this is from last year, or from 5 years ago. If a project contains a strong, clear idea, it becomes timeless. In that case, the idea gets propelled by the design and, hopefully, it will still be valid in ten years.

Merel: After so many years of collaborating, we certainly ask ourselves what we would want our contribution to have been, later on. What would be worth our efforts? It would be a shame if we were looking back only to see that nothing had changed, so we also choose issues that matter to us. We say ‘no’ to projects more often as well, and I’m proud of that.

Maartje: You start to feel more responsibility for a project that has an important theme. The feeling is strongest when our hearts are in it. The climate is being fucked up, that should be different. If that is the focus of a project then it has to be really good, or you will ruin the chance to get people involved.

Nicky: It’s easy to look back and tell stories, but is it possible to look ahead as well, to plot a course? Because if you do, you’re no longer in the present.

Merel: If you look very far ahead, you can’t decide anymore, it becomes too big and you start to overthink. But then Maartje is there to just get going. To do something.

Maartje: Like with the Underground Bar, we start digging a hole and we’ll see when it’s time to stop. Merel is also a do-er and I’m also looking ahead, but maybe I’m a bit more in the present, finding energy in the situation, rather than in a distant point on the horizon.

Nicky: In the present and timeless at the same time.

Maartje: (laughing) We’re a good team, right?

Want to read the full article?

You can find the complete interview in BLANK SPACE MAGAZINE - issue #4