T-Files 023: Experimental Jetset

If you pay attention to the T-shirt game, you’re almost definitely aware of the work of Experimental Jetset, even if you don’t know it. In 2001, the Dutch trio created the iconic “John & Paul & Ringo & George” T-shirt for 2k by Gingham, as well as similar graphics based on the Rolling Stones and the Ramones, in an effort to create the archetypal band tee. It would seem they really did, thus creating one of the most heavily ripped-off and cross-referenced tee graphics of the last decade, and unintentionally spawning a cottage industry of inspired designs in the process. The design is now available through Publik, a new company started by Yoshi Kawasaki, the former creative head of 2k. Incidentally, Experimental Jetset also feature prominently in Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica documentary, which I just watched and posted about earlier in the week, allowing us a look inside their studio, while giving their own interesting take on the ubiquitous typeface which seems to generate intense love/hate reactions from many designers and typographers. Indeed, they designed the cover & poster art for the documentary, using, you guessed it, Helvetica. Danny, Marieke and Erwin were kind enough to answer some of my inane questions about plagiarism, The Beatles, and other matters of great import, so here we go…

Your iconic John & Paul & Ringo & George t-shirt design for 2k by Gingham has inspired so many similar designs that it has generated a veritable “Ampersand T-shirt” phenomenon – some are featured on your website. I was wondering how it must feel to design create something so popular and have it so heavily bootlegged?It feels strange, but not in an unpleasant way. It’s always an awkward sensation to realize that something that you designed with your own hands now exists completely independent from yourself. The shirt is a phenomenon in its own right, and there’s nothing we can do about it. But then again, that might be the ultimate achievement as a designer: to create something that lives a life on its own. It’s classic Frankenstein really. We’re quite lucky that all the ‘bootleggers’ fully acknowledge us. Whenever the shirt pops up, on a website, weblog or forum, the caption always mentions that the shirt is inspired by us. So that’s a big plus. If people would deny that we designed the original shirt, now that would be frustrating; but luckily, that isn’t the case.

Right! Have you seen The Names Brand? The entire site deals with designs based on your John & Paul & Ringo & George t-shirt design…We’ve seen it. We’ve seen other webstores like that as well, focusing completely on ‘&&&’ shirts. What can we say about it? We’re pretty zen about it, actually. We don’t find it the most interesting side of the whole phenomenon. We’re much more into the concept of home-made, DIY bootlegs. We like the idea of fans making their own shirts, at home, using our shirt as their inspiration. The whole concept of building a sort of commercial ‘print-on-demand’ industry around it seems not very interesting to us.

I feel like I can detect references to The Beatles in a few of your works, is there a big Beatles fan hidden inside the design studio somewhere?All three of us are huge Beatles fans, and there’s nothing ‘hidden’ about it, actually! What we like about the Beatles is first of all the music, obviously. But what we also love is the whole web of references and associations that the Beatles carry with them. There’s a whole universe contained in that band: from Fluxus to Pop-Art, from Yoko Ono to Charles Manson, from vegetarianism to left-wing politics, from beat music to experimental composition, etc. etc. It’s a complete world in itself.

I’m a big fan of your website, did you design it in-house?Yes, we designed it, and coded it ourselves. We’re not really web-designers; we focus as much as possible on printed matter, because that is where our heart is. But we do feel satisfied when we occasionally design and code a website ourselves, and put it online. Three examples of sites we recently designed are Pioneers of Change, Precinct Five, and Bureau Europa.

Since you’ve inspired so many people around the world, is there anything that has been particularly inspiring for Experimental Jetset?We really love Brazilian culture! Tropicalia, Oscar Niemeijer, Roberto Burle Marx, Rogerio Duarte, Augusto de Campos, Helio Oiticica etc. etc. The whole idea of ‘tropical modernism’ really inspires us; probably because we are so far removed from it, geographically.





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