2009, v16n3 (p.19-25)
Typography issue: in their own words
There is nothing strange about Strange Attractors Design, apart from its name. Founded by Ryan Pescatore Frisk and Catelijne van Middelkoop in 2001, it is an international studio that “creates ideas and solutions with a view to influencing culture and commerce”. As active design researchers and educators, Frisk and van Middelkoop have given workshops and lectures in cities around the world, including Moscow, Prague, Katowice, Berlin, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, New York and Chicago.
IdN: Is there any particular reason for calling your company Strange Attractors?
SA: Yes, of course there is. Strange Attractors is a term used in Chaos Theory to describe the mathematical system behind dynamic processes that seem to be completely random. The interesting thing is that these mathematics result in unpredictable outcomes and endless variations of figures (such as fractals), not unlike the outcome of our typographic experiments. Besides the fact that the name suits us, it’s important to know that we came up with a third name to state that the work we make is more important than the maker: two heads=better than one!
IdN: You have said in previous interviews that you “try to work towards one-to-one relationships with all the elements that comprise and end design”: Using your Big Type Says More as an example, could you elaborate on the relationship between typography and these other elements?
SA: Big Type Says More is a huge installation (five layers thick, 2.83 x over 17 meters), which we created over the course of five weeks as part of an ongoing exhibition Cut for Purpose at Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam. Challenging context and production (all the work was done standing up, in a vertical position and live in front of visitors of the museum), we manually produced this installation using industrial, hand-held jigsaws and paint. The typographic structure was positioned as the front section of a spatial (honeycomb) cardboard structure (by Stealth.[u}ltd), enticing the viewer from windows and glass entrance and, upon approaching, rewarding them with increasingly complex, yet graceful forms. Our objective was to merge contemporary technology with traditional craftsmanship while representing the (wannabe) diverse, multi-cultural and architectural city of Rotterdam. In the end, custom-programmed LEDs, which were mounted to add a ‘touch of Vegas’ to the type that we created specifically for this project.
IdN: What makes typography such a flexible medium?
SA: Written words are abstract symbols that convey pure ideas, concepts and relationships. Letterforms communicate not only historic, but also geographic and social contexts. Typography deals with letters forming words and text, and text can be read and more easily interpreted by an audience than let’s say, an abstract painting. Even though a text could be complete nonsense, typography immediately suggests the presence of meaning and therefore relevance. The power of this tool can be applied to anything, anywhere.
IdN: Why are you so attracted to typography?
SA: Because it is so versatile (see answer above!). Besides that, the building blocks for typography, the actual letterforms, can be customized or built from scratch over and over again to fit the context of the work perfectly. Because we design most of the typefaces we work with ourselves, we can add a whole different layer of meaning to he work and make social/cultural comments at the same time!
IdN: Is there any difference in approach between your personal work and your client work?
SA: No, there isn’t. All the work is a result of an intense design process, in which we carefully weigh every ingredient. So far we have been very lucky with the people that commissioned us to create work for them. They trust us to make the right judgement, even when we are heavily experimenting. We have set a very high quality standard for ourselves; all the work that comes out of the studio, commercial or autonomous, needs to meet that level. IdN: Is there any specific medium besides print that you have found particularly suitable for presenting typography in? SA: For a while now, we’ve been investigating the spatial possibilities of our typography. We’re very focused on turning our typography into a complete experience, fine-tuning every aspect of the context in which the work is presented. Some site-specific installations and the design of a complete exhibition we are working on right now (See: Letterlab) are examples of where our typographic road is taking us.