Erik Kessels: Confusion makes the world go round

Erik Kessels is a true creative beyond the scope of categories. The passionate Dutchman is intrigued by the odds and absurdities of everyday life and knows well, how to turn them into catchy campaigns and successful publishing projects. At TYPO 2015 he takes his viewers on a joyful journey to the world’s worst hotel and weirdest photo albums.

The creative genius goes to church every day – as this is, where his advertising agency KesselsKramer operates in Amsterdam. Founded in 1995 together with Johan Kramer, it is one of the most famous ad agencies in the Netherlands and beyond. The location seems rather odd, but that’s exactly how they like it.

When the best make it worse

Thanks to KesselKramer, the agency’s first client Hans Brinker Budget Hotel can now claim to be “the worst hotel in the world”. As honesty turns out to be their only luxury, the creative director came up with the rather simple, but effective idea: In a world overloaded with advertisement, where everything is made better than it actually is, or – as some might say – is even almost entirely a lie, they are making the strong gesture of simply telling the truth.

© KesselsKramer © KesselsKramer
By highlighting the flaws, instead of hiding them, Kessels creates an attention, which is directly proven by the TYPO crowd’s reactions. Curios about how bad it could possibly get, the audience is magnetised by the slides Kessels has to show from a 19 year working relationship with his client. Accompanied by the laughing hall, he flicks through the different campaigns until “it can’t get any worse.”

© KesselsKramer © KesselsKramer
The campaigns are excellently designed, outrageously original and peppered with solid honesty. It is this kind of strong ideas, that make the work of Kessels so much fun to look at. And the whole talk remains truly entertaining. Equipped with little anecdotes, he communicates his love for story-telling with all means. In this end, Kessels presents himself not necessarily like a man of many words, but with loads of pictures.

An eye on the odd

A couple of other, not any less convincing, advertising projects and design products can be seen, as he continues. Followed by a collection of smartphone pictures and online treasures, that show unbelievably ridiculous and stupid construction errors. (Draws, that block each other from opening. A staircase, that can’t be taken.) In his talk he mixes passion with profession, private snapshots with campaign posters for clients, work with hobby. It becomes clear, that his creations are not simply a certain design approach, but derive from a more general specific attitude towards the world. And subsequently result in a broad range of creative outcome, that can not be put in one single category. At all times Kessels has an extraordinarily attentive eye on oddity.

Erik Kessels

Erik Kessels

Designer, Artist, Curator (Amsterdam)

Born in 1966, lives and works in Amsterdam. Erik Kessels is a Dutch artist, designer and curator with great interest in photography. Erik Kessels is since 1996 Creative Director of communications agency KesselsKramer in Amsterdam and works for national and international clients such as Nike, Diesel, J&B Whisky, Oxfam, Ben, Vitra, Citizen M and The Hans Brinker Budget Hotel. As an artist and photography curator Kessels has published over 50 books of his 're-appropriated' images: Missing Links (1999), The Instant Men (2000), in almost every picture (2001-2015) and Wonder (2006). Since 2000, he has been an editor of the alternative photography magazine Useful Photography. For the DVD art project Loud & Clear he worked together with artists such as Marlene Dumas and Candice Breitz. Kessels writes regular editorials for numerous international magazines. He lectured at the D&AD Presidents Lecture and at several international design conferences such as in Singapore, Goa, NY, Toronto and Bangkok. He has taught at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy (Amsterdam), Écal (Lausanne) and at the Amsterdam Academy of Architecture where he curated a celebration of amateurism. Kessels made and curated exhibitions such as Loving Your Pictures, Use me Abuse me, 24HRS of Photos, Album Beauty and Unfinished Father . He als co-curated an exhibition called From Here on together with Martin Parr, Joachim Schmid, Clement Cheroux and Joan Fontuberta. In 2010 Kessels was awarded with the Amsterdam Prize of the Arts, in 2016 nominated for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize and is often seen as the most influential creative of The Netherlands.

Flea markets, fairs and online sites are some of the treasure troves, where Kessels follows his passion for vernacular photography and its immanent stories. What started as a hobby, has meanwhile become the successful publishing project “In Almost Every Picture” with 14 volumes and made him the star of the found-footage scene. By remixing the contexts, abandoned photo-albums of amateurs become photo-books, that celebrate the every day, the profane, the unintentionally comical and the accidentally aesthetic.

© KesselsKramer © KesselsKramer
While the books definitely make you smile, by listening to the way Kessels talks about the portrayed, one does not at all get the impression, that he is making fun of them and their – admittedly strange – self-depictions, but shows an honest and authentic interest in people. The woman who is repeatedly photographed in swimming pools while being completely dressed, is not just a motif on a picture. Kessels presents Valerie, an individual with a name and a story and shares with the audience, the encounters and conversations, he had with her and her husband and photographer Frank. The approach resembles a participatory observation of an anthropologist as he actively researches the backgrounds of his findings, gets in touch and maintains contacts. He seems to be truly interested in seeing their worlds.

With his projects he shows the beauty of differences, as well as the creative potential of flaws and mistakes. They remind us of how lucky we are, that besides the strive for perfection, photoshopped realities and the glossy surfaces of humanoid robots, there are still characters and situations out there, that are unusual, peculiar and therefore special. This is, what makes living funny, interesting and entertaining.