Erik Kessels, photo © Gerhard Kassner

Seeing such a visibly public name such as KesselsKramer at a conference, there is the worry that the work is already over-exposed, and you’ve seen everything. Thankfully, with this talk there was the right balance of plenty of context added to the familiar, and showing some of their more obscure projects.

Erik talked about how a strong idea could carry across both a high and low budget, allowing that freedom to ‘blur’ at the top. And starting with the lowest of the low was the Hans Brinker Hotel in Amsterdam. This was one of KK’s first clients and Erik described it as “the biggest shithole … I’ve ever seen in my life”. The owner of the hotel was not interesting in improving the conditions for the guest, he just wanted less complaints. So, with that cue they began their campaign of bold, unflinching honesty – promoting all the downsides as if they were desirable features: “Now More Rooms Without a Window!” and “Now Even More Dog Shit in the Entrance!”. All were illustrated by fellow Typo speaker Anthony Burrill with his recognisably stark and witty style. The dog shit, apparently a common sight in Amsterdam, allowed another marketing idea – carefully planting small flags in each pile, to entice new guests. This not only worked, but was quickly copied by other budget hotels in the area. Over each year, the campaign developed along different themes, still with that strong concept at it’s heart: from Eco design to boutique design to pathetic improvements and my favourite – ‘everything not included’. Perhaps, what is most startling about this whole story is, not that complaints stopped (the assumption is that visitor’s expectations were lowered so much), but visitor numbers rocketed and continue to rise. It is now something of a tourist attraction amongst the younger visitors to Amsterdam.

Contrasting this, in budget, and well, everything else, was the more comfortable CitizenM Hotel, still with a stripped-back service, with self check-ins and optional luxuries. This time KK could change the hotel itself, and inject their personality into everything from the door signs to the shower gel (one for AM one for PM). Erik seemed to be most proud of designing the audio morning wake up call (a nice Dutch woman’s voice gently counting down from 100 to zero – mercifully cut short).

Aside from the client work, they found ways of incorporating their interests or hobbies into their day by starting their own the publishing company. They liked to publish small, idiosyncratic, mainly photographic books, which he admitted no one else would want to publish. The ‘Useful Photography’ series took photographs taken for a very particular purpose – whether food, items for eBay (artfully arranged), cow portraits or pornography (the non-sex scenes). The most interesting for me, were the collection of images of a woman in a shooting gallery. Each year, from a 16 year old girl to an old lady in her 80s would visit this Gallery, hit the target, which triggered the shutter of the camera. You see her age, fashions speed by, and colours appear as camera technologies change.

KK could sometimes be accused of playing for easy laughs at the expense of others – particularly the premise of asking the two lowest ranking football teams to play each other during the World Cup final in 2002. It sounds like an idea dreamed up in a pub, but they were entirely serious about asking Bhutan and Montserrat to play each other. After some initial sniggering in the audience, it became obvious what a beautiful simple idea it was, it wasn’t about the competition, it was about two very different nations meeting and playing together peacefully, who usually would never get that opportunity.

My impression of KesselsKramer was that of an enthusiasm for the unconscious art of the amateur – always with good humour and never in a patronising way. They showed people who operated outside the art or design fields invent solutions based on their instincts or very practical reasoning and produce engaging, weird, fascinating imagery, that a designer may never usually find. It’s about learning by looking outside our fields of ‘expertise’ and peers and gaining new inspiration from others.

By Ian Moore, @ian1pm