In interviews, graphic designers often reference fellow graphic or type designers, but industrial designers? Not so much. So it’s interesting that in replying to my question on what they consider to be their most important tool, Loes van Esch and Simone Trum, who established Rotterdam-based design studio Team Thursday ten years ago, cite not a tool, but a person—the noted Dutch industrial designer Hella Jongerius. “We once heard the term thinking hands. We think Hella Jongerius mentioned it. For us, that really works—it’s all about making things, trying things out and sketches. It doesn’t work to make a design in your head and think it through too much beforehand. It has to develop through making because it’s good to surprise yourself,” they say. In actual fact, the words were not from Jongerius, but they do relate to a manifesto she launched at Milan’s prestigious Salone del Mobile furniture fair in 2015 with Louise Schouwenberg, the art and design theorist, who said, “Thinking hands aren’t enough by themselves for a good analysis of the position you want your work to have in the wider context ... I think the best creative process is an alternation of intuitive thinking—with your hands—with profound reflection.”
It’s a statement, or even a minimanifesto, that could have been made with the work of Team Thursday in mind. This dynamic young duo delights in producing work that is rooted in a handmade, analog aesthetic, using things like mechanical printers, thick pens and grungy fonts, but is clearly underpinned by Schouwenberg’s “alternation of intuitive thinking.” Working in this way, they’re following a strong Dutch tradition that gave us such designers and typographers as Gerard Unger, Wim Crouwel, Erik van Blokland, Luc(as) de Groot and Fred Smeijers, many of whom took an experimental approach to their work and delighted in exploring the possibilities of old technology in developing and shaping it—in Smeijers’s case, sixteenth-century punch cutting led to his typeface FF Quadraat.
Trum and van Esch acknowledge this heritage while firmly forging their own path. “There is this huge modernist tradition that is so specific in the Netherlands. We always work with grids, of course, but we see them as a frame we can push against or stretch, not as a frame that dictates our design. Also, we would definitely not call ourselves modernists,” they say. They also acknowledge a lively contemporary design scene, saying, “Since there are so many good designers, there’s a high standard to live up to.” In such a crowded field, it can be hard to stand out, but van Esch and Trum manage it effortlessly, thanks to that handmade aesthetic that’s so prevalent in their work. It’s a style rooted in their childhoods, which, for both, were centered around drawing, and for van Esch, “making little books and ‘magazines,’ typing stories on an old typewriter, making illustrations with it and binding it together with a hardcover.”
The two met at ArtEZ University of the Arts in Arnhem, the Netherlands, where Trum recalls being taught “a critical, questioning mentality towards set assignments specifically and society more broadly,” and where van Esch honed the ability to “develop a vision as a designer, to be critical, to interpret things in different ways. Also, to follow through on your ideas.” They brought these qualities to bear firmly on the freelance projects they began collaborating on a year after graduating from ArtEZ in 2008, when they would work from Trum’s living room on Thursdays— hence their company name. From the outset, process was—and still is—key, something they term “a performative aspect, a certain ‘action’ that we can incorporate in a design,” which makes everything from posters and publications to exhibition designs and flyers accessible and approachable to both clients and viewers. It’s visible across all their work, and demonstrates a hands-on approach that is constantly about playfulness, inquiry and growth.
Where Team Thursday really excels is in marrying that approach with a joyful and almost intuitive manipulation of typography. “Typography is an important focus in our work, expressed, for example, by designing lettersets on projects like our annual exhibition design for Prospects & Concepts, and the book Do It Ourselves [by Jeroen Junte], in which we stretched the Whyte typeface. In other cases, an image might form the characters, or the letters form an image,” they say. “Our designs often distinguish themselves by this particular approach to typography, but we wouldn’t say it’s a style. We don’t like to use the word style—for us, that suggests one sauce that is poured over every dish, instead of looking at each dish separately to see what it needs. In the end, we like it if it doesn’t look too finished or too closed up... it still has some room to breathe.” Typefaces get not only stretched but also warped, as in their poster for the Raketstart exhibition at Stedelijk Museum, and they often use Lars, developed by Danish type foundry Bold Decisions. “Lars is a great typeface we often start our sketches with. It’s very legible and balanced. We tend to sometimes mistreat it, stretching, outlining and expanding it, but, happily, the guys from Bold Decisions agreed with us doing this when we asked them,” they say with a laugh.
The results of their combination of manipulated typography and the handmade are always striking, particularly their work on the Dots magazine distributed during Milan Design Week 2018 and their long-running but recently ended Disclosed poster series. These posters, created for solo events held by members of the Rotterdam artists’ space Het Wilde Weten, have long been a favorite project of Trum’s because “it was such fun!” “Every six weeks, we’d have to make a design in two to three hours and immediately Riso print it in only two or three colors. The limitations made it a very loose assignment to work on,” she says. Similarly arresting and expressive work with typography is evident in a mural the duo designed during their Seoul residency for a newly constructed community youth center in Changdong. The vibrant palette and abstract typographic composition bear a resemblance, in terms of dynamism and color, to the work of Camille Walala and Morag Myerscough, but Trum and van Esch refute a shared feminine aesthetic. “We don’t believe in the existence of a female or male aesthetic. First and foremost, we believe in making good work,” they say.
Inspiration comes from Dutch designers like Karel Martens and Linda van Deursen and Armand Mevis, who has said, “Every project you take on, do it well, even if it’s only for the bakery around the corner;” from Hansje van Halem, from whom they learned “how to combine great artistic work and a very good sense of how to run a business;” from their encounters with inspirational designers and artists during the last few years; and, of course, from each other. It comes too from teaching back at the college they studied at, ArtEZ, where students and fellow educators influence and encourage them and make Trum “question my own design methods in a good way, and verbally define my opinions and design choices more precisely.” “Lecturing and connecting with other creatives and students in the same field is great. A lot of the time, it’s just the two of us working in the studio, so exchanging experiences, ideas, new encounters and opinions is, for us, a very pleasurable way of staying critical towards our own practice and the graphic design field in general,” adds van Esch.
Their teaching and their personal, self-initiated projects, like the Disclosed poster series and Character Club, in which they turn their class at ArtEZ into an experimental typography workshop for five weeks, clearly demonstrate how important the learning aspect of their practice is to them, in terms of personal and creative growth and development. “We tend to seek as much space within assignments to experiment as we can. However, that’s limited to which assignments we get, which is why we think it’s so important to keep developing self-initiated projects,” they say. Both fondly recall their residency in Seoul as “a very inspirational period in which we realized we could work together without any clients or projects and take the freedom to make things we wanted.” A similarly enjoyable and formative experience came early on in their careers, when they worked on the Great Indoors Award, which recognizes innovative interior design. “We started this project expecting to only work on the invitation, program booklet and flyer, but while working on it, it became bigger and bigger, taking in everything from small details, like the texts in a fortune cookie, to big surfaces, like long strokes of wallpaper used in the interior design,” they say.
Range and scale are something they come back to again and again, and looking ahead, they say, “We would love to keep working on a combination of small and big assignments. We really like to freak out on a detail, even if it’s for something as simple as a business card. On the other hand, we want to explore more mediums and bigger scales. We wonder what would happen if we worked with an architect on an interior or exterior of a building. It’s something we would love to explore. Furthermore, we see our teaching as a big part of the studio, as well as the exhibition space TTHQ, which we run in the front part of our studio. A big melting pot of all these activities and design works sounds ideal to us.” ca