fr/en Joost Swarte
How did you get from illustration to the architecture of Toneelschuur?
It was in 1995, I was asked by the organization of the theater to design
the new theatre. It was kind of an awkward request because I am not an architect. I had been working with them for a long time, I made posters, the graphic design of the theater’s magazine…
What can an illustrator’s eye can bring to architecture?
I feel free. I think that I move among people who work in the construction
industry, or the general public, the people who are living in the neighborhood… So I didn’t think so much about the constructions. Even if I know what we can do in architecture and I have been interested in it for a long time, I think a little bit differently from all of that.
You are one of the representatives of the style that you named ‘la ligne claire’ (clear line). How do you re-exploit it in other fields?
The clear line is a drawing style which is closer to language than
painting. The aim of the drawing in the comics is to communicate ideas, the drawer gives information and it is the reader who imagines what the drawer wants to say. It is more abstract and it enables me to give an importance to details with precision. It is also close to the alphabet. So for me, it is easy to create typefaces. I like the alphabet a lot, typeface drawn by hand. Construction, typography and abstraction are terms which belong to that style.
So the clear line is not a way to synthesize but to put accent on details.
Yes. It is construction. I realize that I construct a world. It is not
a translation of reality but a construction after my thoughts.
How do you choose your projects?
The advantage, when you work alone, is to avoid any responsibility
for staff. I still have the freedom to choose projects to work on. And in creation you need freedom. For example, for the exhibition Trafic, I thought I would like to do a small construction. So we made the Four-Winds Bike in a series of 12 copies. It was an investment, we didn’t know if it was going to sell. I have the freedom to do these kind of things. I also suggested, at one moment, a musical project with Fay Lovski, a Dutch musician. She wrote the compositions around comic characters and I created the packaging of the product and the illustrations. I was also co-composer, notably in the composition Appellation contrôlée which was chosen for the credits of a TV show. When I initiated these kind of projects, I was only driven by enthusiasm and not by money. We have more freedom while working on these kind of projects, and we have to benefit from it and obtain the best result possible. If we can choose, it is these kinds of projects that should be prioritorized.
What stimulates you outside illustration?
Architecture, music, type design, book design… A designer of comics
is sat at his table everyday, making drawings. He is isolated and he lacks a bit of adventure. I have chosen a more sociable life by starting to take jobs for which it was necessary to negotiate and to speak with other people. Outside the time invested in making products and pieces of art, I work in organizations. In Haarlem, I set up the comics biennale. I dedicated three months to the organisation and I didn’t earn any money during that period. But the festival still exists and it is the most interesting in the country. Now, in the same style, my friend and I are going try to present Dutch comic designers on the podium of the next festival at Angoulême. I like trying to motivate an organization to do something for comics, to create links…
As a text illustrator, you have thought a lot about the influence of the image on the reader’s imagination — notably for Dichtertje (Little Poet) book of Nescio. Can you tell me briefly about that?
Our culture in the Netherlands is calvinist, focussed on the text.
In calvinist churches, we do not find images, the concentration is focused on the interpretation of the text. That is not the case in other countries of catholic culture. When I see books illustrated by artists, I always know that it is the interpretation of the artist, his vision of the literary work. It also means that a definitive illustrated work does not exist. A few years later, another artist will make another interpretation and with these different illustrators’ interpretations, we see that we can read things differently. When I illustrated Dichterje of Nescio in the Netherlands, a journalist wrote ‘That is Mr Swarte who stole my fantasy’. I didn’t have in mind to steal anything but to add to the richness of the work, so that anyone could read something personal in the writer’s work. The idea that we can read something and that our own vision is the right one, it is somehow like being in one’s own jail, we have to be liberal.
When you illustrate texts, do you then have limits about what you want to say to the reader, in order not to guide him too much?
Yes, of course. For example in this book, Dichtertje, there is a sentence
‘If you are a little poet, the most beautiful girl always walks on the other side of the canal’. And I thought, if I make a portrait of this little poet, the reader might think, this is not me. But I wanted in the text, which is close to the reader, to enable the reader to identify himself. So I never drew the little poet. It was always a silhouette. There are always these kind of decisions to take. For this story I stayed in the background, I did not force the imagination of the reader.
To illustrate texts gives less freedom than to draw for comics, but it obliges you to use tools such as metaphors, allusions…
What is interesting is that authors’ stories give you a direction that
you wouldn’t have thought about. That is why I illustrated for years in The New Yorker. They sent me an article, often about a subject I know nothing about, and I had to do research in order to study the content of the article, to find the essential to illustrate it. You have to study all your life!
On the contrary, the character that you have invented, Jopo Pojo, gave you all the freedom to draw.
At that time, I could put into it all my insecurities, my frustrations, my musical ambitions. All these kinds of things that were in my head, I could let them out through Jopo Pojo.
Do you have any advice for a young designer?
What I find important is to stay independent, to stay the master of your
own work. That is not always easy because you have to work with other people and respect their ideas. But what is important at the beginning of a career is to create things that you like. If you have to choose between earning a lot of money with mediocre products and doing something beautiful with less money, you have to do something beautiful. Because, after that, people will come to you based on your experience: if you have done beautiful things, they will ask you to do beautiful things. If you have done mediocre things, they will ask you to do mediocre things, and you will be stuck for life. That is a huge risk! And of course, meet people who share the same spirit.