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Dutch design group KesselsKramer is opening a London office, but how will its idealistic approach fit in with the commercial realities of the UK market? Clare Dowdy speaks to co-founder Erik Kessels


How should the UK’s design industry feel that one of The Netherlands’ best-respected creative agencies is opening its doors in London? Flattered? Excited? Threatened? Indifferent?

KesselsKramer certainly does interesting work for interesting clients. Who can forget its reverse psychology ads for Amsterdam’s Hans Brinker Budget Hotel? (‘Now a door in every room’ and such like.)

Back at base camp, nearly 40 of them operate out of a fabulously fun converted church in Amsterdam, doing all sorts of exciting projects not just for clients, but for themselves too.

A good example is the 2002 TV documentary The Other Final in which KesselsKramer organised a football match between the world’s lowest-ranking nations, Bhutan and Montserrat. And work for the likes of Absolut Vodka (including putting on a fashion show), J&B Scotch whisky, Trussardi and Diesel, and the branding of their own capital with the slogan ‘I Amsterdam’.

Homespun projects include two series of photography books, and their own products under the brand Do. For as well as an office at the KKOutlet in London’s Hoxton Square, architecture practice Fat has designed a shop-cum-gallery-space.

It is at the front of this building that KesselsKramer displays many of its own books and products. Some of the Do pieces are really ingenious (putting the stuff that comes out of Benetton’s Fabrica studios to shame). The knitting needles and pattern for a bag made out of strips of plastic bags is particularly good. ‘We’re trying to make people active with the things they buy,’ explains co-founder Erik Kessels.

Despite being in this rather passé part of town, KesselsKramer’s output is likely to appeal to and delight any UK client who is weary of conventional design routes or heavy-handed strategies.

Kessels and his partner Johan Kramer felt they needed to open in London rather than service the UK from abroad. ‘We have worked for some clients in the UK but it’s a closed community here because there’s so much competition, so clients don’t come off the island,’ says Kessels.

The founders’ intention is to create a company at the same stage as the office in Amsterdam, meaning truly multidisciplinary.

In these early days, Kessels expects to be travelling between the two offices quite a bit. In place so far is managing director Yen Yen Ho, who will be joined by creative director Richard Walker in March. Both are former KesselsKramer employees.

‘That’s important because they know the culture of the company,’ says Kessels, who adds that they’ll staff up gradually with the work. ‘I would really like to build this company with the talent that’s here in England.’

KKOutlet will follow the same model as the mother ship, eschewing account executives in favour of planners, creatives and production. This set-up was born out of the frustration with the conventional structure of ad agencies that both Kessels and Kramer experienced when they spent a couple of years in London in the mid-1990s.

While the KKOutlet needs local work, Kessels declines to talk specifics. ‘I don’t have names of clients I want to work for, it’s individuals. If there’s an asshole working in a company, you don’t want to work with them,’ he says.

Nor do they want to be tied to one discipline. ‘We want to cross borders within a project… we want to become specialists in communicating,’ says Kessels.

Such an approach has given them a stellar profile, although interestingly they turned their back on entering awards about seven years ago. ‘It costs you an enormous amount of money, energy and time, but it’s a very passive thing,’ Kessels believes, ‘and with the money, energy and time we saved, we invested in these other projects,’ like The Other Final TV documentary. That’s not to say he’s completely against awards. ‘For young people they are very important, but only hairdressers give each other more awards than design and advertising.’

At one point in the agency’s ten years, things were going so well that it could have grown to 60 people. But instead of taking on a raft of dotcom-boom clients, ‘we held back so we never had to compromise with our work,’ says Kessels. And it was around this time that offers to buy the agency came along.

However, while their work may fit in to the British creative vernacular, their unmaterialistic thinking is more alien. ‘We like the work too much and the only thing we get from a deal is money, so we don’t sell. We are happy in life when we make the things that we’re proud of.’

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