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Lernert & Sander: It's Time To Leave Your Comfort Zone

Lernert & Sander: It's Time To Leave Your Comfort Zone
Published November 28, 2010 by Elizabeth McDonald
Dutch designers Lernert & Sander create pieces that reflect on the remarkable, often messy endeavor of art-making. In their surreal, Pantone world, the creative process is always beautifully exposed: mundane everyday objects are re-imagined as elegant footwear for a series of Selfridges windows, the set for an eyeglass commercial is transformed into a magical pop-up book landscape, and wine glasses morph into a kaleidoscopic 18-century glass harp.

Though not yet a household name, the Dutch duo have amassed a considerable body of work – including TV commercials, short films, print pieces, and art installations – that’s darkly humorous and eminently engaging. We first got hooked on their witty films series “How To Explain…” and “The Procrastinators.” In the former, Lernert & Sander film conceptual artists as they (painstakingly) attempt to explain their work to their parents. In the latter, a series of artists confess their struggles with procrastination. Further digging led us to “Chocolate Bunny” and their first “Revenge” film, which elegantly stages and then documents the destruction of a single, innocent egg. So what’s their creative process like? We chatted with Lernert & Sander about how their partnership got started, how bike riding relates to creative problem solving, and why you should always break the rules of the design brief.

I love your film series on procrastination. I’ve read that Victor Hugo sat naked in his writing room with his clothes hidden to ensure he couldn’t leave his desk, and would have to write. On a given day, how do you fight the desire to put things off?

For our new series “The Procrastinators” we interviewed 26 artists, writers, fashion designers, and comedians about their daily struggle against procrastination. To conquer this behavior many of them invented clever ways to keep them inside the creative process, or at least try. One of the writers had her parents come and pick up the television set and lock it in their basement until she finished her third book. Another writer had his publisher lock himself inside his writing room for each writing session. While these are techniques to fight the procrastinator inside them, lots of them clearly embraced the whole fiddling and doing nothing all day thing. It was quite liberating to hear Coco Schrijber, a documentary filmmaker, say she eventually gets up late in the morning only to set herself the daily goal of doing nothing. In this freedom she creates for herself, good stuff comes. Eventually. We latched on to the issue of procrastination because we thought ourselves to be guilty of it, too. We basically live on our computers: checking email all day, doing multiple vanity searches on Google – “Did this blog or that blog write something about us?” – and we feel we are able to do so much more when we go offline and approach the world physically. After this interview process though, we realized that we didn’t even come close to being procrastinators. When we look back on this year with all the work we’ve done so far, we think just the effort involved in making this series alone proves we are cured of this self-diagnosed disease.

Many of your pieces address the creative process directly – what’s that fascination all about?

We made “How To Explain It To My Parents,” a series in which abstract or conceptual artists were asked to explain their work to their parents. In the series, we make use of the tension between artists and their parents. In their chosen surrounding – amongst friends, fellow artists, curators, gallery owners, journalists – these artists are comfortable explaining their art. They are essayists of their own work. But the language they have learned to speak belongs to the art world and doesn’t always help them connect with their mother and father. We’ve been active as filmmakers, writers, graphic designers, and visual artists for 10 years now, and we still find ourselves struggling to explain our work to our parents. So when we visit our parents our work is not discussed. We avoid it like we avoid politics, as these discussions always end in argument. Our mothers don’t like that: “Let’s keep things civilized, please.”

How did your partnership get started? Do the roles you play remain consistent?

Lernert worked for national television VPRO as a director and writer, working at the time on a drama series. When it came to the point of art direction and graphic elements, Sander was brought on to help. During this process we discovered that many of the best ideas came from the collaboration of art direction and graphics. Of course, it was too late to change everything [on that project], but that’s when we realized we needed to start working together. Only next time, from the beginning of the process. Our first project together was the film “Chocolate Bunny.”

We are able to do so much more when we go offline and approach the world physically.

We don’t have strict roles when conceiving work. An outsider might think that the idea of the story comes from Lernert, and Sander does the art direction or design, since that’s how our CVs read. But after years working together, it’s impossible to determine who does what. While Sander was doing the final design for the 8-meter x 6-meter pop-up book for Pearle Opticians, Lernert was feeding the designers at Selfridges the Pantone numbers for the windows. And while Sander was doing the graphic design for Madness and Arts Festival, Lernert was designing the Sikkens Prize shoot. It’s sort of a blend.

As artists, how do you approach a design brief?

We tell ourselves we are here to bend the brief. So we pick up most briefs bravely – no limits. Very often we’ll get stuck at a certain point in a pitch. We start feeling insecure and build up an almost “I-don’t-wanna-do-homework” kind of feeling. Then in a split second, during the bike ride home, one day before deadline, just where Lernert turns right and Sander turns left, standing in front of a red traffic light, we say quickly: “You know what?  Let’s do it this way (a way that’s totally the opposite of what’s been asked for in the brief) or else they get nothing.” A few times already good stuff came out of feeling quite miserable for a while about a project and then all of a sudden we managed to drill new resources.

Can you describe an instance where you bent a rule or a brief?

We always tend to bend the brief and go against expectations of the medium we’re working in. Our latest commercial for Pearle was a brief all about creating a computer generated world. In our treatment, we only wanted to do it for real. No computers. We wanted to show with dedication, the reliability and realness of the brand. We got the assignment.

In the absence of a client request, how do you begin a project? Are there a series of typical “first steps”?

Projects can be triggered by something we’ve read, heard, or seen. Our “Procrastinators” project clearly got started because we found ourselves spending too much time online.  And we hated that. But Lernert also tends to drink too much coffee and can spill out ideas every other second. Sander, who tends to drink less, filters out the good from the bad. Walking through parks or cycling home brings out the best in both. Lots of times after a day’s work, when cycling home, we will start calling each other every five minutes. Then everything falls in place.

So would you say taking a walk or going for a ride is an essential part of your workflow?

Yes! And it’s the best way to leave the evil computer on its desk. And walk through reality instead of strolling through the Internet.

Tell me about the Selfridges windows. How did that project come about?

We were invited to a pitch for some Selfridges windows in May. Selfridges loved our concept and light-hearted approach but in the end we didn’t get the assignment. Then, in July, Selfridges contacted our agent BlinkArt and commissioned us for four windows for the grand opening of the new shoe department in September. We presented two concepts and by the end of July we upgraded ourselves to 11 windows. If you work with very professional paid people you can push the boundaries. The same with the commercials we made for Pearle. It’s refreshing to sometimes think without budget restrictions.

How do you manage clients?

Don’t manage clients! Just treat them as friends. That’ll break the ice and keeps energy flowing.

“Chocolate Bunny” is kind of delightfully perverse. How did that piece come to fruition?

We were asked to participate in the TV show “Big art for small children” by the Dutch production company Cut ‘n Paste. 20 artists made a 2 ½-minute film. 

We wanted to make something that taught children in a very indirect way that they can’t and will not always get what they want. We deeply feel the times we live in are creating “on demand-monsters,” a click-and-go generation at large, that later grow up expecting to get everything, right here and right now. By showing something desirable and cute as a chocolate bunny and then melting it in front of their eyes, yet in such beautiful way and with a recognizable, colorful, cartoon-like aesthetic, we wanted to shock them – shake them out of their state of comfort. With three colorful background paper rolls, the right color spray paint, primer, the different props, and a car-painting studio, we created the set for the shoot. With 40 chocolate bunnies, created by a famous Dutch pastry maker in mid-summer, we started filming. What you see is what you get. No after effects or digital adaptation.

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