Erik Kessels thinks failure is a good thing. So much so, that he has written a new book on the subject, Failed It that askes the question why we are afraid of failure and how it can act as a creative force. “The idea is not about failing, but moving towards a failure,” he says, somewhat confusingly. “Imagine you are on the highway and everyone is travelling in the same direction and you turn on to a road which is probably wrong and then end up somewhere totally lost. You might find something or meet someone along the way and that switches the way you think.” Erik’s metaphor is useful, and one that he readily expands on. “When you use sat nav in a car, it is perfect and takes you to where you want to be. This means we don’t look or discover any more,” he says. “We don’t take side streets. There are no wrong turns anymore, which is where the interesting things happen.”
As a founding partner of KesselsKramer with Johan Kramer in 1995, the agency’s uncompromising and leftfield campaigns for the likes of the Hans Brinker Budget Hotel (‘the worst hotel in the world’) and I Amsterdam are typified by an energy and honesty that is all too often missing in advertising. Erik has been nominated for the Deutshe Borsche prize for his personal project Memories of My Father, despite insisting he not a photographer. The project is a touching tribute to Erik’s late father who had a passion for restoring vintage cars which faltered as he succumbed to old age and dementia. He has failed at not being a photographer.
We caught up with Erik after his talk at Design Indaba this year, during which he spoke with two fire hoses set on stage aimed firmly at the audience. They ominously built with pressure throughout his presentation before exploding in a shower of confetti at the end. The audience were sat in bright yellow KesselsKramer ponchos – looking like the idiots Erik was urging them to be from the stage. The talk was a success and the audience were enthused. I wondered if Erik would be disappointed.
In the pursuit of excellence, Erik thinks that designers, or even people, have become risk averse. It’s not failure as such that he thinks people should seek, but a move towards doing something totally wrong in order to find something good. We are too fearful of rejection to achieve failure, but in seeking to do things in an improper way, we might discover something new, better or more focused. “With computer programs and in design we pursue perfection. In design if you make something beautiful you should maybe fuck it up a bit, make it less beautiful or put something disturbing in it. Like a thick line going through it, for instance,” he says. “People will look only at the line, because that’s something that’s wrong. In every discipline you can do that.” His latest book, divided into chapters with headings such as “aim to make a complete idiot of yourself at least once a day,” features work that challenges the conventions of photography, architecture and design. Sometimes the examples of failure, often gathered from the internet, show errors in construction or urban planning that are dada-esque in their absurdity. Other featured works are a conscious effort to capture irregularities in the everyday or, in a very specific case catalogued in In Almost Every Picture #9, the relentless inability of a family to photograph their family dog. Compiled together, with Erik’s text, the book is a concise manifesto on how consistent failure, or by embracing imperfection, you can question possibilities and the status quo. If you set yourself up to fail, then you can only succeed seems to be the message. “That’s an interesting thought,” he says laughing.
What could be seen as commercial failures for KesselsKramer, Erik sees as a success. A belligerent approach to business has seen KesselsKramer sack clients “for being an asshole” and the single-minded attitude has seen the company shun chasing awards and money, which in itself has caused difficulties over the 20 years since the agency was founded. “The thing I am proudest of, and there are many projects that did not turn out as well as we hoped, is that we never made anything I don’t want to see anymore,” he says. “We never did anything just for the money. We fight for that. Sometimes for months and months we were struggling. I always thought that creative frustration in company is the biggest danger there is, because then you get cynical.” With regards to chasing awards, rather than work, Erik is even more dismissive and questions the motives behind them. “I always wanted to win awards, up to a point, my father even made me a replica award for my birthday one year out of plexiglass. Then I won some, but it became so repetitive and expensive and for what? If there was an award that put all the money back into education, I would enter immediately. So often the people that run awards stick the money in their own pockets. You pay for the table, the award, the book and pat yourself on the shoulder,” he says, agitated. “Everyone complains about it, that its fucking boring, but it still happens. The organisers are laughing their heads off saying ‘look at these sad fuckers.’”
This restlessness and refusal to conform is a product of an advertising industry that has changed drastically over the course of Erik’s career. “I come from a period in certain agencies, where certain behaviours remain: an agency gets a brief, locks the door, comes up with something. Then they go into a room, everyone is nervous – the agency, the client – and then, without explaining anything you present an idea,” he says shaking his head. “You need to take someone by the hand. Before, there was a myth of design and agencies. Now you need to have a very different and strong idea to carry things forward. There should always be a problem. Then you decide on the best solution. Not have the solution and look for a problem.”
For a career built on flirting with failure, Erik has created a global network of offices and clients that spans the Atlantic. His ideas and work are sought by high-worth clients and he continues to test what KesselsKramer is capable of, notably a publishing house KesselsKramer Publishing and a product design company do. So what does the future hold for Erik? “My dream always is that we will be able to work autonomously. We thought one day that we might become our own client. We tried that with small things – the publishing and the product design,” he says. “It’s liberating, but will probably never happen on a large scale. Working for companies we are passionate about and I live with it. Often it is still the case that clients see a traditional relationship with the agency, but it would be great to be in house, and given more freedom.”
The images in the feature appear in Failed It by Erik Kessels published by Phaidon