WOBBY.CLUB’s WHO & WHY: interview with Merijn Hos - by Robin Berkelmans
“I don’t really see myself as an artist or designer. I don’t know what I am and I don’t think that I care.”
Merijn Hos is a Dutch illustrator, visual artist and occasional art director based in Utrecht, the Netherlands. For Wobby #18 Merijn made the cover and centerfold. On the occassion of the release of the Risoprint Wobby.club made of one of his drawings, Robin Berkelmans went to Merijn’s studio to talk about his work.
Hey Merijn, what are you up to?
That’s always a difficult question. Right now I am working on multiple illustrations and animations for Air Canada, Italian clothing brand Aspesi and two covers for an insert in New York Times Magazine about predictions in 2020.
What about free work?
I try to complete one or two projects a year (at most) that are 100% free. I already did that this year: at Mini Galerie and STRP. Now my focus goes out to commercial work again, which brings me peace and quiet because of the daily routine that comes with it.
Can you tell us about that daily routine?
I wake up early, around 6:30. Mornings are when I am at my best when it comes to focus. I get 80% of my work done between 7:30 and 11:00 - 12:00. The rest of the day is emails and finishing up. The hyperfocus I get in the morning often comes back around 20:30, so I work a few more hours then.
Starting with an empty mind is important to me. I like working on Sundays too, when there is nothing else to do. It feels as if nobody is working except for me, creating a sense of calm to do my thing in peace.
Then you must have heard about the 5AM challenge, following exactly that feeling of being alone in the world before everybody else wakes up.
Actually, I think I should take it easy on challenges. It often feels as if everything I do is a project or a challenge. Even in my personal life. I don’t think the ‘all or nothing’ mentality always works.
So, how do you not make a project out of the things you do?
Things that require feeling are hard to approach project-based. Either you feel it or you don’t. When working freely it is much more difficult to force yourself to do things. You can only make free work when you feel it.
Does commercial work require fewer feelings then?
Most of my commercial work originates from earlier, free work, enabling me to recreate certain elements, more or less, on auto pilot. What has to be done is often clear. Commercial work is more of a skill or a trick as opposed to creating something completely new.
From an outsider’s perspective though, your commercial work does look like it is created freely.
My work lies on the edge of free, autonomous work. My agent in the US, for example, presents me as an artist instead of an illustrator, resulting in clients willing to put up with a lot more: they consider it special to work with an artist who’s willing to work commercially.
Does this artist status allow you to get away with anything?
No, I cannot do whatever I like. I still work for clients. It does allow me to broaden my work a little further than the usual illustration or editorial commission, but there’s still feedback … every once in a while.
What do clients ask for when wanting to work with you?
The work I do is more about a certain mood or atmosphere than it is about concepts. It is my world they are interested in.
You are known for turning that world upside down whenever you please. When do you know something new is ready for the outside world to be seen?
I don’t. Again, it’s a feeling. At the beginning of this summer, end of spring, my brother and I made a music video for a band. I’m still not satisfied with it, so I think I’ll just keep it for myself. They [ the band ] can use it, but it is not what I am searching for. I want my work to feel authentic, personal. I want it to be simple yet real, looking like it’s coming from the real world while still being recognisable as Merijn’s.
So your personal world is coming closer and closer to the physical world we share?
I think that with Soft Landing ( Merijn’s installation piece for STRP ) I managed to do it pretty well: it was its own reality, with real materials, tangible and analogue while still inspired by ‘flat’ images from a computer screen. The work turned out to be impossible to capture on video or film. It really was an experience.
You have the ‘luck’ or gift to often be the first of many. Is that a strategic choice you make or does it just happen?
As a designer, it is important to always focus on renewal while keeping an eye on what is happening in the world. Anticipating a trend will never work out. Following a trend is like following the music. I think that I, myself, played a part in making my style popular.
Your work became renowned worldwide when illustrating characters: colourful figures similar to the ones popular in Japan but, at that time, lesser known in Western culture. They were a huge success… until you got bored making them. What happened?
I didn’t want to become that guy who ‘just’ drew characters. It became manufactural work: still fun but mind-numbing, so I decided to quit. Radically. When a big brand offered me a major commission I said no. As soon as the things you do become ‘work-work’ and you feel aversion coming up, it’s time to quit or make a change. In the end, I believe you can turn anything into work.
Art school was a different story: too slow, too conceptual and too old fashioned, at least, for you. Do you regret “wasting” your time in school?
School did teach discipline. It made everything I did a little less informal. I also think that I needed the freedom of studying: I never had a job on the side and always borrowed the maximum student loan.
How did you handle the ‘culture shock’ then, when you found out the world was waiting for you after graduation?
I had no clue what to do with it. I started doing freelance work immediately. I worked for a children’s clothing brand and had no idea what to ask for money-wise as we had not discussed this upfront. When, six months later, they [ the client ] asked when I was going to send my first invoice I started asking around. People would tell me to ask 200 euros an hour, others said 35. I ended up asking 80 euros an hour for an extraordinary amount of time. They [ the client ] were fine with it. I remember thinking to myself: “Well, that was easy.” I felt an enormous sense of freedom and urge to further develop myself, knowing that I was financially safe.
Are you ever afraid of never coming up with anything new ever again?
All the time, but I believe that fear to be a healthy one, as it triggers you to keep thinking about the future. It is not a fear that keeps me up at night but it is a fear I keep in mind. It keeps me on top of things, without losing track.
Are there any things you are not on top of then?
I really need a new website. The one I have is hopelessly outdated and not fitting the work I make. But because commissions come in so easily and everything is going well I don’t feel the need to do it. I’ve never had a business card in my life.