Meet CreaTe’s Staff: Chris Vermaas

Meet CreaTe’s Staff: Chris Vermaas

Above: “My Mexican business card from 1995 with letterpress typography, printed on wood veneer.”

A very important part of our education is the human interaction we experience while learning. During the past three years, I have always been positively surprised by the enthusiasm of the people working for the Creative Technology bachelor-program, and it really helped me to stay motivated to learn and do more.

As my time at the University of Twente is almost over, I wanted to sit down and spend some time with some of our staff members to know a bit more about them: their personal lives but also the reasons why they joined our study. In May 2017, after being elected “Best CreaTe teacher of 2016–2017”, Chris Vermaas kindly accepted to take some time to answer my questions.

Part I: Personal & Academic life

Yoann: Could you tell us a little bit about your childhood?

Chris: I was born in the late fifties in Amsterdam and lived in a neighbourhood with a French Haussmann-inspired architecture. The urban surroundings were beautiful: parks, canals and the zoo nearby where I would visit almost everyday as a child.

Then the late sixties came and turned my childhood into a totally different show. Violent students protest in the streets of my town but there was also the more loving hippy movement. And followed by the punk culture in the seventies. But I was neither a punk nor a hippy, rather, just a spectator who lived his own life. Nevertheless, these strong cultures were the settings in which I grew up in.

Y: That gets us to my next question about your academic life: what path did you take during this sixties and seventies period?

C: First of all, you have to imagine how visually striking that period was, although every period has its own visual background. For example, think about early 20th century Paris with impressive posters of Cassandre or Loupot filling its streets.

Or think about the iconic car designs of the late fifties and early sixties, such as the unsurpassed French Citröen DS. Also, these times have their defining imagery, think about all the various media with their images—moving or not. But the sixties was special, it was the start of youth culture at large, and in retrospect it was a revolution.

Think of the then new ways of living, the colourful clothing and the explosion of expressive music by bands and musicians of that era. Known ones such as The Beatles, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, or Pink Floyd and the psychedelia that came with it which were often expressed with detailed and elaborated imagery that I, as a youngster, witnessed in Amsterdam.

Left: Frank Zappa, ‘Hot Rats’, 1969. Album cover designed by Cal Schenkel, photo by Andee Nathanson. Right: Jimi Hendrix, ‘Band of Gypsys’, 1970. Album cover design by Victor Kahn.

Y: Did you want to understand the visual aspect of this culture?

C: I probably did not understand it all, but wanted to a part of it, and I wanted to be able to make it myself. I drew a lot and all the time, I could make people happy with my drawings even before my kindergarten time.

In high school, I designed posters and stenciled admission tickets for school parties, I drew them by hand. All without the help of a computer, such a project took days to complete. And to continue your education after high school was not a given. The seventies was a loose time, but my mother advised me that it would be better to study something.

Y: Did you follow your mother’s advice and pick something up?

C: Yes, I thought let’s try out the night school of the Amsterdam based art academy, although I didn’t believe it could work out for me because art wasn’t my thing, I was more focused on the design aspects of the visual, and it was hard to for me to imagine that I could make a living out of doing work that I like to make.

So while I was wondering if this could all become a success, I had the luck to end up in a class with older and mostly better trained students, and some were incredibly talented. I learned a lot from them. Like here in Twente as well, inspiring fellow students contribute a great part to your study. You can have the right study material and the best teachers, but if there are no inspiring peers…

I still have the pleasure of enjoying work of my former fellow classmates. For example, one of them created the graphic identity for LowLands festival. Okay, it was in the evenings, in the daytime I was just working for money.

Y: Well that sounds intense…

C: No, it was manageable.

Pink Floyd, ‘Meddle’, 1971. Album cover designed by Hypgnosis picturing a human ear under water.
Part II: Professional life

Y: What sort of jobs did you have next to your study?

C: Construction jobs such as fixing houses, carpentry, plastering, plumbing and so on. Also, I sailed on a long barge, as the first mate at the helm and cleaned up everything as the deckhand. And that is actually how I came to Twente for the first time in the late seventies. Sailing around, I started to know my country, and seen from the water ways, the Netherlands looks beautiful.

In the meantime, in Amsterdam, I started to make some money with graphic design commissions and towards the end of my education, I was assisting two of my professors on various projects in their studios in the day time. In the evenings, I met them at school again.

Y: Which year did you graduate from the academy?

C: It was 1981 and the economy was in the middle of a fierce crisis; throughout Europe, many factories were forced to close. Even though I was not in need of a lot of money, this recession trained my “personal public relation” skills, I was always in the search of projects and was always thankful to have received them. For years, I worked day in day out on all kinds of different projects that started to get bigger.

Y: Is there a big project or something that really marked that period?

C: That is a hard one to answer, partly because a lot of the stuff I designed do have an ephemeral existence, printed matters get thrown away. Although, there are some nice projects that comes to mind. I have great memories of working with one of my professors on a font. Actually it was only the ten digits, it was to enhance the legibility of telephone numbers in the Dutch telephone books which was used nation wide. It was an honorable and useful thing to do.

“This proposal—drawn by hand—of the ‘1984’ digits shows how to enhance legibility of telephone numbers in Dutch telephone books. The top row shows the desired shape. The bottom row shows the necessary adjustments to the form, based on anticipation of ink behaviour on printing press.”

One other project that started small and turned out bigger, was helping my former high school Economic teacher with his idea for the “Examenbundel” and “Samengevat” series. Publications that Dutch CreaTe students will know for sure, because his idea turned out to be very successful and I still have the pleasure of seeing high school students using it, such as my own children.

Sketched proposals from 1982 for a redesign of spine, back and front cover of the successful ‘Examenbundel’ publications. The column with scribbles on the back cover mimics what would be the list of publication titles. This version was chosen by the publisher.

And yes, I also designed a stamp for the Dutch Post Office. Although they didn’t choose for my favourite plan, I liked the idea of so many people licking my design! That was the time when I was living in Barcelona. But also in the United States and in Mexico, I was working on all kinds of projects from the industry and for individuals. By practicing my skills over again and again, I became more comfortable when I teach my topics.

“Postage stamp to promote 1992 World Expo in Sevilla; the illustration is an enlarged sketch of the chosen proposal with the letters cut out of paper, printed in representative colours of The Netherlands and Spain.”
Part III: Creative Technology

Y: Could you tell us a little bit about your experience with CreaTe and how it started?

C: Yes, I saw the start of it and saw the staff—which I was a part of—putting all the pieces together. Outside the program there was some skepticism about the study. But CreaTe succeeded, also thanks to the perseverance of the first director Gerrit van der Hoeven.

Y: How did you personally get involved with the study?

C: When you think at certain moments in your life “why not?” and said “yes!”, these decisions could turn into key moments that take you to surprising spots. I got the offer thanks to words of mouth, partly through my teaching results at the Industrial Design department.

I took the offer at a moment in my life when most work of my projects consisted of sending emails, making phone calls and attending meetings which pushed me further away from the actual design work. While teaching allows me to help students, as a sort of a visual plumber, make and achieve their goals.

Creative Technology Module 4 Demo day (Jul 6, 2017) Credit: S.A. Proto

Y: What do you think the specificity of CreaTe is?

C: The staff is open-minded and has a diverse background which in the end give students a wide range of choice and with this freedom, many approaches are possible. Such as the various forms of collaboration, and this is very important because it teaches students how to put their skills together.

Y: Is there any project or student that you particularly remember?

C: There were and are many students with inspiring projects and it is hard to compare people and their work. For example, intelligence comes in different forms and while at the university my main job is to train everybody’s visual—or actually—spatial intelligence, it is important for students to continue developing the other intelligences as well.

Intelligence such as your social, musical and physical skills, and of course those for your language and mathematics skills. CreaTe-projects need especially the input of a combination of these different intelligences to succeed. With my expertise, I can contribute to these projects as well. But, in the end, it is always up to the students to apply their knowledge with their own sensibility.

Part IV: “Questionnaire de Proust”

Y: Your favourite motto?

C: Try!

Y: Your favourite qualities in humanity?

C: Their ability to combine different, often unrelated aspects into something new. Call it creativity and that is what makes humanity unique.

Y: Your idea of happiness?

C: I suspect this question comes from people who wonder why they can be sad. Perhaps because all kinds of modern media such as social media that tell us we all have to look good, do good and be happy. Daily. But, we are often not. When I told you about working on my projects, I was usually stressed, probably only a quarter or a third of the times that I was actually fine. And now and then I am happy, usually when the potential dangers are tamed.

Y: Your idea of misery?

C: As I said, it is daily routine. There is a Dutch saying ‘no glare without friction’. Little comes for free, you have to take risks, fight for your successes and when you overcome all these frictions, your brain will tell you in a chemical way that you are happy.

Y: Your favorite painter?

C: Many. But if, in case you want to hear only one name, I’d choose Piet Mondrian for sure. Boring work for the most of us at first sight, but this Dutch painter picked up a lot in France from the cubists Picasso and Braque, who were influenced by Cézanne.

At second glance, the work of Mondrian tells me, and us all, about sizes, proportions, composition and so on. Actually, his work is the Gestalt psychology painted on canvas. He probably would have loved their theories.

Piet Mondrian, ‘Victory Boogie Woogie’, an unfinished painting he worked on from 1942 until his death in 1944.

Y: Your favorite hero in real life?

C: Hard question. Eh… in real life… I’d like to go for Vannevar Bush. This North American combined his intellect with his imagination and I consider him as a visionary. His distinguished academic work and his well formulated writings led him to become the American president’s personal advisor.

His views helped the United States leap forward with such impact that this country is still the technological leader today. Big chance Vannevar Bush would have called himself a creative technologist.

Vannevar Bush in 1947. Photo: LIFE magazine.

Y: Your favorite heroine in real life?

C: I think… I like to choose the Austrian born Hedy Lamarr. She is my favourite heroine because her life showed few, or maybe no dull moments.

With her elegance, she acted in various movies, even nudity; with her adventurousness, she married six times and finally with her divorce lawyer; with her intellect, she contributed—together with the composer George Antheil—to the technique of Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum, a technique still used today such as in our mobile phones. In short, Hedy Lamarr was a creative technologist avant la lettre.

Hedy Lamarr in the 1930s.

Y: And your favorite hero in fiction?

C: In fiction… I guess Gaston Lagaffe. Yes, this French Belgian comic character was the creation of André Franquin, known in English as ‘Gaston’ and in the Netherlands as ‘Guust Flater’.

Franquin’s Gaston entertained his readers since the late fifties with witty, surprisingly funny and not always appreciated solutions for problems that were actually not always problems. Gaston operated like a creative technologist without even knowing it.

Gaston Lagaffe, a.k.a. ‘Guust’ or ‘Gaston’, drawn by André Franquin.

Y: And finally your favorite heroine in fiction?

C: Definitely Amélie. As the protagonist, in the movie ‘Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain’ by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, she determined her own destination—such as the reason of life—by being inventive, humorous and doing good deeds. By these means, mademoiselle Amélie was a creative technologist.

Yann Tiersen’s soundtrack for the movie ‘Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain’ by Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s, released in 2001.

Y: If not yourself; who would you be?

C: Actually, I don’t feel the need to be someone else, but would like to be able to travel through time and space. For example back to 1910, to take a peek at the office of the then known German architect Peter Behrens.

Over a period of just three months he was assisted at the same time by three young and later world famous architects: Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. In that office they must have sharpened each other ideas which later helped in shaping twentieth century Modernism. I would like to listen to their conversations. Actually, also I would like to attend my own funeral.

Y: How do you wish to die?

C: Quick and swift, like a big explosion.

Final Words

Y: How would you end our conversation?

C: Yoann, it was a pleasure talking with you, and it is always nice to see how active the student organisation Proto is. That is also one of the reasons I’m looking forward to seeing what today’s Creative Technology students—like you—will be busy with over, let’s say twenty years.

Chris Vermaas, Amsterdam 2017
25 yo Creative Technology student from France "Quelle est votre plus grande ambition dans la vie ?" "Devenir immortel... et puis... mourir."

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