Koos Breen not only has a killer portfolio and an impressively full mustache, but his career has taken a fascinatingly varied trajectory. The designer, who’s based in The Hague in the Netherlands, creates work that’s more fluid than so-called traditional graphic design by experimenting with a range of materials, processes, themes, and styles. The level of execution across the board is superb; and you’d think this was the product of a life spent pining for a career in multidisciplinary design. However, it’s the product of a man who spent 12 years working as a trained optician, who fancied a change.
“I was working in a very cool store selling small [eyeglasses] brands, lots of handmade stuff,” Breen explains. “I had no idea about design, but I also designed my own glasses, which were produced in very limited quantities, and we sold them. Through the store I made a lot of friends who were studying at the Royal Academy of Art [in The Hague] and we would talk about design. I was always jealous—I thought ‘I want to do that.’ I wanted to learn something new, so I applied to art school with just my glasses designs and a few T-shirts and posters I’d made for people.”
When I ask who the posters were for, I’m greeted with a loud chuckle. Turns out this reveals another strange turn in Breen’s multifarious backstory. “That’s funny!” he says. “I was a classical singer as well—not professionally, but at a good level—at an amateur chamber choir, and we had quite a lot of concerts, and I made posters for them.”
At the time of our chat, Breen has just returned from Milan and is tired. Despite this, he’s a brilliantly affable chap prone to bursts of hearty laughter. His time in Italy actually reveals a lot about his approach to creativity. He was initially due to be part of a large show of work by Dutch designers, but three weeks before opening the curator decided that the piece he submitted—a large Astroturf carpet with a “tribal” hairstyle shaved into it—was “too radical,” and he was dropped.
“Artificial grass isn’t really a material you’re allowed to find nice or beautiful, if you know what I mean,” says Breen. “Tribal haircuts also have certain connotations that aren’t really something everyone likes. The curator had problems with that, but I really liked the work and wanted to show it.” Instead of being disheartened, Breen came up with a cheekily punk solution: he organized his own exhibition with some friends to present the work, and positioned it directly opposite his naysayers’ space.
Though he studied graphic design and has an impressive portfolio of print designs, Breen’s work exists in a more conceptual, fine art space that focuses on process, specifically his “associative morphology” technique. This involves a continual evolution of a piece of work according to its precedent, so a hand-drawn poster might beget a tapestry, which would lead into a typographic system created from the fabric. It’s a little like a design-led Exquisite Corpse game, or Brian Eno’s technique of generating melodies from a collection of sounds put together by chance. The process began shortly after the designer started at art school.
“I discovered that usually after getting an assignment I could never feel finished with the project. I always thought I could do something else with it or develop it into another direction—I wanted to keep on trying other things even after something was finished.”
Take Breen’s Morfologisch series, which started with a hand-drawn pattern with subtle type spelling the project name. After attempting to scan and print the image, Breen saw the printer was low on ink, which created a textural half-image that reminded him of a carpet. So, he created a carpet from it, and from there learned how to make macramé in order to produce a series of knotted letterforms.
“It’s all about learning new stuff—that’s the most important thing to me. I know I’ll never be able to do everything I do perfectly, because I want to do so much different stuff. It’s much more important for me to learn something new than to make it perfect. But I am a bit of a perfectionist. I have to give myself strict deadlines otherwise things would never be finished.”
“Associative morphology” has served Breen well. At last year’s Salone Internazionale del Mobile in Milan, he worked with his fashion designer friend, Fabian Bredt, to create pieces for the fair’s RESET exhibition. The process began with found YouTube footage of an ostrich laying an egg (“it looked very painful”), and concluded with creating a virtual reality experience of a hovering, futuristic egg-like form. Of course, Breen taught himself how to program the 3-D VR software specifically for the project.
While these sorts of works are undoubtedly fun and creatively enriching, many will surely be wondering how they pay the bills. “I still work two days a week as an optician, otherwise it would be difficult, but I still like that,” says Breen. “It means I don’t have to do things just for money—if someone asks me to do a logo and I don’t like it, I can say no.”
It’s also these sorts of unpaid projects that can bring the most interesting clients. Breen was commissioned to create a 3-D collage for New York’s Chamber Gallery off the back of RESET. In yet another peculiar twist in the tale, he also found himself working for the Dutch Royal Family when he was commissioned to design the identity for the Koninklijke Verzamelingen, or The Royal Collections of the Netherlands, which comprises paintings, drawings, miniatures, sculpture, silver, textiles, ceramics, and furniture; as well as a library of books and sheet music.
While Breen says he usually isn’t too excited by straight-up identity design projects, this one was different. “I really liked working on it, not only because many objects they have are extremely rare and beautiful and not often seen by the public, but because I was helping to make this whole archive accessible for the public in a nice and structured way. People can even download hi-res images of the objects,” he says.
What the future holds for this hungry young designer is anyone’s guess, given his design journey up till now. “After graduation we all made a list of where we wanted to be in five years’ time, but—oh god this sounds arrogant—I’ve done a lot of those things,” says Breen. “I did have another list of things I wanted to do, but where is it?!”