Graphic designer Caitlin Berner is baffled by her generation. Much of her work ponders the strange disconnect between the digital and physical, and between genuine memories and those accumulated through screenshots, photographs, and Instagram filters. It’s not a conscious thing, she says, but in any project—be it a personal one or a client commission—she has to work from a conceptual framework. It’s just transpired that the surreal, ubiquitous reliance on tech as our collective life-force has proved rich fodder for her creative output.
Her puzzlement at fellow Gen Z-ers is charming, and belies the fact that she was born in 1993 (adult people with jobs can be born in the ’90s, it turns out), and only graduated last year. Berner studied at the Royal Academy of Art (KABK) in The Hague, the Netherlands, and before she’d even graduated had formed a studio (with paying clients to boot) with her friend and classmate Jana Blom, called Glitterstudio, because the pair used to bring glitter to parties—“we were sort of the glitter girls.” They found a place to work in a property guardianship-like arrangement (an “anti squatting studio space”) and had to come up with a name on the spur of the moment to register, and so Glitterstudio was born.
For all the party-girl backstories, Berner and Blom certainly have their heads screwed on. They first discovered their perfect blend of a well-matched design sensibility and yin-yang personalities on a college trip to Morocco. “When we got into the same class, every time we worked on a project we started separately, then found we had the same subject or that it fit together. We realized that working together would elevate both of our ideas, and in the third year the teachers advised us to graduate together.
“I’m the one fascinated with the details and making everything really nice in the end, and she’s more like the free child, the ‘I’m just going to do it’ sort of person. If I work alone I’m too strict with things, and she’s maybe slightly not strict enough.”
Whether solo or as one half of Glitterstudio, Berner’s portfolio boasts a rigorously thoughtful underpinning to each project. Nothing is ever created in a vacuum, and her starting point for everything is a concept, an idea, or even a single word. “That’s why I’m not an artist—I don’t have this urge to tell the world something,” she says. “I’d hate to work without a concept or a starting point, I just can’t make anything. But on the other hand there are so many subjects I’m really interested in.
“I always need handlebars—I have to go back to this one thing I want to portray. Obviously if it becomes a nice thing to look at then that’s good, but it’s really important that there’s a story behind it. That way it becomes deeper and more interesting to look at; and if you get that story from it then it makes it even more beautiful.”
For her graduation project, Berner’s subject was her own grandma. The designer was pondering the idea that in 100 years’ time—the same length of time her formidable-sounding nan has been on the planet—pretty much every picture of us “would have been Photoshopped, or it’ll have a Snapchat or Instagram filter on it.” No more rifling through boxes of grainy black-and-white images with torn corners, no more puffy-covered photo albums (remember those?); everything is now data, and usually manipulated data at that.
“I was making a memoir about my grandma,” Berner explains. “I thought about how she can go through all these letters and images and drawings she’s made almost 100 years ago, and I can’t even go back ten years. I kept all my old cellphones and I tried to turn one on but I didn’t have the code any more. I thought about all those text messages, the first ones my boyfriend sent me were on there, and I couldn’t reach them. I can’t get those things back because they’re inside a phone.”
What concerns Berner and her work even more than the missives lost inside redundant telephones is that memory is also becoming sublimated by devices. “When I was making the book about my grandma I thought ‘Oh god, she remembers so much and she’s so old,’ but I can’t even remember two weeks ago. Technology is so easy and so fast, it just takes over, and we don’t really realize how much it’s taking over. When I spoke about that with my grandma she said ‘Yes, but you have this lady talking in the car to tell you where to go!’ And I suppose it is kind of weird when you have a lady in your car.”
Her graduation project evolved to look at “digital hoarders,” which Berner sees as the modern and more presentable face of hoarders of yore, confined to exploitative television series and tiny spaces of an apartment carved out from heaps of junk. As we chat over Sykpe, Berner describes her computer: two Chrome screens, 18 open tabs, notes filling the screen. Then she has a phone in hand, which is out of storage thanks to an overzealous screenshotting habit. “It’s worse than having paper lists everywhere,” she says. “I became my own subject, just getting lost in all these tabs and trying to do a thousand things at once.” Her antidote was to print out everything she had saved to her desktop, “like therapy—when you can touch it you realize how much it is. I wallpapered it to the walls, you could walk right across it. And that’s just my desktop.”
Once again the dissonance between the physical realm we call IRL and the insensate digital world proved the catalyst for a design project. Berner reflected on the difficulty of holding on to things that are sentimentally valuable, and went off to make a book about it. “You learn that to keep something you really have to hold on to it, and not just keep it on your computer.”
From these socially-aware, conceptual frameworks, Berner creates graphic design that’s thoughtful, modern, and very much in keeping with the clean lines and unusual layouts of her Dutch design forebears. For such a tiny country, it’s certainly got form when it comes to graphics; and Berner was lucky enough to be taught by Studio Dumbar founder Gert Dumbar (“He would give you a dollar if you wore nail varnish, and give the boys two dollars if they did”), as well as having had Wim Crouwel visit a group show that featured her first year work. The country’s historical reputation for producing a tight-knit and extraordinarily innovative raft of graphic design talent seems to be alive and well. I tell Berner that we featured another KBAK alumni on the site recently, Koos Breen: naturally they used to work in the same studio.
Like Breen, Berner’s approach to graphic design is one that encompasses multiple media, a thousand ideas, and also quite a lot of fun. Sure, she works on a lot of identity projects to pay the bills, but the creative community is at the heart of the social life, too: Glitterstudio’s “other 50%” sees them VJ their own animations and found footage assemblages at parties and festivals around the country. Sounds like a pretty sweet and fulfilling life for someone who only graduated last year, and one who opens our conversation with the wonderfully charming admission that her art school application portfolio was created using MS Paint, Word, gaffer’s tape, and a total lack of awareness that Photoshop and Illustrator even existed.