Interview with Koos Breen

Koos Breen stretches frontiers of disciplines and pushes them to edgy limits. He fluently shifts between being an art director, designer and artist: continuously expanding his expertise and interests, while challenging himself as much as the possible boundaries. In the same vein, Koos hardly distinguishes between autonomous works and commissioned projects: different worlds blend, as he imagines how objects and forms could function within divergent disciplines, scenes and environments.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I am Koos Breen, an interdisciplinary designer, art director and artist based in The Hague, the Netherlands.

Where did you grow up? 

I grew up in Ouddorp, on an island called Goeree Overflakkee on the southwest coast of the Netherlands. It has the beach on one side and a big lake on the other. So during summer I would go to the beach and swim almost daily. Also, my father was a fisherman on the North Sea, so the sea was an important part of my upbringing. That’s also why I love The Hague, the beach is still within a 5 minutes cycle.

What initially inspired you to pursue a career in graphic design?

Before I was a designer I was a trained optician and I worked at a, at the time, very nice store in The Hague. We had a lot of artists and designers as clients, and some of them became friends. A few of them were still studying at the Royal Academy in The Hague and we often talked about that. It always made me a bit jealous, so I decided to just try and apply. And luckily I got accepted. I applied for Graphic Design because I liked type and my friends did that, so that’s what I knew. Since then my practice has been broadened and has become more three-dimensional. I now design exhibitions, publications, and objects. I am also part of MORPH, a collective that organises interdisciplinary exhibitions. 

How would you describe your creative process?

My commissioned designs, be it exhibitions or publications are usually quite outspoken. I don’t make neutral canvasses for the content that needs to be communicated. Because that neutrality does not exist. I want to make clear that visitors and readers are looking at a desígn. A design that is not just a canvas to host the content but also ís that content. It directs or suggests you to look at it in a certain way. You could say by making the design so visible it also demystifies the design process, it makes it more clear that this is my view on it. It provokes opinions and thus invites discussion. 
Besides that, a lot of the projects I do, involve other makers; I love to collaborate. I learn a lot from people from other disciplines, other points of view are very valuable.

How is the current situation affecting you and your work as an artist/creative living in The Hague?

In the beginning, I loved the ‘break’, and the slowness. The new pace was refreshing and I found it easier to focus. A lot of projects were cancelled or delayed and I finally had the time to document a lot of work and develop my new website. I am happy though that, although very slowly, the end of the tunnel comes closer. I am still healthy and I have many new projects going on, but I would be very happy to be able to travel again and meet in larger groups.

Does your city and surroundings influence you as an artist and individual?

The Hague is quite relaxed. It doesn't even try to be cool. I like living in a city that is not the centre of everyone's attention. And unlike Amsterdam, it's still affordable to live here, so there's less pressure, which I think benefits the quality of life and the art scene. 

The responsibility of the council in every city is to provide a solid foundation of design, art and cultural facilities, is that evident in The Hague?

Yes, The Hague is a really good city to live in as an artist. We have a good art academy, great conservatory, amazing dance companies like NDT I and II, beautiful museums like the Kunstmuseum Den Haag and art spaces like West, Nest, Billytown and Stroom. Stroom is an art centre that programmes shows, debates and studio visits, but also stimulates the art climate in The Hague in other ways by funding and improving the visibility of art and artists from The Hague.

Do you think it is also the responsibility of the artist/creative to improve the quality of people's lives in their city? 

I do not think that it is necessarily the responsibility of an artist, I think that it is every citizen’s responsibility. 

What do you struggle with the most in terms of working and living in a city like The Hague?

Although it is a very international city, because the embassies are based here, the international court etc. it’s quite small, sometimes it feels more like a village than a city. It would be nice to be able to get lost sometimes.

Can you tell us about any current or future projects that you are particularly excited about?

I am designing an installation for a new exhibition at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam. The exhibition is about the home, and how this pandemic has changed the way we look at and live in our home. How we started cleaning like crazy and tidying and how we now engage with the world almost only via our screens. The installation is going to be activated by the public, who can perform their cleaning rituals. So there are going to be a lot of vacuum-cleaners and soap. I guess a lot of noise, mess and fun.
At the same museum, we will also have a big show with our collective MORPH, an exhibition that was originally going to be shown in Milan during Design Week last year. But luckily we were offered this beautiful space at the museum it will open beginning September ’21.

If you could add or change something about your city, what would that be?

The Hague feels very segregated. Unfortunately, the diverse cultures of the city aren’t blended well. It would be nice if that could change. 
Also: a whole other point, and this is not just a thing I would love to change in The Hague, but in The Netherlands in general, it would be great if kitchens in bars and restaurants didn’t close at 10 pm.

If you could choose any artist/creative to collaborate with, who would that be and why? 

I would love to design a stage set for NDT one day. It’s an amazing dance company based in The Hague. I have been to their performances a few times and was very impressed. It would be a dream to make a design that accommodates and/ or is based on the movement of bodies in space instead of on static objects or texts. It would add another dimension to my work. 

What do you do to switch off?

Go to the beach! 

What does home mean to you?

I have a tiny apartment but with a growing collection of art from friends and other artists I love. Home is where I can invite them to have dinner and talk all night.

Sometimes people relate a specific smell to the city they live in or the place they grew up, does The Hague evoke a personal smell to you?

At the risk of repeating myself, the smell of the sea makes me feel at home.

What is your favourite time of the day?

Dinner time! I love to eat. And I love to go out for dinner, I hope that will be possible again soon. 

If you weren’t living in The Hague and could choose any city to live in where would that be, and why?

Probably Rotterdam. I love the harbour and it feels bigger and more vibrant. Also, I love the no-nonsense mentality of the Rotterdammers. I thought of moving there for years, but I might miss being so close to the sea.

The Hague by koos breen

A selection of places in The Hague - recommended by designer and art director Koos Breen. See Koos Breen's citylikeyou profile page here

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