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An interview with KhaJag Apelian

"All the basic things in life are design."

Born in Dubai, raised in Lebanon, and currently based in The Hague: KJ is leading the Noord design team. He tells us about his love for the performing arts, and the power of design.

Why KJ?

Actually, all my life I was KhaJag. It wasn't until the very first day of university, that my teacher looked at my name and said: “I am never going to be able to pronounce that, so from now on you are going to be KJ.” She was Danish.

What are you doing in The Netherlands?

I came to Holland two years ago. I became acquainted with Mediamatic, and worked on their El Hema project. After that, I moved to The Hague to start my MA in type design at the Royal Academy of Art. I was lucky, because at that time there was a law in The Netherlands that allowed you to stay an extra year after finishing your master. They extend your visa for you, while you look for a job. So I stayed, and started doing freelance graphic design work.

What was studying in The Netherlands like? Is it very different compared to Lebanon?

The MA at the Royal Academy was great. It was an international program: eleven people, all from different countries. I think this is very important. You learn a lot from different cultures. Although design education in Beirut is quite good as well, the design scene is not very rich. Here in Amsterdam, everything is design. The first time I came to Amsterdam to work on El Hema, I noticed how all the posters, everything around the city, was beautifully designed. I think the main difference is that kids here grow up with a visual background that is nonexistent in Lebanon.

And what about the main difference between people in Lebanon and Europe?

In Europe people live more individually. Everyone has their own private space, and the possibility of expressing and even creating themselves. In Lebanon, life is much more geared towards the community: everybody knows everything about you. It's hard to express yourself the way you would like to, because you're always being judged. In Holland people don't judge you. They respect the individual.

Have you always wanted to be a graphic designer?

Actually, when I started university I wasn't quite sure what a graphic designer did. I was definitely more into the performing arts. However, in Lebanon, like everywhere else, the performing arts don't pay the bills. I enjoyed and continued dancing for a long time, but wouldn't call myself a dancer. Eventually I moved into graphic design. I know design isn't the most important thing in life, and when I talk about it I tend to be a bit radical, but I can't help but think that even the most basic stuff in life is design. Perhaps I romanticize graphic design, but I do believe it can improve the quality of people's lives.

You told us before you worked on the El Hema project. Can you tell us a bit more about it?

Basically, what we were trying to do was approach the possibility of an Arabic Hema. The idea behind the project was to take something very Dutch and try to Arabize it. We sold Arabic versions of typical Hema (i.e. Dutch) products.

That sounds really interesting, especially considering the recent immigration issues in The Netherlands.

I was very surprised and shocked when I heard the results of the last election. Especially since all the people around me seem very open to different cultures. When I heard about the success of Geert Wilders' party, the first thing I thought was: who voted for him? But of course a lot of the people I meet are from an artistic environment. And it are the people from the small villages that are most likely to appreciate his rhetoric. They are scared. They don't meet immigrants in their everyday life, so everything they know about foreigners, is what the media tells them. And the media can make us very ignorant.

I think a big problem with cultural projects can be that they only reach the cultural scene. There's always the risk of preaching to the converted: the tiny, privileged artistic world. Noord tries to break through that pattern. We're publishing a bilingual travel guide, in Dutch and Arabic. Hopefully it will be printed tabloid size, and distributed along with a local newspaper in Amsterdam. I really think this could help us reach people outside of the art scene, and allow our message to seep through to everyday, city life.

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