LeBoYe & Indonesian Graphic Design

December 12, 2008

versus

By Ismiaji Cahyono

It can be surmised that both Hot Ice Tea discussions were hopeful; panelists and the audience were open in dialog and recognized the importance of seeking history, or attempt at it. Moreover, speakers fervently expressed deep concerns in redefining culture and seeking history.

An Exemplar

A recurring theme, however, stimulated our interest into delving deeper on the subject of history and identity in Indonesian graphic design. On more than one occasion, throughout the discussion, Hermawan Tanzil, LeBoYe’s founder and creative force was referred to as an exemplar of an Indonesian graphic designer capable of defining Indonesian culture through his work. Iwan Ramelan repeatedly expressed appreciation in Hermawan’s work as characteristic of Indonesian graphic design. Danton Sihombing questioned whether his work is just style or a representation of Indonesian graphic design. Arief Adityawan admitted his admiration with Hermawan’s effort in utilizing Indonesian culture, which as a result established LeBoYe’s distinctive style.

Hermawan himself emphasized the importance of past designers, however small their roles were as mines for developing a graphic design identity. He explained “… at least we have history, we have stories. We have something we can share to our present generation, and it has to start now… Furthermore, we have character and stories, we have things that prove our existence…”

VERSUS decided to further pursue the assumption that ties Hermawan’s work to Indonesian graphic design.

LeBoYe

On Kemang Selatan 99a, LeBoYe’s wooden box office sits weary amid renovation. The foyer is hot like a glass house, sans pots and plants, replaced by rows of antique furniture, and office equipments worthy as museum pieces. The office is an eclectic cultural mess expounding an aura of creativity.

LeBoYe was founded in 1990 after Hermawan’s brief work for Citra Indonesia (a leading Indonesian graphic design company in the 1980s spearheaded by Hanny Kardinata). LeBoYe blossomed quickly garnering international and local accolades (How Magazine, Communication Arts, Type Director’s Club, Conqueror Paper Awards, Scopa Awards, etc.); creating memorable designs and products such as the “Boeatan Indonesia Asli” series popularized Indonesian graphic. Under no constraints from the booming economy of the early 90s, driven by passionate creativity, earnest hard work, seasoned by experience and sustained by sincere love for design—these are catalysts for LeBoYe’s success.

In the Beginning

In the late 1980s, upon completing his tenure at Paul Curtin Design, San Francisco, Hermawan decided to try his fortune by moving back to Indonesia, where he first worked for Hanny Kardinata at Citra Indonesia. He confessed that it was there he became interested in the culture of Indonesia. Given projects that centered on local culture challenged Hermawan to learn deeper about his homeland.

He confessed not particularly fond of the work he completed at Citra Indonesia. Hermawan felt caught off-guard working on Sekaring Jagad, which was a book on Keraton (Javanese court) Batik, as well as Gearing Up for the ‘90s a book on Indonesian tourism in the 1990s.

Hermawan was a stranger to Keraton Batik, even more with Indonesia’s tourism industry, which is circled around culture. This could be attributed his Western training and job experiences, which alienated him from Indonesian culture. It was due to the challenge of not knowing, which led to reflection and pursuit to overcome his ignorance. Hermawan pointed out that meeting other cultural figures such as Mary Jane Edleson, an Indonesianist and author of Sekaring Jagad, prominent Indonesian designer Tjahjono Abdi, and Hanny Kardinata of Citra Indonesia inspired him further to study about his background and position in culture.

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Boeatan Indonesia Asli

A new love affair ignited, and generated a unique graphic design style that only Hermawan and his progeny LeBoYe can claim. A few years after he founded LeBoYe, a series of cultural projects were ensued. “Boeatan Indonesia Asli” was LeBoYe’s graphic project consisting of a series of books, journals, agenda, and other printed materials that collect past Indonesian graphic artifacts and cultural crafts. The first edition was on folk art, second, old Indonesian advertisements, third, children’s toys, fourth, matchbox covers, and so forth. An upcoming ornate alphabet book project is on its way under a new graphics creation division to be called “Iseni.”

The “Boeatan Indonesia Asli” rustled the Indonesian creative world because of its naivete and nostalgic approach toward culture. Even so it was often viewed original and distinguishable in every way. Some describe it as a hybrid, a marriage between culture and design. Some brand it as Indonesian graphic design. Some describe it as just a coffee table book of other people’s work and collection. Hermawan defended his work by maintaining “although the series contain other people’s work and collection, it was my idea, initiative, and effort to collect and design it. I felt it had great impact by popularizing Indonesian graphic design.”

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Criticism

It is difficult to judge whether Hermawan’s work is Indonesian or not because what’s “Indonesian” has yet to be defined. It is clear that he methodically mines the past and utilizes his own nostalgia and romanticism to communicate his work, in turn triggering ours—the audience’s sentimentality. Therefore, he could be defined as using culture as style, or vice versa. What’s clear as a result, his work becomes unique in character-personal, undeniably “Hermawan.”

Though refusing Indonesian graphic design as ornamentation, Hermawan utilizes ornaments, deconstructed and uprooted from its context to work for his graphic design. This is both a paradox and enigma. It has sparked a practical trend often abused by younger designers.

“I imagine that Indonesian graphic design must reflect the characteristics of Indonesia, which can be labeled as identity, culture, and so forth, though a definition of such has never been agreed upon. We cannot adopt the minimalist culture of Japanese graphic design because we don’t have a minimalist culture. We don’t have a highbrow culture like the West. Our culture is hospitality, warmth, and rich with symbolism.”

Hermawan explains that although each ethnic culture is distinct, he found the Javanese culture very dominant in Indonesia. “I set off from Javanese culture as my reflection of Indonesia. For example, in Javanese culture, ornaments are unavoidable because we are raised with ornamentation. As in Javanese culture our lives are rich with symbolic meanings, beliefs, such as feng shui, and there it’s impossible to avoid that.”

It is important to be reminded that graphic design is more prominent on the Javanese island than the rest of Indonesia. Thus, its practitioners, academicians, viewers, users, and appreciators are concentrated on the Javanese island; consequently purporting the prevailing view that Indonesian graphic design is culturally Javanese. We could blame the mismanagement of the previous political order (and perhaps stemming back from classical imperialism) that centralized Java as the identity of Indonesia. We know now this is not right. In our discussions we have recognized plurality as identity rather than utilizing one ethnic component as representative of the diverse whole. And so it falls to us, present Indonesian graphic designers to take task, to redefine this view anew.

This revelation may support some criticism against Hermawan’s work. So far it has worked on his favor. What he’s methodically practiced is symptomatic of a post-colonial and post-modern society. Hermawan’s melancholia is a reflection of us. “Indonesia is so expansive and diverse; there is much that I don’t know about it. I am yet still learning,” he expressed. But not one critic may deny the impact “Boeatan Indonesia Asli” had in driving local designers to reflect about their practice and purpose in culture. Perhaps it is his practice, not entirely in the visuals he had crafted that defines “Indonesian graphic design.”

What is true in Hermawan’s work is personality, a courage to share his innermost feelings, memories, and expressions in graphic design that is often muted, suppressed, and if not ignored by other so-called modernist local designers. Perhaps, that is most important about his work.

VERSUS asked whether he personally thought that his designs were Indonesian, and he replied: “I’d be honored and proud if my work was acknowledged Indonesian. As an Indonesian I aspire that an Indonesian graphic design exists. I would be content if we have a solid identity as an Indonesian graphic designer!”

He continued, “Furthermore, I believe design can educate people to be proud of their own culture-not follow the global trend as we are all unique individuals. We should not become mainstream. Instead, we should create a new stream.”

“I would like LeBoYe to be influential to designers and people alike and make them realize Indonesia’s unique heritage, its characteristics, and identity, rather than blend into globalization.”

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7 Responses to “LeBoYe & Indonesian Graphic Design”

  1. deanactivity Says:

    halo leboye..
    pengen kerja n belajar d leboye..
    beberapa kali ngirim email untuk lamaran n Cv tapi gak masuk2..knp ya.
    makasih atas perhatiannya
    dean-DegilDesign

  2. leboye Says:

    kirim langsung selalu lebih baik !


  3. You have an affecting take on this subject. I am glad you shared your thoughts and ideas and I find that I agree. I enjoy your coherent writing and the effort you have spent on this piece. Many thanks for the good work and good luck with your blog, I greatly look forward to updates in the future.

  4. medi Says:

    hi….saya senang dengan koleksi leboye..sudah beberapa item saya pernah beli di leboye counter..kira2 ada item yang terbaru kah…mohon info..

    salam buat team leboye yang sangat indonesia bangett
    disainnya..


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