Image: the Golden Age in Ljubljana (design by COMA), DK/ 2009
* * *
Golden Age – Highlights of Dutch Graphic Design (1890-1990) was a traveling exhibition developed in 2007 by Premsela. During two years the exhibition was on view in Athens, Breda, Brno, Bucharest, Budapest, Sophia, Ljubljana, Madrid and Warsaw.
Golden Age presented the broad spectrum of a century of Dutch graphic design. All the era’s major styles were represented, including Art Nouveau, De Stijl, Expressionism, Constructivism and postwar Rationalism. The show was made up of posters and other works by noted designers such as Jan Toorop, Bart van der Leck, Piet Zwart, Paul Schuitema, Willem Sandberg, Jan Bons, Jan van Toorn and Wim Crouwel. The unique heritage of Dutch design serves as an important source of inspiration for the current generation of graphic designers.
The title Golden Age is drawing a parallel with the Dutch Golden Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer. Common to both periods is the significance of progress and quality, but above all, the emphasis that was put on the notions of freedom and tolerance. Inspired, and possibly instructed, by an era of great development and at the same time catastrophe, the artists and designers were looking for new ways of printed communication.
The Golden Age was the result of the cooperation of its two curators, Cees W. de Jong and Alston W. Purvis, authors of the book Dutch Graphic Design: A Century of Innovation. The exhibition was designed by COMA (Cornelia Blatter and Marcel Hermans).
The Dutch ambassador to Romania, Jaap L. Werner, opened Golden Age in Bucharest on 16 November. Before the official opening I also had the opportunity to say some words.
* * *
It is an honour to welcome you to the opening of The Golden Age – Highlights of Dutch Graphic Design.
I could now restrict myself to a historical explication of the works in this exhibition. And I assure you that there are some fascinating stories to be told about the beautiful designs displayed here. But I would rather concentrate on the significance of these works in relation to the future of communication and information.
Because in fact graphic design is in some respects no different to journalism. Sweeping changes such as digitalisation, commercialisation and globalisation demand a new orientation for graphic designers: a position which enables them to view these changes not as threats, but as opportunities.
I make the comparison with journalism because within the media there is currently a lively debate about the public responsibility and social role of the journalist and the future of newspapers. In a recent lecture the renowned American journalist John Carroll stated:
‘I viewed my job as turning over rocks. Usually there was nothing under a given rock, so I’d move on to the next rock. It was humble work, but every now and then it would produce something worthwhile.’
He defines journalistic work as, ‘unglamorous, inefficient and expensive’. But without rock-turners such as Woodward and Bernstein scandals such as Watergate would never have been exposed to the public.
Now that the media is increasingly driven by commercial requirements, investigative journalism based upon facts is in danger of being replaced by a journalism of manipulation and sensationalism. And that, as this American editor has pointed out, places all citizens of democratic societies in danger.
So, does graphic design have a comparable significance to that of journalism? Confronted with the passionate stance so evident in the works represented here, we will probably want to reply with a resounding yes! But how, then, can we define this significance?
I would like to highlight three aspects in particular:
1. making information accessible;
2. research and the development of the graphic idiom through which information is presented;
3. symbolising the value of information.
The graphic designer makes information accessible, for example by ensuring legibility, ordering texts and images and the interpretation of data in the form of information graphics. In The Golden Age you will see, for example, the work of Gert Arntz, who is considered one of the pioneers of visual statistics. But even today if you visit our country, when arriving at Schiphol Airport you will be guided on your way by Paul Mijksenaar’s wayfinding system, which has been carefully considered down to the smallest detail. And as you travel around you will be met everywhere by the elegant blue and white road signage designed by NPK with lettering by our master typographer Gerard Unger.
This exhibition can be read also as a potted history of the exploration and development of the graphic idiom. You will see how the possibilities of photography were first tested. You will witness the introduction of the asymmetric layout, the sans-serif typeface and new typesetting and printing techniques. It is as though you are looking over the shoulders of designers such as Piet Zwart and Paul Schuitema as they attempt to create a synthesis of modern typography and photography. In looking at this work it is important to realise that, in this period of manual typesetting with lead, it was literally necessary to employ a saw in order to place the type diagonally.
Research and the development of the graphic idiom play a crucial role in the work of the French designer Pierre Bernard, who was the recipient last year of the prestigious Erasmus Prize. Bernard sees his work as a contribution to: ‘symbolisation and re-symbolisation’. He says:
‘Functionalism and subversion should be present in every individual work. On the one hand, the designer must enhance intelligibility, reinforce the texture of language, fall in line with the norm. At the same time he must query certain points which he chooses himself or agrees on with the client. It is necessary to create confusion and shake up commonplaces if communication is to retain its power and vitality.’
For Bernard, designing is a tool for a deeper exploration and further development of the graphic idiom within a dialogue between the designer and the client or the designer and the user. This approach links him to the Dutch tradition, which is represented in this exhibition.
The final aspect is concerned not with the symbolisation of the information itself, but with the value of information. Today it is almost a natural reflex to think of value in economic terms. But by the value of information I mean its social and cultural value. Bernard was not the only graphic designer to be honoured with an important Dutch prize last year. The Iranian designer Reza Abedini received the Prince Claus Award for his calligraphic designs and his work as a teacher of calligraphy. In his acceptance speech he talked about the motivations behind Persian calligraphy. He sketched a culture in which God is made manifest by means of the word. As such, the word must be honoured through masterly craftsmanship and exquisite aesthetics. Abedini placed the quality of graphic design in the perspective of the value a society attributes to graphic tools and media. Anyone who considers the difference between, for example, serious newspapers such as the Frankfurter Allgemeine and The Guardian and tabloids such as Bild and The Sun will, I hope, agree with me that the quality of design is inextricably bound up with the value of information.
In the Netherlands, the social and cultural value of graphic design was already recognised in the early part of the twentieth century by State-run services such as the Postal and Telecommunications network – the PTT. There was a belief that government could fulfil an exemplary role in bringing together the ‘artist and the man in the street’ and in developing the public’s taste. Indeed, it was even believed that greater attention for art and design could improve the mentality of the State, government services and society itself. In this sense, many of the designs exhibited here are like notices from a Utopia below sea level. The question remains, perhaps more so now than ten years ago, whether graphic design can in fact improve the mentality of the State and society. My answer to this is not without a degree of ambiguity. My optimistic side believes that anyone who grows up in a carefully designed environment with thoughtfully designed information cannot be any the worse for it, and may even be better off as a result. But my pessimistic side has to admit that outstanding design has not proved to be a guarantee for an ideal society.
Nonetheless, I remain optimistic. Thanks to Reza Abedini I was reminded that the graphic designer has an important responsibility in maintaining and extending the social and cultural value of information in society. And that, even in a period of change and confusion, this responsibility must provide a direction for the future of graphic design. So that we, as citizens of democratic countries within a democratic Europe, do not take for granted the freedom to communicate with one another, but experience it as a privilege that must be earned anew from day to day.
I thank you for your attention and hope you will enjoy the exhibition.