Creative Civil Servants

A Century of Dutch Design Education

[2017, unpublished]


In a broad range of disciplines, Dutch design has a global reputation for being cutting-edge, experimental, funny, quirky, conceptual. Dutch architects and graphic, product and fashion designers are among the figure heads of their trade world-wide: Rem Koolhaas, Irma Boom, Marcel Wanders, Victor & Rolf, to name only a few. Many critics have analyzed their fame in the context of the specific Dutchness of their work, an often rather paradoxical combination of rebelliousness and market orientation, of idiosyncratic irony and rational analysis, that is associated with the combined Dutch traditions of the Reformation, political and religious tolerance and inventiveness in engineering and trade. All of that may be to the point, but how did these designers’ training shape their talent? How did Dutch design education help produce so many outstanding designers? 

As with many things now thought of as being Dutch, modern design education in the Netherlands started by adopting a model from abroad. Dutch artists and designers introduced the educational model and ideology of the German Bauhaus in the Netherlands almost immediately after the famous institution was closed in 1933. In that year, the painter Paul Citroen, who had studied at the Bauhaus in the preceding years, founded the Nieuwe Kunstschool (“New Art School”) in Amsterdam. And architect Mart Stam, guest teacher at the Bauhaus in the late 1920s, became director of the Amsterdam Institute for Applied Arts (now the Gerrit Rietveld Academy) in 1937. Many other Bauhaus alumni and former teachers, among which Hajo Rose, Paul Guermonprez, Johan Niegeman and Piet Zwart, moved or returned to the Netherlands after the Bauhaus was closed by the Nazis to teach at Dutch art and design schools. But the Bauhaus was not the only model, nor was it the only reference for the innovators of design education in the Netherlands. Already in the previous century, politicians, designers and educators complained about the dire state of Dutch design education and advocated a new approach that would go beyond slavishly copying traditional models of arts-and-crafts. In 1874, Dutch politician and civil servant Victor de Stuers wrote that there was an urgent need to innovate “drawing education,” as a powerful means for “raising and developing” the general cultural state of the country: “For the artist, the architect and the industrialist it is obligatory; and it is useful to all. It elevates the taste of the entire population, because it raises the producer’s competence and educates and civilizes the user.” 1)
De Stuers’ intervention marked the start of a Dutch design education policy, that served two goals which to this day characterize Dutch design practice: a strong focus on “purity of form” and “artistic expression,” combined with an equally strong emphasis on practicality and industrial or craft quality. Piet Zwart, the famous innovator of Dutch graphic design in the 1930s, combined the two strands when he advocated a transformation of “artisanry” into “a purification of functional design.” 2) Of course, the influence of the avant-garde movements at the start of the 20th century was felt in design education as well, through artists like Piet Mondriaan and Paul Citroen, architects such as Mart Stam and J.J.P. Oud and designers like Hendrik Wijdeveld and Piet Zwart. And a characteristic of these Dutch modernist artists and architects gradually found its way into the schools: the, sometimes rather exalted, connection that was already made by De Stuers, between pure aesthetics, industrial production and “elevating” society as a whole. It was a mentality also demonstrated after the second world war by an organization like “Goed Wonen” (“dwelling well”), which advocated modern furniture by depicting traditional interior design as representing a regressive, witless and isolated world-view that should be overcome, both in design and in society at large.

The notion of design representing “a mentality,” a moralistic world view rather than a specific canon of professional and craft skills gradually became an essential trait of Dutch design education. Graphic designer Jan Bons, who studied at the New Art School in the late 1930s, recalled that “the focus was more on the personal development of the pupil than on learning a trade. [...] We learned a way of working, which should be connected to our way of life.” 3) Friso Kramer, who studied under Mart Stam in Amsterdam and who’s public lighting designs and chairs can be found in a good percentage of Dutch streets and offices, recalled: “We talked about myriad social subjects like emancipation, birth control, abortion etc. Already between 1940 and 1950 the question of environmental pollution was raised.” 4) And in De Acht en Opbouw (a modernist Dutch architecture and design periodical) of early 1940, the editors rhetorically asked the traditional art and design schools: “Where, indeed, is the recognition and consciousness of having a proper place and mission with respect to society? Isn’t it necessary to give [art and design students], next to technical expertise also: the conviction of having a duty?” 5)

The idea that design as a craft has an outspoken social and cultural responsibility has deep roots in a general characteristic of Dutch Protestant culture, often summarized as a peculiar combination of ‘merchant and missionary.’ It can also be seen as a typically Dutch interpretation, or accentuation, of the Bauhaus ideal of connecting art, architecture, technology and society. This missionary feature spans the entire political and professional scale of Dutch design practices, that may vastly differ in other respects. This scale, and its extremities, was represented most intensely by the two leading figures of Dutch graphic design and education in the 1970s, Wim Crouwel and Jan van Toorn. Crouwel was an eloquent spokesperson for Functionalism, or what came to be known as the “Swiss school of typography” in the Netherlands, arguing for a neutral design devoid of personal interpretations by the designer. Van Toorn, on the other hand, stated that designers have a personal obligation to show their commitment and engage with the social and cultural contexts of their work. They both, however, are firmly rooted in the same modernist tradition that connected rational analysis with social commitment in the early 20th century. 6) In general, one could say that the position of Van Toorn proved to be more influential in Dutch design education. Crouwel, who later also taught at the Technical University Delft and served as director of the Boymans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam, vainly advocated a strict separation between art and design education – most art schools in the Netherlands still combine courses in art and design. Van Toorn brought together art, graphic design and cultural theory during his directorship at the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht, one of the first post-graduate academies of art and design on the European continent in the late 1980s and an inspiration for research-oriented graduate schools in the Netherlands.

Concept and Context
The focus on ‘mentality’ and ‘personal development’ in Dutch art and design education also fostered the emphasis of educational practice in the creative arts on concept. In both art and design education in the Netherlands, an impressionistic argumentation like “this is how I feel it should be done,” is deemed as insufficient a rationale for a specific approach or formal outcome, as a reference to “this is how it’s supposed to be done” is. Neither instinct nor imitation are appreciated by themselves. Although ‘individuality’ and ‘originality’ are highly valued and stimulated in students, they do need to argue their stance, both with respect to tradition and to society at large. This has lead to an educational practice that intimately connects the visual result of any product to its conceptual argumentation, to an eloquently worded ‘idea.’ Here, as Camiel van Winkel also pointed out in his 2005 essay “The Primacy of the Visual,” 7) the emergence of conceptual art in the 1970s played an important role, next to the focus on organization and compositional argumentation of modernist graphic design. The conceptual approach in Dutch art and design education could be summarized as ‘organizing and arguing an idea within a specific context,’ and giving this a visual expression. How one interprets the linkage between the work and its context – and which contexts are important – widely differed and differs between schools.
Throughout the 1970s, for instance, The Academy of Art and Industry (AKI) in Enschede, a town in the east of Holland, was a self-appointed continuation of the Bauhaus, with a strong emphasis on engaging with social causes and individual creative development. Among AKI’s alumni is Irma Boom, world-famous for her idiosyncratic book designs and her stance as co-author and -editor of the books she makes.
At the Rietveld Academy, the Amsterdam art school that continues the tradition of Mart Stam and Gerrit Rietveld, the social context of art and design was and still is a main point of reference, in concert with a highly individual and critical stance vis-à-vis society. The latter aspect is further developed at the Sandberg Institute, the graduate school known for its activist approach to engaging with a broad array of social and cultural phenomena, from privacy policies to the refugee crisis.
At the Eindhoven Design Academy – the youngest educational institution and the only one in the Netherlands exclusively dedicated to design – the conceptual approach has produced a host of product designers who’s work is as much social criticism as it is viable design, with a tendency to stress the former over the latter. Thus the much-publicized “Mine Kafon” by 2011 graduate Massoud Hassani has been rather more effective as vehicle to raise awareness of the problem of discarding mines in post-conflict regions than as a practical solution for clearing them. 8) These are only a few examples of Dutch design schools among many. What they have in common is a dedication to positioning design and designers at the nexus of culture and society, at the place where society both produces its visual metaphors and discusses the directions in which to develop further.

Amsterdam, Basel, Bologna
In the late 1980s, I took part as tutor in an excursion of Rietveld graphic design students to Basel, then the world-famous headquarters of contemporary Swiss typography with Wolfgang Weingart as figurehead. After a tour through the meticulously organized and clean typography studio – a stark contrast to the Dutch students’ rather more messy classrooms –, the students of both cities mingled and exchanged stories and experiences. What struck me, was that each group envied the other. The Basel students longed for the freedom they saw in their Amsterdam colleagues, to follow their own interests and fascinations outside the strict confines of the discipline, the freedom to experiment, to connect their work to society at large and ponder their position as designers beyond questions of proper spacing. The Amsterdam students, however, were impressed with the level of professional skill they saw in their Basel colleagues and wished they would receive more ‘craft’ training. This is a split in priorities that can also be seen in Dutch design education, with on the one hand institutions like the The Hague typography course or the Delft Technical University focusing much more on a methodical approach to the craft of design, and on the other hand (many) others accentuating a social and conceptual approach to design. Still, in both strands in the Netherlands, I would hold, the personal cultural and social responsibility of designers is stressed over their commercial functioning as ‘applied artists.’

In recent years, the “Bologna process” of bringing together European universities and institutes of professional and vocational education has resulted in an ‘academization’ of art- and design education in the Netherlands, which tends to strengthen the already existing emphasis on ‘conceptuality’ and argumentation by fostering theoretical development and research. But this holds risks, because even in the most ‘conceptually-oriented’ schools, the combination of thinking and making has always been the foundation of the educational program. Practical experimentation with materials and ways of manipulating them has been a strong tradition in the Netherlands, even if the emphasis was often not on the canonical ways of doing that. In other words, when Jan Bons recalls that “the focus was more on the personal development of the pupil than on learning a trade,” he did not mean that the school was solely interested in conceptual enunciations. It meant that making things is personal rather than general, and that developing a conscious personal stance vis-à-vis the trade is more important than merely going through the motions.

The emphasis on social and cultural aspects of design education in the Netherlands has naturally resulted in an increasing interest in social design, the design practice that aims to co-create with the end users of the design, and co-develop design projects with all ‘stakeholders’ involved. Often, such approaches lead to a ‘transdisciplinary’ approach, in which a range of design and communication disciplines are joined in amalgamated projects. These might embrace urban design, an online collaborative platform, printed publications, events, ‘fab labs’ and on- and off-line meeting places, all connected to a specific theme or project. At the Sandberg Institute, for instance, students have engaged with organizations like Greenpeace and Amnesty and causes like privacy, refugees and cultural/ethnic integration by designing and conducting campaigns, events and communication channels. In a sense, graduate courses like the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam, the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam and the graduate schools in Eindhoven, Breda, Utrecht and elsewhere more and more function like conceptual laboratories that address and research social and cultural problems and phenomena by design.

The combined tendencies of conceptuality and social orientation gradually lead away from the product-oriented focus of Dutch design and education that became so prominent in the 1980s and 1990s. The ironic wit, which characterized a generation of Dutch designers and found its expression in rubber vases that looked like glass (Hella Jongerius), cabinets that consisted of a loose heap of drawers held together by a sturdy belt (Theo Remy) and furniture made from discarded wood (Piet Hein Eek), now emerges less in objects than in what one could call ‘design dramaturgies.’ Setting up a pigeon-post communication channel to criticize the increasing breaches of privacy by governmental and commercial services, for instance (a Sandberg Design project from 2008). Or an app that meshes up feeds form a variety of news sources on the same subject, making the user aware of the bias of each of these sources (Andrea Vendrik, Breda Master Graphic Design, 2013). Beyond objects, life itself – and the ways we habitually ‘read’ it – becomes material for redesigning our perception of reality. This, essentially, has been a defining trait of Dutch design education. At root, Dutch design education is about providing society with creative civil servants.


^1) F. Huygen, ‘Visies op Vormgeving’, Deel 1, Architectura & Natura Pers, Amsterdam 2007, p.15

^2) ibid. P.25

^3) ibid. P.31

^4) ibid. p.39

^5) ibid. p.38

^6) See also: Max Bruinsma, ‘Points of View on Design Education’, AGI/GRA, Amsterdam 1984

^7) Camiel van Winkel, Het Primaat van de Zichtbaarheid, NAI publishers, Rotterdam 2005

max bruinsma