Nouveau Dutch Design
It is hard to say when exactly ‘Dutch Design’ was invented, but that it was an invention is clear: it is a remarkable brand name, which since the 1980s stands for much more than simply the combined output of a national design industry. Dutch Design has come to represent a mentality which combines formal experiment, astute conceptuality and structural sophistication in graphic and product design as well as architecture and fashion. One of Dutch Design’s graphic arch-fathers is no doubt Gert Dumbar, who’s studio peaked in the 1980s and early 1990s. If Dumbar has to be credited for anything, it is for his re-introduction of playfulness and irony in Dutch graphic culture. He was, of course, not the only one (think of Anthon Beeke and Swip Stolk in the early 1970s), but Studio Dumbar’s work transformed the official face of the Netherlands, building an effective bridge between the playfully anarchic trait that is deeply embedded in the soul of Dutch avant-garde design, and the down-to-earth Calvinistic rationality which characterizes official culture in the Netherlands.
A couple of generations onward, can we still speak of ‘Dutch Design’? Stylistically, the studios and designers selected for this issue of Émergence show they are part of a globe-spanning contemporary visual culture, of which one can find fine examples also in France, the UK, or Japan. So how Dutch are they still? As with everything, the answer is in the details. Compare and contrast for instance Ping-Pong’s logo for BKOR (a Rotterdam based organization for art in public space) with Pierre Bernard’s logo for the Parcs Nationaux de France. On the surface, they look quite like each other. Both are conceived as spiraling outputs of a database of abstracted formal elements associated with the brand. But where Bernard’s database is consistently built from the things that collectively form the content of the Parcs, from branches and leaves to lizards and bears, Ping-Pong’s collection hardly shows any art. Rather, it summarizes the public space of Rotterdam in which the art has or will take its place. In fact, the informal imagery, from graffities and traffic jams to protesting citizens, depicts an urban environment which is, at best, challenging to art. So, where Bernard’s logo focuses on what constitutes his subject, Ping-Pong zoom in on what is effectively in the way of it.
It is an unwavering trait of Dutch Design, to highlight the tricky aspects of a commission’s context. Even Designpolitie’s seemingly cute images acquire an almost cynical quality in posters like the one with the archetypal red and white mushroom. It announces an exhibition about ‘Big Building Projects’ in the context of Dutch architectural policy. Far from being a simple illustration of the subject, it is a tragicomical commentary on its ambitions. Much may have changed since Gert Dumbar, in 1971, announced an exhibition of one of Holland’s revered cultural icons, Piet Mondriaan, with papier-mâché mock-ups of the hero and his work, but not the passionate irony with which Dutch designers kick against ‘heilige huisjes’ (idealized concepts).
Another persistent characteristic of Dutch Design is a fascination for structure. Or better: seemingly neutral structure. Here, a whole generation (if not two, by now) is indebted to the Amsterdam studio of Mevis and Van Deursen. This duo is internationally known for their severe formal approach to highly conceptual content, and the fact that they usually manage to reconcile the two the system becoming an expression of the content. With Experimental Jetset, Mevis and Van Deursen stand for a re-interpretation of modernism’s systematics. Stylistically, they are closer to the Basle school of typographic formalism than to the more exuberant Dutch tradition, but their pristine designs are far from neutral. This can also be seen in work by Toko and Thomas Buxo, for instance, who show a direct stylistic kinship with M&vD. Toko’s design for Code magazine is a case in point, with its strict grid-based lay-out and systematic treatment of typography and images. Conceptually systematic, albeit with a twist, is Toko’s design for the City of The Hague’s annual report of 2004. The designers took the client’s request for an ‘arty’ approach literally, and turned the statistics into abstract-geometric paintings. Although both the graphics and the tabular typography remain firmly organized, the irony of Toko’s response to their client is inescapable.
Lust is another design bureau that shares this penchant for transforming data and charts into almost autonomous artworks. Or the other way around, turn artworks into adjustable charts as they did in the ‘Mondriaan’ page on their website. It allows the visitor to compose their own Mondrianesque screen by adjusting lines and filling fields with primary colors or grays. Art turned into a rather irreverent game, which echoes Dumbar’s paper building blocks in a new medium. The Lust website, by the way, is proof that a fascination for ordering aesthetics and structure does not necessarily result in userfriendliness. On Lust’s site every effort seems to have been made to prevent the visitor from getting a coherent overview of their work. Structure, it appears, can be used for enhancing chaos as much as for ordering it.
It can also be used for more decorative purposes. This is an internationally shared feature of today’s graphic design cultures, and quite a few studios on these pages indulge in it: Reykjavik, Coup, Richard Niessen, Harmen Liemburg among others. Although very different in formal approach and attitude, they all share a fascination for the decorative possibilities of repetitive imagery, or patterns.
It is a revival of the picturesque in graphic design, that is relatively new. In Holland it has an almost forgotten history in the early 20th century, with designers like Wijdeveld and Huszár, and most notably in the work of Jurriaan Schrofer, who in the 1970s and 1980s experimented intensely with geometrical patterns and decorative systems. Richard Niessen’s work is, as he himself puts it, “enlightened” by Wijdeveld’s, which shows in his ‘typographic masonry’ based on graphic building blocks that lock into colorful garlands. In most of these decorative approaches there remains a link with structure and typography. Mint’s charting of plans for a new neighborhood, for instance, looks like typography with small pictograms and building blocks.
But of course there are quite a few designs which are less easily associated with one of the characteristics of Dutch Design, irony, conceptuality or structure. Over the last decade, comics, pop icons and graffiti street culture in general have left their mark in graphic design worldwide and thus also in Holland. ‘Iconicness’ may be the most universally shared feature of global graphic design today. From simple word-images and logos to complex forms and constructions, images are abstracted and ‘abbreviated’ to the kind of visual shorthand so typical for the web. It is in the pixel-scarce environment of the internet that these icons were developed in the first place, but today they abound also in high resolution print media. Icons have become a style instead of a practical solution. And the style spells: contemporary. The fact that many of these little icons are hand drawn instead of painstakingly reduced digital images proves my point; they have not been conceived to pack as much visual information as possible in the least amount of pixels, but as ‘icons’ in the classic sense, as images who’s stylistic appearance embodies a symbolic quality which in a sense overrules their actual visual content.
Hand drawing is another recurrent feature. From Ben Laloua / Didier Pascal’s hand copying of magazine covers to the elaborate drawings of Job Wouters or Harmen Liemburg, the sensitive hand seems to reassert itself over the mechanical keyboard. There is a marked influence of graffiti in such handicraft, where the pencil (ink, carbon or digital) emulates the flow of the spray can, and no doubt quite a few of the designers presented here have roots in spraying tags on their home towns’ walls.
This background in youth- and street culture shows in quite a few of the designs in this issue and there may be a slight distortion in the selection because it was made with French eyes. Hand-drawn imagery and type, stylistic influences from bandes dessinées, graffiti and street culture are prominent in young French design as well. Be that as it may, it also supports the conclusion that nouveau Dutch Design is less Dutch than previous generations. It is remarkable that the features of Dutch Design which I have outlined above are most present in the work of the ‘older’ designers presented here. To my eyes, the younger generation looks more international, more part of a global iconic culture to which the streets of any big city have their natural extension on the web, where everything becomes part of the global village and of a global iconic style.