198, September/Oktober 2004

Dutch Type
Jan Middendorp
010 publishers, Rotterdam, 2004
isbn: 90 6450 460 1


The Confident Modernity of Dutch Type

German type guru and FontShop founder Erik Spiekermann often said that "the Netherlands is the country with the highest density of type designers per square kilometer." He is quoted with an air of gratified modesty by Jan Middendorp in the introduction to his magnum opus 'Dutch Type'. In the next sentences, and in a less modest vein, Middendorp summarizes the program of his book: "Dutch type designers have helped in setting new standards for the emerging technology of desktop typography. They have done so by insisting on the one principle that their predecessors Sjoerd Hendrik de Roos and Jan van Krimpen agreed on: that new technologies need new letterforms."

The strong link between form and technology is indeed a mark of Dutch type design, from its inception. Middendorp describes how the new technology of printing was more or less hi-jacked from the Germans when the Dutch claimed to have invented it in the 1440s, before Gutenberg did. He argues that whatever the debate about printing's origins, the Dutch were early in adapting the technology and providing for it. So what makes the Dutch so well disposed to type design? Middendorp suggests, on the basis of extended quotes from foreign commentators on the Dutch design mentality, that "for a community of designers driven by pragmatism, individualism and perfectionism, type design seems a natural specialization." The result of this mentality is, so Middendorp, a confident modernity, expressed in sturdy, open, clear and unadorned aesthetics. That this characterization is not only applicable to modern times is shown in Middendorp's historic introduction, where he describes alphabets from 16th century Flemish type cutters like Joos Lambrecht and Hendrik van den Keere as "precursors of the later 'thrifty' Dutch style," on the grounds of both their material and formal economy of means.

Economy was a driving force behind Dutch type design: "During the 17th century, more books were printed in the Republic of the Netherlands than in all other countries put together." And the printers of those days provided the type used in the books they made. This changes at the end of the 19th century, when type production becomes mechanized and type design the realm of the producers of printing equipment and hot metal typesetting machines with firms like Enschedé and later Tetterode, or 'Amsterdam Type Foundry'. All of this forms the basis for a pragmatic type design mentality, firmly rooted in both an age-old tradition of book printing and swift adaptation to new technologies. Both have inspired and continue to motivate Dutch type design, in a long tradition of purist book alphabets, from De Roos via Noordzij to Majoor, and sometimes wild experiments with new technologies, from Van Doesburg, via Crouwel to Letterror.

Another source of inspiration for today's type designers, and a practice that has become revived through the rise of computer-generated fonts, is the tradition of display type. These, Middendorp reminds us, were the run of the mill for quasi monopolists as the Amsterdam Type Foundry who used them to create and cater to short-lived fashions. 'Hypes' we would call this practice of making trendy typefaces for specific jobs today.

Middendorp carefully and lovingly describes not only the historic contexts and developments, but with each stage of his narrative zooms in on specific typefaces, analyzing them, summarizing contemporary comments and anecdotes and linking these to both historic developments and current revivals. Gradually, the reader gains insight into a multi-faceted history, with its continuity, its parallel tracks and its contrasts. At the turn of the last century, for instance, three strands can be seen in type design (and in the visual arts and design at large), which are often deemed contrary or antithetical. De Roos' and Van Krimpen's 'new traditionalism' can, however, also be considered 'modern classicism', and the links between Van Doesburg's 'Dutch Constructivism' and Wijdeveld's 'Art Deco' become apparent in the work of transitional designers like Jac. Jongert and Fré Cohen.

After extensively reviewing a revival of hand lettering in the 1950s, the functionalism of Wim Crouwel and colleagues in the 1960s and the rise of a typographic counterculture in the 1970s, Middendorp is only half way the 320 pages of his book. Clearly, the bulk of his research concentrates on the developments in type design after the great breakthrough of photo- and digital typesetting. But always the links to the old craft are maintained, in portraits of for instance Chris Brand and Gerrit Noordzij, the last of the trade's real draftsmen in Holland. After these, the book becomes more of a portrait gallery than a consistent narrative, perhaps not surprisingly. The wealth of different approaches to type design, and the enormous range of formal outcomes combined with the contemporaneousness of today's typographic bonanza makes it hard to draw conclusions. Or maybe one: this is a phenomenally informative book that for the first time connects an overview of the richness and variety of current Dutch type design to a thorough sketch of its historical roots. A must for every type lover.

max bruinsma