My initial encounter with Ben Bos came at the two day Brand Nieuwe Conference held at the Beurs van Berlage, Amsterdam in June 2016. Being the first time husband and wife super team Armin Vit and Bryony Gomez-Palacio had put on a conference outside of the United States it was eagerly anticipated by many Netherlands based designers. With a stellar international line-up of speakers including Michael Johnson, Michael Wolff, Sagi Haviv and Brian Collins it seemed only right and proper to also invite one of the Netherlands most celebrated designers of the last 60 years. Following an engaging opening talk by Michael Johnson on the first morning Ben took to the stage promptly at 10:15. Over the course of the next 45 minutes Ben ambitiously introduced the audience to the history of Dutch design in relation to Amsterdam before going on to talk about his own part in the work of the pioneering Dutch design agency Total Design. As a lover of Dutch design his talk was both stimulating and informative, a welcome relief to most design talks these days which tend to act as mini sales pitches for the speaker. Sadly, with limited time to pack in such a wealth of content and no space for over-runs in the schedule, Ben’s talk ended with him having to speed shuffle through the remaining slides to the end of the presentation. Regardless of this I was intrigued to speak with him to find out more, first hand, about his work. The opportunity to do this presented itself when I later chanced upon him and his daughter at the stand of BIS Publishers following his talk. Having earlier purchased a copy of Ben’s Unit Editions book about Total Design I had gone back to collect the heavy tome when I saw him happily signing books for a group of eager creatives. Using the opportunity to strike up conversation with him I was struck by how charming and eloquent he was, with a turn of phrase many English native speakers would find enviable. At the end of our conversation Ben gave me his business card and asked me to contact him in a few weeks when he was back from a holiday on Lake Como.
Over the course of the following weeks Ben and I emailed backwards and forwards to find a suitable date for an interview. Each time I received correspondence from him I learnt a little more about him, his flamboyant writing style painting pictures with words. Soon enough though we were set on a date, Thursday July 21st, and I made my way from Amsterdam to Ben’s home in Heemstede with my photography assistant for the day, Daisy van der Genugten.
As soon as we arrived at their lovely home both Ben and his wife Elly welcomed us like great friends and I sensed this would be an afternoon of open and flowing conversation. With Elly kindly offering us lunch following the interview we all retired to a large dining table to begin.
GS: It’s Thursday 21st of July, 2016 and I’m here with Ben and Elly Bos for the sixth Dutch Design Heroes interview.
Thank you very much for inviting us into your home. You must have been interviewed many times. What is the question everyone asks you, are you bored of being asked it and do you have a stock answer prepared for it?
BB: No, nothing like that.
GS: In that case is there a question which is never asked, which you think should be?
BB: Well I was thinking about that this morning. And I think that the moment I will never forget in my whole career was one day when I got a phone call from Switzerland. The man who called me was my first assistant at Total Design , Georg Staehelin. He went on to be a junior partner at Pentagram and had an office in Zurich.
Georg told me that there had been a meeting of AGI (Alliance Graphique Internationale) at his office and I was to be a new member. And I cried. I cried.
I always remember that special moment and of course I felt honoured. But, I was not yet aware how much influence it would have on me as a person and as a professional. I wasn’t sure either what role I could play in the organisation.
GS: You served as chairman of The Netherlands branch of AGI for a number of years didn’t you?
BB: Yes, I was 20 years President of the Dutch section. I organised a congress in ’86, which was a tremendous success. A very beautiful period in May.
EB: And he still talks about it!
BB: We had a fantastic lecture under the blossom trees. The cherry trees, et cetera, et cetera. And later it became a great moment when I was asked to redo the AGI book, the history, which was published by Thames & Hudson. Elly and I took that challenge very seriously and worked on it for two and a half years. Almost at a daily rate.
EB: Not eight hours a day though.
BB: Elly did fantastic research because the organisation was down. It started in ’51 and we were working from 2005. So many former members had passed away. It was very difficult to really get the best of their work and good descriptions. In many cases we couldn’t find family anymore or archive or whatsoever. And that is why it took so much time to make that wonderful book.
EB: Also, Henrion did it by fax and we did it without Wi-Fi. We had a telephone line on the computer and that was it. So it was rather difficult and there was no Pinterest.
BB: The title is a doubt. I had wanted the title AGI: A Graphic Olympus. But this title is inspired by …
EB: Thames & Hudson, because they can sell it to libraries.
BB: In the meantime I wrote articles on how AGI developed. And the relationship of our work with what happened in the world. Because in fact, graphic design is a reflection of society.
Ever since I became a member it has been a very influential meeting of all these famous people. Getting friends all over the world too. It is — and still is. We are still quite active. The past few international presidents — we have advised them. Nikki Gonnissen, who is now the Dutch president, she’s a regular guest in this house. She is a rather young member and we were telling her all the tricks — what went wrong and what should be better, et cetera, et cetera. I did the same with Paula Scher.
GS: In my research I saw you variously described as a kind of renaissance man with many skills. Designer, journalist, copywriter, photographer, studio manager, administrator, initiator, chairman and teacher. That description came from a writer for Eye magazine called Christopher Brawn. Anthon Beeke also said that you were worth your weight in gold to Total Design. Great words aren’t they?
EB: He’s a multi-tasker.
BB: What can I say? (laughter)
GS: Your particular generation seems to be very special for Dutch Design?
BB: Yes. It was a special generation. You must, I think, be aware of the fact that it was a generation that grew up during the war. And we were faced with a devastated country. And we had to put our shoulders under the problem to get the country back in prosperity. So that also brought the kind of mentality here. Fighting for a better life. And there comes a moment when you are aware that, with your abilities, with your talents you can do a little to stimulate a better world. It is not that graphic design will save the world. But it is a contribution, I think. To better understanding between people and organisations, et cetera.
And when we started Total Design, we were really idealists. We really had a conviction that translating ideas into clear messages, visual messages, could really help things go better. And Total Design was really the first of its kind on the continent.
Not only in Holland, but if you look for instance to a famous design country like Switzerland. They were all people who worked alone and had only their own part of the whole design profession. We tried to combine graphic design with product design and with many other aspects. So that was new. And very soon the concept was picked up by Tel Design and of course other groups. Because very soon people realised what we were doing. How we were changing the whole concept of design.
GS: The starting point for this idea of a multidisciplinary agency in the Netherlands came about by KLM being taken away by British design agency Henrion Design Associates didn’t it?
BB: Of course. We were disappointed and furious. And felt insulted in a way. But we were also aware of the fact that it was not a bad choice to begin with as design in Britain (formerly Great Britain before Brexit), was very strong at that time. It had this fantastic influence on design during the war. The co-operation between the government and designers to make people aware of all kinds of risks and values, et cetera. In which a person like Henrion played a role when he was liberated from the concentration camp. He was put in a camp on the Isle of Man, because he came from Germany.
Anyway, you had The Design Research Unit (DRU) and people like that. So the profession was organised in a way we didn’t have. And then Fletcher Forbes Gill were of course very influential for us. Certainly in the first few years we had a very intensive contact with them. And with Henrion. And we exchanged ideas about how to structure the organisation and talk about fees et cetera, et cetera.
GS: That openness is quite amazing isn’t it? If you consider you were direct competitors. Nowadays I don’t think there would be quite that level of open conversation.
BB: There was a fully open conversation with them. And we were very, very good friends with them. We exchanged personnel, et cetera. I stole an assistant from Alan Fletcher, Very proud of that. And then they stole my ideas.
GS: Let’s talk about the term ‘Dutch Design’. In the UK in the early ‘90’s there seemed to be a lot of coverage on the topic of Dutch Design. I’d like to hear what it means to you and if it still has relevance today. Was it possibly just an overarching slogan used at the time to sell something?
BB: Well I think that maybe the expression came from Gert Dumbar. He was responsible for a travelling exhibition under that title.
So that helped of course, to establish the expression. The other thing I am aware of is that at that time, Dutch design meant primarily Dutch graphic design. Nowadays I think there is something like that but we don’t promote it that way anymore that much. It has shifted into product design and environmental things.
EB: Industrial design.
BB: The emphasis is no longer on graphic design. We did that very well at that time. But things are different now. And that is because our schools are different. Our students are different. Our teachers are different. And they are much more open minded. And the room, the physical room of graphic design has open doors nowadays. And you can easily step into sidelines and other directions.
GS: There was certainly a lot of very interesting graphic design work coming out of the Netherlands at that time.
BB: Well as a matter of fact you can say that by 1980 or so — We were ready. I mean design had come in every aspect of the Dutch society. And in fact The Netherlands is totally designed. We were ready, we could redo things. But as a matter of fact, all aspects of society had been visualised by this profession.
GS: There have been some great sponsors of Dutch graphic design in history, like the PTT for example.
BB: Yes, PTT has of course a long influence on Dutch design. Even before the war. As I explained.
GS: For me, being in England in the early 1990’s, seeing Dutch graphic design for the first time was a breakthrough. It appeared highly conceptual and creative compared to the more commercial and slick British design I was used to. What would you say are the major differences between Dutch and British design?
BB: Well I think we’ve learned a lot by what design in Great Britain really meant. Your road signs for instance. Fabulous of course. Jock Kinneir was one of my heroes really. And Margaret Calvert
… British Rail, when it was still British Rail and not 26 small companies. Those were great examples of course for us. I think that — You mentioned that British design was much more commercial.
GS: That was my feeling at the time. It’s not the same opinion now. I see a bigger picture.
BB: Well again, things have changed so much. But let’s take one subject. Posters.
There are no posters anymore. No interesting posters anymore, nowhere. Almost.
It’s a part of the history of graphic design. It was very important and now it is almost gone. And as for posters very interesting things happened in Great Britain.
GS: Okay, let’s move on to your early life. In my research I read that you developed two notable interests from an early age. First an interest in books, inherited from your father, a book binder. I think your grandfather as well?
BB: My grandfather too, yes.
GS: And the second in drawing from your mother who was very good at drawing but never took it any further.
BB: About my mother. That is a mystery. In our sleeping room there is a beautiful drawing which I always thought my mother has made but I am not absolutely sure. Because the, the remarkable thing is that she was able to do that. I wonder why she never did it again. It has really a great quality. And if you can do that, how can you stop your fingers and your hands to go on? And I know that before she met my father, she had something with an artist. A painter. So maybe it is his. I don’t know. But, I was given plenty of paper and plenty of pencils. And I was drawing all the time as a kid. There it began. And when I came to the school when I was twelve, thirteen I had a teacher in drawing who after two lessons said, “Okay don’t listen to what I have to tell all those people without any talents. You do from now on just what you like to do during these hours”.
GS: He could see you had talent already?
BB: He had seen immediately what I could do. And we had an annual competition between all the — better schools, gymnasiums at Christmas time. In sports and in culture, making music. Well, I won twice the drawing competition of Amsterdam.
And — So that is something I’ve got. The other thing is that very soon in my life I started to make little pamphlets and little periodicals. At school, I was a keen athlete. I made a monthly magazine of the best athletics club of the Netherlands. But it was also the best of its kind. Because I interviewed athletes all over the world. And wrote about great events. And there was one moment when a co-member of that organisation read that, those stories. And thought well he can write. I will ask him to become a copywriter at Ahrend. So.
GS: Was that at the point you’d finished your national service and had taken a course in German?
BB: Well that came before — I did a course of journalism which wasn’t a very great thing. And during my presence in the air force, I wrote articles in press for military — I wrote about airplanes. I knew everything about airplanes that time.
EB: He still does.
GS: Are you a plane spotter?
BB: Yes I was in fact. I also wrote for the train spotters. I wasn’t one, but I wrote for that organisation. And I thought well I can be a freelance journalist after my national service. But I couldn’t make a living out of that. So I had a few jobs before I was invited to join Ahrend.
GS: You became a copywriter there. And what sparked your interests to start taking evening classes at the Amsterdam Graphic College?
BB: Well it was a small group. The boss, the secretary, a graphic designer and I were the sole team that did Ahrend publicity. So I was typing all the time and Kees sat all the time next to me. And he made me think, that I thought what he does is much more interesting than what I am doing. So I went to evening classes in layout and I got a diploma with honours. And then immediately decided to go to, what is now called, the Rietveld Academy. In all it took me six years with a full time job and a young family. And long distances between Ahrend and my home and the school. Cycling up and down I never missed the lessons. I was there always. I wanted it.
Well very soon Wim Crouwel detected what I did for Ahrend.
GS: He was your teacher at the Rietveld Academy?
BB: He became my teacher at what we simply call the Rietveld. Because my job at Ahrend very soon developed. I was a copywriter, but I also invented new concepts. New approaches of publicity. And those won all the national awards of good publicity. Things like this. How to promote a chair.
And then at one moment I was called by Edo Spier. An architect who said to me “I can offer you a new job. There is an advertising agency, Smits, they want you as an Art Director. And they are offering to double your salary.”
GS: A difficult choice?
EB: Those were the days.
BB: I went to my boss and said, “we have a problem”. So he went to the board of Ahrend and told them what would happen. And one hour later he came and said “You’ll be our Art Director. And we will give you a raise of 100%.”
But, later this success also meant the end of my connection with Ahrend. Because my boss had a new idea since we were so successful in the national publicities. He wanted to change the department from a cost thing, firm — into a profit making thing. And he founded a new firm. And he asked an Art Director from one of our sub companies to become the designer of this new group. I had to work for them and I said no way. I have no contract with your new firm. It meant that during one year we didn’t exchange a word anymore. He was very furious. And so was I.
But in the meantime, Wim Crouwel came and said “We are trying to form a new organisation, a multidisciplinary design group and we thought we must have you.”
During the time when I was a student I had already done all kinds of little jobs done for him. And whenever he was on holiday he asked me to be in charge of his small studio and see the clients. So he knew I could do it.
EB: And you had de Bijenkorf.
BB: And I had de Bijenkorf as a client.
GS: We work with de Bijenkorf now.
BB: Yes and I was in your way when you were doing that.
GS: Really? I didn’t know that.
BB: When VBAT was doing that redesign.
GS: In 2008 I think that was.
BB: I was asked by somebody who was sent by de Bijenkorf to ask my opinion about the way you were dealing with the projects. And the changes you wanted to do — even in the symbol. And the way de Bijenkorf was typographically.
GS: I’m quite nervous about what you are going to say…
BB: And I said no way! Do not disturb the Müller Brockmann concept.
GS: Yes, that’s the feedback we had at the time.
BB: It was me who said don’t do that.
GS: And also his widow I think?
BB: Yes, because I approached the widow.
GS: Well then the story becomes more interesting.
BB: I also brought in the Bijenkorf account to Total Design.
GS: That’s new information to me, which is really good to understand — I get to learn so much from these conversations.
BB: Sorry I intervened.
GS: Thank you. For us it was always a really difficult question to be asked. The original identity by Josef Müller Brockmann is such an iconic symbol in Dutch design. In a way I’m glad we had the push back.
BB: Josef Müller Brockmann made the symbol, but he never made the connection with the name. That is what we did. We set the rules for the proportional side of symbols. And the distance in between. He made that pattern. And I made all the packaging from that concept.
GS: Those designs remained pretty much consistent all those years as well. Another topic I’m going to come to is timelessness. But I will come to that later. So the conversation started with Wim Crouwel and his partners setting up Total Design, this new Dutch multidisciplinary agency. I’m interested to know what it was like to work there.
BB: Fabulous. It was mostly inspiring because — Well, first of all I had the best teacher to finish my education with in the person of Benno Wissing. And looking back at the years at the Rietveld, I must say that we were not given too much theory. And it was more a practical education than going into the deep secrets of good design. And Benno Wissing and Emil Ruder really formed me. They did the finishing touch. And very soon — You must understand, when I came to Total Design I had such a portfolio of graphic design. Almost nothing. Just the work I did at the academy. And only, maybe, ten pieces I designed for Ahrend. Because Ahrend had a designer.
EB: And de Bijenkorf.
BB: And de Bijenkorf. And Hulp voor Onbehuisden.
EB: O ja.
BB: In ’56 Wim Crouwel asked me “I have a client, Help for the Homeless, that is not my kind of thing. Would you please go to the director and say that you will come instead?” And I serviced them from that moment until ’91 when I left Total Design. For free. And they are my great friends and I am very proud to show that.
I made two logos. The second logo consisted of a square which was split into two parts.
BB: When he left we sent him this object. And when he passed away his family came and said it was in his will that this goes to you. I am very proud of that.
Okay. So it was a great environment. Of course also with the connection with the British colleagues. A very inspiring period and I made very good friends with Mervyn Kurlansky for instance.
EB: …Alan Fletcher…
BB: And Alan Fletcher.
EB: And Henrion
GS: So there was a feeling of camaraderie amongst you rather than competition?
BB: Yes absolutely.
GS: Your specialised fields at Total Design were corporate identity and identity systems. Who were your most memorable clients and why?
BB: I think Randstad. It is difficult. Randstad, …the Furness Group, Furness Group group was an enormous challenge also. Ahrend. Because I had left Ahrend as the enemy. But a few years later they came and said “Can you please help me, we now have something we can’t cope with”. Ever since I then I worked for them until around 2005.
GS: How would you describe the characteristics of your work that set it apart from other designers?
BB: Well I think I can connect it with other questions you have. I am convinced that in the original concept of corporate identity you must create something, you had to create something that was far away from any trends or whatsoever. That it should convey the message in a very direct way without layers in between. And that it, well, my logotypes —most of them, are immediately legible. They already say what it is about. Without the name. You didn’t have to add the name, because the symbol was already giving, more or less, what it was about. Sometimes I felt guilty about the fact that I didn’t have to wait for the answer. As soon as the question came I saw the answer. Most designers scribble for ages before they find the solution. I can’t help it, it’s there.
GS: Very instinctive?
BB: It comes to me immediately. This thing for the Furness Group. They came to me in ’68. And we finally left in ’96. I was at the design conference in Eindhoven, Icograda. And it was the morning after the Russians invaded Prague. That we only heard a little later. I had already made the concept on the back of my program for the Furness Group. I realized that all their activities in transport were related to ships. So I drew a little flag like usual in shipping. And when the flag was ready I drew another flag that connected with it. And then a third one and then I stopped and I knew the holding company is the circle of flags. And all the other companies that belong to it get just two flags or three. So harbour activities is things going up and going down. One flag up and one flag down, et cetera, et cetera.
This is idiotic, but it works like that with me. It is always — It doesn’t take long, it is always there. I can’t help it. And sometimes I think I should also work longer. If I have the idea and it’s good, they get it.
GS: That’s a great formula. Let’s talk about some of the characteristics of your work. My own observation is that your work is supremely timeless.
BB: Well that’s a consequence of modern trends.
GS: In fact some of your best known work is still in our everyday lives. If you look at Ahrend, Randstad and Dronten municipality as well. All still using your logotype designs.
EB: Cappelle aan de IJssel.
GS: What an incredible achievement in a world where we are now used to the lifecycle of a brand identity being roughly three to five years before someone wants to change it again. That’s todays reality in many cases.
BB: That’s the only reality now.
That is why, Dutch design is not what it used to be. We worked in fact for the lifetime of the client.
Before when the client stopped, our work was over. But nowadays you can’t be sure that if you start a company that it will still be there in five years time. Because there will be mergers or things fall apart or -
EB: But the thing is also that in earlier days companies were owned by the owner. Nowadays a company is not owned by anybody. There is a CEO. If he leaves then another CEO comes and he has another idea and he changes the logo or the whole identity. There is no continuation, because there is no owner anymore.
BB: We had contact with the top of the companies. Nowadays you get some young marketing person with so much knowledge and they bring the message to the next step and then the next step and – awful.
GS: In your time at Total Design you focused on corporate clients and didn’t work with cultural institutions or museums. Was this a conscious choice?
BB: Well first of all, there was a strong connection between Wim Crouwel and Edy de Wilde, the director with whom he worked for the Van Abbe Museum. And on the same day when we started Total Design, de Wilde became the director of the Stedelijk Museum. And they were very close friends and they understood without words. So, the design, the museum world was well represented within Total Design. Benno Wissing had done very much work for Boijmans van Beuningen. That stopped more or less when he entered Total Design, because the distance between Amsterdam and Rotterdam was obviously too far. And the director of Boijmans complained that he could never reach Wissing, because he was too busy with other things, so that stopped. But we had a great reputation in museum work. That’s one side of it. The other side of it is that I had a background at secondary school which was called a commercial school. And I worked with Ahrend, so I knew what business was, so it was quite logical that when business clients came, they came for me.
EB: And everybody had to eat.
BB: To earn their salary.
BB: And Wim Crouwel gave me his connection with Kunst & Bedrijf, arts & industry, and that I did with great pleasure. I changed its logo, because I thought it was old fashioned, so I made a completely different concept for that.
But I’ve worked for them for a long period. And the other thing is that in the museum world, they don’t have a high opinion about the commercial world. Which I think is very narrow-minded, and also inconsequent. Piet Zwart, Paul Schuitema and such are heroes of the thirties. And they were as commercial as possible! And they got great attention from the museums, and there is Ben Bos and he got Furness and Ahrend and…
BB: Randstad, and that’s dirty. I don’t know why. I don’t know why working for the industry by Piet Zwart was something better than when I worked for the industry. But they always treat me like I am, he is a commercial guy, advertising guy. I am not an advertising guy, not at all.
EB: You never made an advertisement.
BB: And they made one exception when the new Stedelijk Museum was redone by Mels Crouwel. They made a new department for the applied arts and there they paid enormous attention to my Randstad work, it’s in their permanent movie, et cetera.
GS: Brings us to the next question. There was a book published about you, in the early 2000’s, titled ‘Design of a Lifetime’ Ben Bos. Can you tell me more about the book?
BB: It is design which I made until the year 2000. I did a few things after that, but it felt as if it’s a whole life in this book. And I had the exhibition in Breda. By the director Frank Tiesing, with whom I was great friends. He gave me twice an exhibition in de Beyerd and we prepared for a long time the Museum of Graphic Design. We worked I think seven years. We had a little committee to create the museum there.
GS: You were at Total Design for 28 years. You were the longest serving employee weren’t you?
BB: Well maybe a few, if you include, which I don’t, Total Identity in history then. I am more or less overtaken now by Hans Brandt I think.
GS: What were the major changes you saw within the organisation over that long time?
BB: Well the changes were of course, when Benno (Wissing) had left, it was a great loss for the company, because he was a genius. Then gradually Wim withdrew, because he devoted more and more time in Delft, to his professorship. So that changed the company a lot. Then we called Jelle van der Toorn Vrijthoff who came from the state printing shop, and who was a technician, not so much a passionate designer. He is not, if I compare his portfolio with mine. He had at one time the idea that we must get rid of Wim Crouwel, and later he had the idea, we must get rid of Ben Bos, and he succeeded in that idea. He set out a policy for changes in the ownership of the company, which I thought were unfair, and I couldn’t agree with it. And they did it more or less secretly and certainly secretly from me. So all of a sudden they had a plan to reorganise the ownership and when I knew that, I said one morning, I’ll be away in an hour from now.
GS: That quickly? Very decisive.
BB: Yes. They thought they could do without me. Of course they still exist and they changed the name, I am very pleased with that.
GS: That they changed the name?
BB: Yeah. It was very stupid, I think, to change the name.
EB: But after some time we thought it fortunate they did.
BB: Because the whole world knew Total Design and you could of course change when you come to the conclusion that design is only 35 percent of your turnover. You could, you rethink the name Total Design and have a second line about your Services. Consultancy or whatsoever, no they changed into Total Identity, so the name is no longer heard.
GS: And how do you feel about that Total today?
BB: Well, we are not real friends. I think, seen from the perspective of their new concept, they may do alright. I never see real great winners or things that will last a long time.
When Total was fifty, not Total Identity, but Total, they invited Wim and I for a big party they had, and I was interviewed.
EB: Well only because I intervened. They wanted to skip you. Suddenly they had a feeling that he wasn’t invited or something like that. That was a misunderstanding, so I put my finger on that.
BB: Of course, first things first. Wim Crouwel was interviewed, because because they think he’s the hero, and I am not. I am just a human being. That’s very different between him and me. And Elly intervened, so that I was also interviewed. At the end of the interview there was the question, why did you leave? And I first refused to answer. I think I should not have answered it, but in the end I was so much pushed to give an answer. I said, because at one moment, my colleagues decided to change the formula of ownership and I couldn’t agree with it.
GS: Let’s move on to another topic.
EB: Yeah. Fast.
GS: You worked with many well-known brands and organisations. Are there any you didn’t get the chance to work with, that you wish you had?
BB: Well I would have loved to do more for PTT. In the time while PTT was still PTT. No, there are not so many…
GS: KLM maybe?
BB: Yes, well KLM is…
EB: Don’t meddle in things that are alright.
BB: Henrion made the ideal concept and it was changed over the time. Well, yes, there was one thing I would have loved to do. I am an airplane fan. We once were asked to do Air France, and then I thought a real airline, fantastic! And so we made a very good proposal, written. And then after quite a while the reaction was - It’s impressive what you have to offer, but we found out that you have no colours special in the proposal. Blue, white, red, is the French flag, and of course you can’t change those colours if you make an identity for the national airline. So this was of course a ridiculous reaction on our plan. And I would have loved to do such a company. It’s the most disappointment we ever had, I ever had!
GS: Would you describe yourself as a modernist?
BB: I am a functionalist, like Wim Crouwel, but I have a wider concept about functionalism. I think that emotion is also a factor in functionalism, it should be. I think that what we create, should not be far away from emotion, pleasing. And that doesn’t belong to Wim’s formula of functionalism.
GS: I found it fascinating that you were the initiator and chairman of the Netherlands Archive of Graphic Design (NAGO), set up in 1992. I’d love to know more about why and how you set up this initiative.
BB: Well, I prepared that with the help of Hans Bockting and his wife.
Because she made all the very beautiful newsletters. I was at the memorial service for Henrion in London of course, and afterwards a designer called, Willie de Majo, took me around, in the new financial centre of London. He showed me around there and meanwhile, we were talking about design and he said that he was trying to found a kind of national archive in the Netherlands. And then I thought, well that’s a great idea. And then I went to the Ministry of Culture, had a long talk with a very good guy there and then I went to the BNO and had a long talk there. And so, I thought it’s the legacy we have to protect and it worked alright, but of course there is always this problem of money, money, money. It’s more or less come to an end now. I don’t think that there is much chance that the list of people whose work is, in the archive, will be extended anymore. There is no money for it.
It’s now incorporated in the Wim Crouwel foundation.
But I am now working on a book about Benno Wissing and I tried to get access to his archive. Which seems to be in the building next to the big hospital in Amsterdam south-east. But it’s so difficult to get entry, despite the fact I am the founder.
GS: Let’s talk about your retrospective exhibition in 2000. As I understand there were over a hundred of your logotypes on display. How did that feel, to see your body of work together in one place?
BB: It was a very nice exhibition. First of all I must say that de Beyerd spent a lot of money on it, because it was quite a construction. Absolutely, and the guys who did the exhibition were wonderful. I worked with them on an exhibition, also in de Beyerd for a hundred years of Ahrend.
And later I collected Ahrend furniture over a long period. Everywhere where I could find secondhand furniture, I found it. And they made a very beautiful exhibition. The same guys made my exhibition at de Beyerd. It was a very beautiful exhibition. I was very proud of it, yes.
GS: What is your favourite piece of graphic design by someone else?
BB: de Bijenkorf. Maybe, I don’t know. Look at this book with all the beauties in it, and it’s impossible to find a real favourite piece. Also because there are so many aspects in our profession. David Gentleman is a great friend and I am a great admirer of his work. And so on and so on and so on, I can’t stop.
GS: You’ve won many awards in your career?.
BB: Some. The most important one is on the table. From the AGI. And that belongs to us. For the book. Well this is for all the work we did.
EB: …the Oscar
BB: And it’s very rare I think there are only four or five of these.
EB: Henrion has one.
BB: Edo Smitshuijzen also has one.
BB: The last award I got in the Netherlands was in 1970.
GS: I’m really surprised.
BB: Why? I don’t know.
EB: But now you’re honourable member of the BNO.
What, in your opinion, is your greatest achievement and what would you hope your legacy to be?
BB: I hope that my legacy is in the NAGO archive. And that it will perhaps ever be more visible and translated into a real book.
EB: Your legacy is also on the table (Elly refers to the Unit Editions book ‘TD 63–73’).
GS: Exactly, and this is a legacy for a new audience.
BB: Yes, but it only covers that period. Because we realised that we, that’s Unit Editions, Tony Brook and Adrian Shaughnessy, we realised that these first ten years of Total Design were a unique part in the design industry of the Netherlands. And that’s why we made it.
The first edition was sold out quite soon and then we decided to make a new one and add 200 pages. So I wrote more and had a different selection of the work. It was part of my legacy, but I did a bit more than just the first ten years.
EB: I think the legacy is also the part that Ben knows almost everything about Dutch Graphic Design and the world of Graphic Design. That’s because of all the books he wrote. I think that’s a very good legacy.
GS: Thank you so much. That’s all my questions.
BB: Okay. Thank you for your questions. For the fact that you came.
Following this wonderful afternoon of conversation I kept in touch with Ben and Elly. As part of his research into his book for Benno Wissing I helped him get in touch with de Bijenkorf to track down some of Wissing’s work.
Occasionally I would also receive friendly reminders from Ben in my inbox enquiring about the status of the interview such as the one below.
Hope you are fine!
It’s quite many weeks ago since you — the giant — interviewed me, the dwarf.
I wonder if it is possible to read the story now?
You had quite a list of designers you wanted to meet for this project, so I can understand that it was a tremendous job.
But I am curious about the progress.
In November I also invited Ben to be a judge of our annual internal awards scheme which he very kindly accepted. Alongside the input of the other guest judges — Lode Schaeffer, Greg Quinton and Jason Smith — Ben’s feedback stood out for it’s attention to detail, playful prose and firm critical standpoint. Of all the entries sent to him Ben’s chosen winner was the identity for EuroPride 2016 which he described as follows:
This design program excels in its intelligent mix of the characteristic basic ‘ingredients’ of the event: The free city of Amsterdam, its loyalty towards the international LGBT society, and the colourful festivities. This resulted in a unique and original cocktail of symbols, very well executed, and in its visual language absolutely clear for the general public — therefore 100% relevant.
By his own admission it wasn’t so easy for him to judge some of our work but he gave it his full attention for which we were all grateful.
My problem with this ‘job’ was that the majority of those Vbat projects
didn’t really belong to my own design world… Too near to advertising.
But, nevertheless, it was my pleasure to help you.
In January I contacted Ben again to let him know the results of the internal awards. This time Elly replied to let me know that sadly he had passed away.
Although I only met him briefly Ben Bos left a lasting impression. Aside from his impressive body of work Ben’s overarching enthusiasm for the design profession as a whole and his infectious playful sense of humour set him apart. It was a privilege to meet him and to hear his story.
About the author:
Graham Sturt is Creative Director of Dutch design agency VBAT.
Originally from England, he lived and worked in London for more than a decade before relocating to Amsterdam in 2007 to follow his passion for Dutch design.
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