The first week I started my internship at vbat in September 2016 — on a fine late summer evening — us creatives went on a Creative Excursion around Amsterdam with type designer David Quay where he opened our eyes to some of the many typographic relics across the city. Since then and through seeing the content David posts on Facebook as the ‘type tourist’, I have found myself actively exploring the city and looking for these little type gems myself.
On the 12th of November, the Stedelijk opened a new exhibition featuring the work of graphic designer and former gallery director — Willem Sandberg. Meanwhile, David Quay shared a post — on his Facebook, on the 23rd of November — recommending the exhibition and from then I knew that I had to go check it out for myself as soon as possible. It was also a great excuse to finally visit the Stedelijk and see the permanent collection as well as experiencing the visual identity of the gallery, developed by Mevis & Van Deursen in 2012.
I feel that my knowledge of graphic design history is quite broad but I can’t lie and proclaim to be an expert on every graphic designer that has ever lived, and Willem Sandberg is a name I certainly hadn’t heard of before although this gave me a totally open mind for the exhibition. I had no pre-conceived ideas about what it might be like and no expectations to live up to. Also I am still not an expert on Sandberg whatsoever but I’ll try my best here to give an accurate description and review of what I saw using my new found knowledge.
Before I went to the Sandberg exhibition however, I wandered around the ground floor of the gallery where I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of graphic design that was being displayed. Rarely in the UK would you see the likes of posters, tickets, bags etc. hanging alongside pieces of ‘traditional’ art by the likes of Chagall, Cezanne and Van Gogh. But here, posters by the likes of Wim Crouwel, Gert Dumbar and Armin Hoffmann were framed and hung to be admired as art — a real appreciation of graphic design which nicely links into the Sandberg exhibition.
From what I now know, Willem Sandberg was the director and graphic designer for the Stedelijk from 1945–1962 although he was a curator before this as well as a freelance graphic designer. During his time as the director Sandberg used his influence from the Bauhaus movement and changed the way the Stedelijk looked and ran. Walls were painted white, a library was opened and the exhibition policy paid attention to industrial design, photography, graphic design and prints as well as ‘traditional’ art.
As the graphic designer, Sandberg was able to decide the Stedelijk aesthetic and how it looked to the public through his production of exhibition posters and catalogues. This exhibition documents some (a lot) of these posters and catalogues as well as other formats: tickets, letter-heads, books etc. but here I want to focus on those 2 main things: posters and catalogues.
Firstly, the posters, so many posters, of which spanned a range of styles ranging from the simple and clear designs where the exhibition name was printed huge in the centre of the page for maximum impact to more elaborate and expressive designs where type was being treated as image as letters begin to become faces or body parts. The reason that some of these posters follow a similar style though is due to a number of factors. The type used to print them (wooden type) was limited and not many typefaces or styles available from the Stadsdrukkerij (the Amsterdam city printer) and also that Sandberg adopted a set of rules when designing a new poster:
1. A poster has to be joyous, unless it has to arouse compassion.
2. Red has to be in every poster.
3. A poster has to provoke a closer look, otherwise it doesn’t endure.
4. With a respect for society, designer and director both are responsible for the street scene. A poster does not only have to revive the street, it also has to be human.
5. Every poster has to be an artwork.
These 5 ‘golden rules’ defined the Stedelijk look for the time that Sandberg was director and to me they are so true and they’re something that I don’t see in a lot of today’s exhibition posters. The posters on display here are simple and effective yet beautiful to me, they are in their own right great pieces of artwork that don’t necessarily relate to the exhibition that they are promoting but that doesn’t matter. Too often exhibition posters simply slap an image of the artist’s work they are showing with the name on top, but that is a whole other debate.
Over his time Sandberg organised around 800 exhibitions, 380 posters and 250 catalogues were produced. A small selection of the catalogues was on display here, each cover capturing a taste of the exhibition that they were produced for. Some of them were open — inside cases — and even the inner pages were beautifully typeset in that distinctive 1950’s/60’s style: robust typography, primary colours and asymmetrical layout. What really interested me though was what Herbert Spencer, the English founder and publisher of Typographica magazine (1949–1967) had to say about them:
“The publications of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam are the most stimulating examples of creative typography produced in Europe since the end of the war. (…) Vigorous and virile in conception, they afford an impressive demonstration of the imaginative use of colour and texture and the skillful application of the fundamental principles of modern typography.”— Typographica, no 10, 1955.
A lot of big words but clearly a true and honest appreciation of Sandberg and the Stedelijk’s design aesthetic which clearly influenced Spencer. This then in turn influenced the rest of the world through his Typographica magazine — showing people what Dutch design was like at that time.
Without directly knowing of Sandberg’s work for the Stedelijk I feel that I have been influenced by it in one way or another. During my time at university some of the projects I worked on with my collaborative partner were inspired and influenced by the work and look of UK studio 8VO and their Octavo magazines; which have an aesthetic that is somewhat similar to Typographica magazine which references Sandberg. The overall theme across these magazines, Sandberg’s and our design work was that of type being free and not being tied down to a definitive grid. Sure there is often a grid and a ‘right’ way of laying certain elements out but when you go beyond these and begin to play with type and letterforms and also combining it with photography, that’s when it becomes more exciting, more expressive and in turn more interesting.
The exhibition Sandberg, director and designer is still on until 8 January 2017 at Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. A must-visit for every lover of graphic design.
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