Mooi maar Goed, Graphic design in The Netherlands
Stuart Bailey discusses the curation of a retrospective of Dutch design, illustrating the fallibility of presentation methods which treat design work as museum or gallery pieces.
Within the context of Postwar Modernism, Stedelijk director Willem Sandberg christened his 1952 design showcase Good But Beautiful; a typically Dutch relaxation of Form Follows Function. Mirroring the phrase Half a century later Beautiful But Good neatly implies the full-circle relegation of function. Another recent Dutch overview, Do Normal, held at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, similarly adapted a Dutch colloquialism (Just act normal and that will be strange enough). Both titles reflect the healthy sampling of cultural heritage which has helped Dutch graphic design remain a spirited profession rather than a nine-to-five job. Contrary to spurious reports of a New Sobriety, regular bulletins in the international design press suggest its radical business as usual in The Netherlands: state subsidy of arts projects, healthy proliferation of small practices, and commissions distributed according to appropriate character rather than prestige or economy.
Bearing in mind the accompanying protests that Dutch graphic design continues to consider itself art rather than industry, staging this show in a contemporary art gallery rather than a design institute is already a provocative act but a popular one judging by the claustrophobic opening night. Such exposure and interest in contemporary graphic design on this scale was unimaginable back home in London, and the apparently exhaustive coverage across media, styles and generations since the last major survey in 1987 was accordingly overwhelming. The morning after, however, what had initially appeared as broad coverage now seemed like energy wasted on a rush to cover all bases at the expense of articulating its findings. Empty rooms exposed the lack of narrative angle (orienting categorisation, informative text, suggestive juxtaposition), resulting in a false impression of quantity over quality and general aimlessness.
With the exception of the posters, positioned high on the walls to provide some necessary distance and effectively counteract their fine art context, most works were presented contrary to their physical nature: under glass and mostly unopened, the viewer was repeatedly forced to judge books by their covers; a series of Caulfield & Tensing web pages were screen-captured, printed double-size and stuck on the wall, about as far removed from their hypertext environment as possible; Mediamatic CD-roms blinked an irritating token multimedia presence; and Irma Booms Thinkbook was once again elevated to biblical status in the kind of presentation cabinet usually reserved for the likes of Gutenberg. A wall of sliding advertising panels was an effective means of showing a number of adverts in a limited space, but with only around 30 seconds-worth of campaigns on show, the system soon lapsed to gimmickry. Only typeface designs were accompanied by rough work. The rest were reduced or elevated to facades; designs rather than demonstrations of designing. The arrogance implicit in effectively treating this material in the same way as the Rothkos and Richters upstairs served only to conceal the fundamental distinction; that Graphic Design is rooted in an external client rather than the internal self. Blatant omissions, over-exposures and inexplicable details (a case containing a single book amid general overcrowding; one work included twice) compounded the lack of order and proportion. Such rootlessness presumably contrives to reflect some notion of prevailing visual overload, yet the scene is actually as cosy as the countrys relaxed stereotype suggests; it is varied rather than chaotic. Intermittent organization just ideas as simple as collecting a row of posters by a single studio, or one magazine redesigned by subsequent generations provided some guidance, but were generally absent.
A few weeks later, my third visit to the show was coloured by exposure to the unanimous disappointment of the design community. The errors were magnified: works not positioned straight, inconsistent caption cards, missing dates, material wrongly attributed, or not at all. With so much communicative talent in evidence, why was it not employed in editing and formulating such a major retrospective?
The accompanying catalogue was similarly flawed misattributed work, wrong titles, reproductions of objects without visible edges, posters and books reproduced at the same scale, and hollow statements (Flexibility is the norm for the major portion of Graphic Design in the Netherlands, which is fully set up for change.), but at least it attempts some categorization. The overviews of typeface design, magazines, corporate identity, screen-based media and books are basic enough to orientate the general public. Incorporating such texts in the exhibition would have provided some degree of illumination. The Stedelijk only has to look at its own annual Best Designed Books show where real copies of the works are available for the public to examine and a substantial catalogue is at hand to provide both contextualising information and authoritative commentary.
Despite being reminded so often that graphic design is increasingly a multi-disciplinary affair, the exhibition was still distinctly print-biased. Perhaps investigations of both the form and effects of recent technological developments require a less national premise or alternative (virtual?) venue. What really distinguishes Dutch design across all media, however, is the explicit pursuit of personal themes. Initially encouraged in education, then seamlessly continued in commissioned work, these emerging approaches warrant most attention. Themespotting is different to pigeonholing, whether the hardcore self-referentiality of Dept and Caulfield & Tensing, obsessive defaults of Jop van Bennekom and Mevis & van Deursen, provocative humour of LettError, Designpolitie and Studio Boot, plastic prettiness of Gonnissen & Widdershoven and Irma Boom, or skewed classicism of Walter Nikkels, Wigger Bierma and René Knip. All raise editorial and formal questions integral to contemporary practice. Presenting them as a nihilistic mess ignores the shared inspiration and seriousness of purpose which ought to be celebrated.
In a country where graphic idiosyncrasy infiltrates culture through the PTTs ongoing commitment to the maverick form of stamps and phonecards and other transactional tokens (as well as its own liquid identity), a wealth of posters for the substantial arts scene, and rare retention of pre-DTP book publishing standards, the general public are already familiar with many of these items. Unlike the neighbouring rare Modernist Russian book covers which necessitate passive preservation under glass, this past decade of everyday graphic language demands active storytelling. It would be interesting to know the explicit purpose of this exhibition, and if it really was just an overview of whats happening, how it could improve on a weekend spent around the city. This comes strongly recommended: Looking at the walls, and browsing through bookshops and magazine stands, you have at least 3 advantages: physical interaction with the work, observing how it functions in context, and free admission.