New Faces (Chapter Five: The Netherlands)

Essays by Emily King
9 099 words46 min read

A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of Kingston University for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (1999)

(i) Historiography
(ii) Typographic History in the Context of Broader Design Historical Models
Chapter One: Technological and Industrial Change: Setting the Scene
Mapping Contemporary Type Design
Chapter Two: The West Coast
Chapter Three: The East Coast
Chapter Four: London
Chapter Five: The Netherlands
List of Interviews

Chapter Five: The Netherlands

Traditionalism and the avant-garde

Type design in the Netherlands has thrived since the introduction of device-independent typesetting technologies in the 1980s. A generation of Dutch designers have been quick to take advantage of recent technological developments. Working alone or in small groups, these designers, including this chapter’s case studies – Gerard Unger, Martin Majoor, Max Kisman, Just van Rossum and Erik van Blokland – have made a significant impact on international typographic culture. In that they operate independently and for the most part maintain type design as just one element of a broader range of typographic and graphic activities, the working modes of contemporary Dutch designers are a typical response to new technologies. Although technology has been important in determining the form of these designers’ professional lives, in the Dutch case, the effect of new technologies has been tempered by other nationally specific factors.

In some cases these influences have been those of a traditionally defined typographic culture. Specifically, this has been the concern of the Dutch Type Library, a digital foundry established to distribute historic and contemporary type designs from the Netherlands. Amongst the typefaces translated into digital form by the DTL have been those of Christoffel Van Dijck, the seventeenth-century Dutch punchcutter, and Johann Fleischmann, a punchcutter of German origins who worked for the Harlem-based foundry Enschedé in the eighteenth century. Often harking back two or three centuries, the typefaces of the DTL refer to the period when Holland was a thriving nation of merchants at the hub of Europe’s trade in fine printing and scholarly books.[581] The typefounders and printers established in that period, for example Enschedé and the type-foundry N.V. Lettergieterij Amsterdam (formerly N. Tetterode), survived into the twentieth century, and to a certain extent the rarefied print culture that grew up around them has never been erased.

The Dutch made a significant contribution to the early twentieth-century international movement that has come to be known as the typographic reformation (a movement prompted by the perceived degradation of print due to the mechanisation of typesetting). The most significant Dutch participants in this reformation were Sjoerd de Roos (1877-1962) and Jan van Krimpen (1892-1958). De Roos’s first typeface Hollandische Mediaeval, based on fifteenth-century Venetian types, was designed for the Amsterdam Type Foundry, the N.V. Lettergieterij, in 1912. The first original Dutch type design for over a century, Hollandische Mediaeval was greeted enthusiastically within Holland and rapidly came to be amongst the nation’s most used printing types.[582] The typeface also attracted the attention of an international community of type designers and typographers, being favourably reviewed by Stanley Morison in The Fleuron.[583] Similarly, Jan van Krimpen’s work was the subject of international regard. His career was celebrated in a book, written and designed by John Dreyfus with a foreword by Stanley Morison, that was published on his 60th birthday in 1952. The work of Van Krimpen – for example his first typeface, Lutetia, designed in 1925 – was not based on any single historical model, yet was clearly the product of someone who had a high regard for traditional typographic value.

The work of De Roos and Van Krimpen remains a significant landmark in Dutch typographic history and designers have continued to engage with their designs.[584] But although some contemporary Dutch designers have been very concerned with a strictly-defined notion of typographic heritage, most others have been engaged with a more loosely circumscribed history. Amongst the influences that appear particularly relevant in considering recent type design is that of the Dutch contribution to the early twentieth-century international avant-garde. This contribution was nationally-specific but not homogenous. Absorbing a spectrum of influences including Cubism, Dada, Futurism and Constructivism, individuals such as Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931), Piet Zwart (1885-1977) and Paul Schuitema (1897-1973) engaged with a range of formal and theoretical concerns. Significant in terms of their impact upon contemporary Dutch design practice is the willingness of these designers to experiment. Not only breaking with typographic convention, Zwart and Schuitema were also quick to adopt new technologies.[585]

Justifying their experiments with reference to desired social outcomes, the designers of the Dutch avant-garde were for the most part engaged with the politics of the left, another characteristic shared by many contemporary designers from the Netherlands. In spite of their socialist tendencies, their practice was sustained largely by income from commercial work. The relationship between Piet Zwart and the Nederlandse Kabelfabriek, the Dutch Cable Factory, led to a strikingly innovative body of work.[586] Similarly Paul Schuitema benefited from the patronage of commercial clients including Van Berkel Patent Scale.[587] Believing that the modernisation would prove a liberating force, assuming that the masses must benefit from the products of industry, these designers were able to reconcile their political convictions with their work for corporations.[588] In the late twentieth century it is widely acknowledged that the outcomes of industrial modernisation are more ambiguous, but in spite of this many Dutch designers have continued to sustain good relationships with corporate clients. An exceptional example of this relationship is the commission of a book to celebrate the centenary of the Dutch multinational SHV Holdings from the designer Irma Boom. Allowing Boom over four years to compile and design the 2,136 page thinkbook, SHV invested a great deal in the concept of ground-breaking design.[589]

In the Netherlands graphic design has a comparatively high status, a position which derives from the origins of the profession. In their book Dutch Graphic Design, Broos and Hefting argued that the situation in the Netherlands was “fairly exceptional” in that graphic design and typography had an equal standing alongside “fine arts, architecture and industrial art” and as a result practitioners were “not plunged into anonymity.”[590] The talents of the pioneering Dutch designer Piet Zwart were first nurtured in the studio of the architect H.P. Berlage where he worked as an architectural assistant. Working with word and image in a period before the widespread use of the term graphic design, Zwart chose to describe himself as “typotekt”, a title which announced an equality between his designs for two and three dimensions.[591]

Reviewing the history of Dutch graphic design and typography over the twentieth century, the continued coexistence of radicalism and traditionalism becomes a theme. Books dealing with the subject, for example Broos and Hefting’s Dutch Graphic Design or Dutch Graphic Design 1918-1945 by Alston W. Purvis, have addressed these diverging strands separately within a series of chronologically coincident chapters. But while there is a wide gulf between the work of, for example, Jan van Krimpen and Piet Zwart, that chasm did not go entirely unbridged. In the interwar period and the decades after the Second World War, the formerly nationalised Dutch postal and telecommunications service, the PTT, employed both traditional and avant-garde designers to create stamps and other printed material. Originally in the hands of the amateur book typographer J.F. van Royen (1878-1942), the PTT’s design programme, the subject of a 1991 exhibition at the Design Museum in London, has become the emblem of Dutch design.

The capability of a single corporation to embrace both traditional and radical design styles has been viewed as a testament to Dutch tolerance and open-mindedness. Similarly conceived is the range of work emerging from the new generation of Dutch graphic designers and typographers. A host of apparently irreconcilable contemporary approaches to design have been characterised as the outcome of a single national character, and discussions of Dutch graphic design have often included some kind of exalted description of that character. For example, Alston Purvis’s book opens with a celebration of a people who “disparage insincerity, excessive show, and superficiality” and strive toward “integrity, spiritual purity, and a clarity of means and expression in design.”[592] Purvis borrowed his account of Dutchness from the art historian H.L.C. Jaffé, who referred to these same characteristics as a means of explaining the methods and motives of the artists involved in De Stijl.[593] The hyperbole employed by Purvis and Jaffé in their discussions of early twentieth-century Dutch design remains current in contemporary criticism. However the business of mapping national character onto design has often required liberal interpretation.

Design and Calvinism

In their discussion of Dutch graphic design, critics and historians have repeatedly ascribed to the inhabitants of the Netherlands both a puritanical Calvinist sensibility and also a tolerance and humanity. To a certain extent these various facets of Dutchness appear mutually exclusive. For example, Calvinism is seen to promote restraint and sobriety, while Dutch tolerance combined with the nation’s general level of affluence makes way for an exuberant variety. The contradictions at the heart of the culture of the Netherlands have been explored by the historian Simon Schama in his book The Embarrassment of Riches. Writing about the early modern age, Schama has pointed out that the fiercely anti-materialist message of Calvin, whose voice could be heard “thundering from pulpits the length and breadth of the Republic”, “denouncing the iniquities of Dame World and the profanities of Queen Money”, seemed powerless to restrain the excesses of the more affluent members of Dutch society, to whom apparent wealth became “outward sign of salvation.”[594]

Just as Schama found that Calvinist influences did not fully determine the nature of early modern Dutch society, so those who emphasise the influence of Calvinism on the cultural output of the Netherlands in the late twentieth century do not appear to be able to account fully for its broad spectrum. Noting a “new sobriety” in Dutch design of the mid-1980s, the design critic Carel Kuitenbrouwer argued that the tendency went “hand in hand with a morality of frugality, restraint and unpretentiousness” of “traditional Dutch Calvinism.”[595] He went on to suggest that the graphic trends of the 1990s were “not unlike a conversion to the asceticism of Calvinism after the sinful glorification of the ideal empire embraced by Gert Dumbar, Hard Werken, Wild Plakken and their followers.”[596] However, for every apparently sober designer mentioned by Kuitenbrouwer (Joseph Plateau, Anita van de Ven and Thomas Widdershoven) the author was forced to acknowledge the existence an unrestrained counterpart (Roelof Muldar, Harmine Louwé and Studio Boot). Far from witnessing a general return to some more genuine expression of the Dutch nature by the nation’s graphic designers, as he suggests, the critic actually appeared to be noting the weaving of yet another strand within the complex web of Dutch graphic design.

Writing a summary of contemporary graphic design from the Netherlands in a special Dutch issue of Print magazine from 1991, the design writer Rhonda Rubenstein also noted the influence of Calvinism. Discussing several posters produced by the designer Lex Reitsma for the Netherlands Opera in the late 1980s, Rubenstein argued that the designer’s work was “a clear example of the perseverance of Calvinistic ideals in Holland. It is beautiful and clean without being simple or dull.”[597] This comment highlights the variety of interpretation that has been placed upon the influence of the Dutch religious temperament upon their graphic design. The American critic Rubenstein associated simplicity with the formal quality of beauty, while the Dutch commentator Kuitenbrouwer allied it to meaner, yet more historically significant, qualities such as frugality and restraint.

As well as interpreting the legacy of Calvinism in a positive light, Rubenstein also placed it in context alongside a host of other attributes that might be considered significant influences upon Dutch culture, such as tolerance, humanism and public spiritedness.[598] In evoking these qualities Rubenstein came close in her reading of the contemporary Dutch character to Schama’s account of its seventeenth-century equivalent. Key to Schama’s understanding of Dutch society in the early modern age is the notion of “the community of the nation”, a nation which was centred around “a burgher, not a bourgeois”, a figure who was a citizen first and an economic man second.[599] Seventeenth-century Holland is summed up by Schama as a civic culture, rather than a protocapitalist one, the civic sensibility being one “that joined Dutch men and women in a common feeling for family, nation, freedom and material comfort.”[600] Schama concluded The Embarrassment of Riches with the implication that the assertions made within the book about the national sensibility of the Dutch still had application in the late twentieth century. He argued that, “to be Dutch still means coming to terms with the moral ambiguities of materialism in their own idiosyncratic but inescapable ways”[601], important amongst these being the maintenance of a notion of civic, or at least public, responsibility and a certain tolerance.

Schama’s conclusion has been shared by other commentators. In an article titled ‘Reconstructing Dutch Graphics’ published in I.D. magazine in 1984, the graphic design educator Katherine McCoy argued for an interpretation based on the assumption of historical continuity. McCoy suggested that “Dutch work grows intimately and directly from a close knit culture that has produced vital graphic work continuously since the early Renaissance.”[602] Significantly, she saw the Netherlands as having been a breeding ground for secular philosophies since the fifteenth century, when the nation was unique in its tolerance of religious and political non-conformists. Maintaining that “tolerance” and an “appreciation of new ideas”[603] persisted through the intervening years, McCoy argued that the Netherlands proved fertile ground for practitioners of the early twentieth-century avant-garde. Bringing her argument up to date, Mc Coy suggested that what was peculiar to Dutch graphics in the mid-1980s was a “synthesis” of characteristics that might be viewed by many as irreconcilable: “rationalism and ambiguity, international art influences and Dutch vernacular, refined typography and commercial culture.”[604]

The design critic Robin Kinross has made similar assertions about the ability of the Dutch to combine what to others has appeared contradictory. Concluding an article about the 1994 redesign of the Dutch PTT phone book, Kinross stated that “it is clear that responsible and lively public design is still possible in the age of privatisation”, a remark he went on to qualify by adding: “At least it is in the Netherlands.”[605] According to Kinross, the guiding “critical spirit” behind the redesign of the telephone book was distinctively the product of “the liberal and open Dutch society”, a society in which it was possible to sweep away “the old dichotomy of ‘Modern’ versus traditional” in pursuit of the “appropriate”.[606] Both Kinross and McCoy characterised the Dutch culture as one in which, as a result of long-term national historic trends, worthwhile contemporary graphic design activity (radical and practical) can thrive.

Critics such as Kinross and McCoy have been keen to argue that contemporary Dutch culture has it roots in the that of previous centuries, the concept of the “Golden Age” proving particularly seductive.[607] Nonetheless the suggestion that the entire culture is the outcome of nationally contained, unbroken historical development has not gone unchallenged. In their book Dutch Moderne, an account of the decorative modern style that emerged in the 1920s and 30s, Steven Heller and Louise Fili implied that the radical practices of the Dutch designers in both the early and late twentieth century have had little to do with the national culture of previous centuries. Employing the trope of Calvinism, they argued that the religious sensibility of the Dutch was actually a force for conservatism, stalling the development of an avant-garde in the Netherlands. The arrival of a Dutch avant-garde is characterised as the adoption of an international attitude, Heller and Fili’s suggestion being that it took the “turmoil” of the first World War to prompt the country to catch up with its European neighbours. According to Heller and Fili, it was the devastation of the prolonged military engagement, not any national impulse, that created the “impetus for artists to take more critical roles in politics and culture.”[608]

The Moderne style addressed by Heller and Fili in their book is described as a popular alternative to both the vernacular/traditional styles of late C19 Holland and the radical styles of the politically allied international avant-garde, an assimilation and demystification of the avant-garde for a local audience. With this interpretation Heller and Fili have acknowledged the existence of a certain amount of historical continuity, but while others, such as McCoy, have suggested that the Dutch cultural tradition served to amplify the influence of the radical movements of the twentieth-century, they have argued that rather it worked as a muffler.

The professionalisation of graphic design in the Netherlands

In their book Dutch Graphic Design, a history of twentieth-century graphic design in the Netherlands, Kees Broos and Paul Hefting plot the development of Dutch graphics and typography largely in terms of professionalisation of these activities. Viewing graphic design in this manner renders the practice a decidedly twentieth-century one, and Broos and Hefting have drawn from the history of the last 100 years or so to explain the development of contemporary design. Importantly, according to those authors, the high standing of graphic design in the Netherlands has allowed it to draw the “impulse to renew itself” from the activities of Dutch fine artists and architects working just after the first world war.[609] Broos and Hefting noted that the relationship between graphic design and other art forms has been maintained and continues to be reflected in the impressive body of design for cultural institutions that emerges from the Netherlands.

According to Broos and Hefting, the other significant factor determining the manner in which graphic design and typography emerged as professions in the Netherlands has been the way in which the practices have been embraced by business since the early twentieth century. They argued that, “a number of company directors have taken an enormous interest in Dutch culture and therefore in good design.” The motives of the many company directors who “were personally involved in commissioning design” is assumed to be broadly “idealistic” rather directly commercial.[610] Summing up, Broos and Hefting argued that “in the Netherlands, however, one factor that enters all discussions is a sense of social responsibility.”[611]

Design and late twentieth-century Dutch culture

Visiting the Netherlands as a tourist it is clear that the Dutch do believe that design has an important role to play in society. Arriving at Schipol airport and negotiating the route into Amsterdam, either by train or by road, the journey is contained within a seamless series of considered, designed environments. This is an experience very different from that of either clawing your way through the chaos of JFK into Manhattan, attempting to avoid the wastelands created within the gaps between various areas of commercial concern, or wandering through the teeming shopping malls of Gatwick in pursuit of a train to Central London. It becomes apparent that within the Netherlands design is not seen purely as the servant of the market, but that it is viewed as having a significant, independent function.

The nature of Dutch assumptions about design is reflected in the kinds of financial support that have been offered to young designers. Unlike grants to designers distributed by British governmental bodies such as the Arts Council, which are intended only to aid the recipient in the pursuit of commercial independence, the Dutch government offer money purely to fund the development of a project. Peter Verheul was the recipient of such a grant, awarded to him by the Foundation of the Visual Arts, Design and Architecture in Amsterdam in 1990. The immediate purpose of the grant was to enable the designer to apply himself to a collection of typefaces, the longer term purpose, Verheul has conjectured, “was for the health of Dutch design.”[612]

The business community of the Netherlands has also in many cases demonstrated an unswerving commitment to the notion of design for the public good. For example, like their British counterparts, several Dutch public services were privatised in the 1980s, and just as with firms in the UK such as Telecom or Railtrack, this led to a heavy investment by the incoming concern in identity design. However unlike their British equivalents, who tended to opt for flashy and ultimately unpopular identity schemes, Dutch firms such as the PTT retained their long-standing commitment to broader forms of support for art and design.[613] In the early 1990s, the newly privatised PTT continued the design programme pioneered by Van Royen at the start of the century, one of extensive and varied design activity not linked in any straightforward manner to commercial targets.[614]

As well as winning the support of both government and private enterprise, design activity in the Netherlands has been the subject of public debate. Considered a landmark in the discussion about design was the open debate conducted between Wim Crouwel and Jan van Toorn in November 1972. Crouwel, a modernist designer holding views of the kind that are associated with the Swiss school, was a founder of the influential Dutch design firm Total Design. The project of Total Design was to implement complete, apparently rational design programmes for companies and institutions. Well-known amongst Crouwel’s output are the posters, catalogues and signage systems that he designed for the Stedelijk Museum from the late 1960s onward. In catalogues, such as that for the industrial design exhibition Vormgevers, held in 1968, Crouwel put into action the strict, grid-based format that he believed would communicate information clearly and without bias. Of a slightly younger generation, Jan van Toorn questioned Crouwel’s assumptions concerning the neutrality of certain graphic forms and proposed a more active role for the graphic designer. Working for the van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven in the 1960s, van Toorn sought to challenge the very culture of the museum by employing an unfamiliar and often jarring set of visual idioms within the material that he designed for the institution.

The debate between Crouwel and van Toorn is said to have “assumed a legendary place in the history of Dutch graphic design.”[615] Although van Toorn has claimed victory to a certain extent, arguing “that nobody believes in neutrality anymore”, the issues that were raised by the designers can be considered to have remained largely unresolved both within Dutch graphic design and beyond. In the years since Crouwel and van Toorn publicly challenged one another, design within the Netherlands has adopted a wide range of graphic languages, from the sober and restrained to the wild and exuberant. Certain strains of Dutch design have been seen as holding sway from time to time: for example, while in the 1980s Dutch design tended to be characterised the stage set posters of Studio Dumbar and the stark visual challenges presented by Wild Plakken,[616] by the mid 1990s the design critic Kuitenbouwer had noted a “new sobriety.”[617] But in the face of these apparent trends, a variety of textures have survived and developed within the graphic design that has emerged from the Netherlands. Resisting classification in simple formal or ideological terms, Dutch graphic design might be best understood in terms of its breadth of aims and idioms.

Within the Netherlands, graphic design and typography appear to have made a place for themselves at the very heart of the culture. Contemporary Dutch type designers have formed a strong community amongst themselves. This community does not have its basis in a uniform attitude to the task of type design. Emerging from several art schools in the Netherlands (chiefly the Royal Academy in the Hague, the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam and the Arnhem Academy of Art and Design) each of which has supported a different approach toward the design of type, these designers are not of one mind. Rather than a community based on any kind of consensus, they are a band brought together by a spirit of enquiry and a belief in the value of discussion.

In 1993, a group of Dutch type designers, led by Petr van Blokland, challenged the rigidity of the existing forum for debate about type, the ATypI. Running sessions in parallel with the formal annual conference, which that year was held in Antwerp, under the banner of Type Lab, Van Blokland and his cohort have questioned the tight professional boundaries within which the ATypI had confined its enquiries. At Type Lab it was understood that it might be possible to pose broader questions about typography and type design, for example why type classification might be a doomed task,[618] in a less formal setting. Three years later, when the ATypI was held in the Hague, the Type Lab had become an established alternative strand, a reflection of the international influence of what could be seen as a Dutch faith in the value of community.

National sensibility and cultural stereotype

Typographic histories of the most traditional kind have tended to view national characteristics in type as purely a matter of form. In spite of the apparent range of contemporary type design, this kind of classification does persist. For example, Frank Blokland of the Dutch Type Library has described the letterforms within his collection as “characteristically Dutch” because they are “very low contrast, strong, and bold.”[619] Evoking similar formal characteristics, Robin Kinross suggested that Gerard Unger’s work could be understood as “specifically Dutch”: “a large x-height (relatively short ascenders and descenders), a distinct spaciousness within letters (the ‘counters’), an interest upright italics (Flora suddenly seems very Dutch) and, as Unger himself puts it, a ‘clarity, sturdiness, straightforwardness...’ All this is characteristic of Dutch type design over some 400 years”[620] Kinross and Blokland may be discussing the appearance of Dutch typefaces, but the terms they pick are shot through with ideological content. Making the link between ideology and form even more clearly, Charles Bigelow, also addressing the types of Gerard Unger, talked of “the long Dutch tradition of sensible, economical and workmanlike types.”[621]

Mapping the attributes of a nation onto the formal qualities of its typefaces, the danger of becoming embroiled in stereotype is evident. Any account of the design that emerges from a particular region that relies upon local idiosyncracies is liable to become no more than a caricature. While critics have relied on the notion of Calvinism to explain much of what has emerged from Holland over the last century, it is important to remember that over that century, and particularly since the Second World War, like other European nations the Netherlands has become less and less homogenous both religiously and ethnically. Equally the suggestion that the Dutch have a heightened sense of social responsibility and community must be qualified with a recognition that the Netherlands shares many of the social problems of neighbouring countries. In a paper addressing social rituals in the Dutch cities The Hague and Groningen, the anthropologist Karen Wertz described urban spaces riven by class-based and generational antagonism which, like virtually all cities, were frequented by alcoholics, drug-takers and disaffected youths.[622]

Rather than concentrating on the qualities of the Dutch character, it makes more sense to dwell upon the exceptional position of design within The Netherlands. Taking a cue from Broos and Hefting, it seems appropriate to emphasise the status of the Dutch graphic design profession and also the level of commercial support for design activity in the Netherlands. This status and support derives from a perceived connection between design and social good and envisaging this link, Dutch designers find themselves charged with the wellbeing of society.

In part, the purpose of looking at recent type design in the Netherlands in the context of a national culture is to offer a corrective to the assumption that digital technologies must act as a force for globalisation. This assumption arises from the role of these technologies in the promotion of worldwide communication and facilitation of the international flow of capital. Arguments that support the notion of a world culture are compelling, yet it is important to remember that digital technologies also encourage the kinds of small-scale activities that are likely be locally or nationally specific. Technologies do not arrive in a vacuum; the consequences of their use are inflected by the cultural landscape in which they are set.

Addressing the work of Gerard Unger, Martin Majoor, Max Kisman and LettError, the range of work looked at in this section is broader than that encompassed by traditional, nationally structured, typographic accounts. While Unger and Majoor, designers who have allowed a pursuit of universal typographic value to be inflected by distinctive local form, might fit well with these stories, the work of Kisman, who has overlaid an inclusive brand of formal experiment with a local narrative of social concern, escapes their bounds. Also, LettError’s forays at the technological frontier have created a need to re-explore what ought to be included within an account of a national typographic culture. Encouraged by the status of design in the Netherlands, they have been bold in disregarding professional limits and in doing so have prompted a reconsideration of the nature of the letterform that has been of international significance.

Gerard Unger

Born in 1942 and educated at the Rietveld Academy in the early to mid 1960s, Gerard Unger entered a career in graphics at a time when two schools of design appeared to be in competition in the Netherlands. Unger avoided subscribing wholeheartedly to either the traditional, illustrative work emerging from one side or the modernist, functionalist approach of the other. His early inspiration to become a designer had been drawn from the hand-lettered book jackets emerging from the former school, but immediately after leaving art college he went to work for Total Design, a stronghold of the latter mode of design practice. Able to bridge these two strands within his own work, from the outset Unger’s practice has exhibited his ability to reconcile the apparently contradictory.

Compared to that of most contemporary designers, Unger’s career in type design was slow to take off. He was offered his first chance to design a complete typeface for the historic Dutch printing business, Joh. Enschedé en Zonen in the early 1970s. That typeface, Markeur, was devised for a letter-engraving machine and as such had to take into account the design limitations imposed by the manner in which the engraving tool formed letters. Going on to create a face for the signage system of the Amsterdam Metro, Unger once again found himself working within extreme technical constraints. The typeface that emerged from that project, with its sturdy letters and wide open counters, displays several of the distinctive characteristics that are evident, to some extent, throughout Unger’s body of work.

Already at this stage of his career, Unger had undertaken a specific enquiry regarding the nature of the letterform. This is an enquiry that has persisted until the present, surviving several dramatic technological shifts along the way. Unger’s typographic exploration is focused upon the question of how best to serve the interests of the reader while still imbuing typeface designs with character and personality. Unger himself has described it as a concern with the “core of conventionality”:

“I believe that true mass communication is served by a high degree of conventionality, so what I want to do is to design typefaces that are experimental, but where the experiments are somewhat hidden within the conventionality – so that the typefaces take a long time to settle, people need a long time to grow familiar with them, they remain somewhat uncommon to the eye, but only to a degree, not entirely.”[623]

The search for such a core is essentially a humanist project, one that emerges from a belief in a common humanity, a belief that could be seen to be at the heart of Dutch culture as it has sometimes been characterised. Elaborating upon the notion of a core of conventionality, Unger has suggested that it might be possible to define such a phenomenon in purely neurological terms:

“What I would like to become in the next life is a neurologist and do experiments to find out what is lodged in peoples’ brains as information, how they recognise typefaces. When you know that you would have a set of basic letterforms. That would be the ultimate experiment for me, to design a type on that kind of information.”[624]

Such an argument implies that it might be possible to offer definitive solutions to typographic problems. This kind of belief is commonly associated with the rationalist, functionalist doctrines of the modernists. However, rather than turning to the kinds of orthodoxies associated with the modernist designers of the post-war period, throughout his career Unger has continued to demonstrate an open-minded concern with things as they actually exist, rather than insisting upon things as they ought to be.

For example, regarding his experiences with formal legibility tests, Unger has viewed the process of searching for absolute solutions with certain reservations. Two of Unger’s faces have been exposed to such tests – the text face Gulliver and a face designed for motorway signage systems. Unger has fully acknowledged the limited usefulness of the results:

“These tests can only tell you whether you are on the right track, they can only evaluate what you have already done. They cannot suggest directions or offer any exact information. For example, in the typeface I did for Dutch road signs I stressed a lot of space within the characters, big counters, which are characteristic of my type design. The only thing that the legibility experiment showed was that my version was better at a long distance, more legible than the old ones. But that says nothing about big counters.”[625]

Rather than seizing upon such results to justify his output in any kind of definitive manner, Unger has accepted the relative nature of what is actually implied.

In 1974, Unger formed a professional relationship with the German company Dr. Ing Rudolf Hell Gmbh. It was one that was to last over a decade, during which he designed several typefaces for Hell’s pioneering digital typesetting system, the Digiset. As a result of this relationship, Unger became one of the most established professional type designers of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Designing specifically for the international market of Digiset users, ironically it is the typefaces that Unger created for Hell that have been subsequently assessed as specifically Dutch; these include Demos, Praxis, Flora, Hollander, Swift and Cyrano. Discussing these faces in 1991, Robin Kinross remarked that they had been hard to evaluate because of the “élite obscurity of the Digiset machine” for which they were designed. All that was evident of the typefaces were “small specimens” and a “series of articles...” in the German and Swiss trade press.”[626] Since that time, through PostScript versions, this body of work has become more widely known.

The forms of Unger’s typefaces for the Digiset conform to those for which the designer has become well known. Designed to be set on what was, despite its pre-eminence at the time, essentially an extremely primitive digital system, Unger was once again working to create character within very tight technical constraints. Through 1976 design Demos, the 1977 design Praxis and the 1979 design Flora – respectively serif, sans serif and italic types which have in common basic dimensions and a formal structure – it is possible to define the kinds of letterforms with which Unger has been most strongly associated. Each of these typefaces employs a wide-open counter, which is further emphasised by short ascenders and descenders and, in each, letterforms are constructed in the most straightforward of manners. Amongst this family of faces Flora has become the best-known: an unadorned sans serif italic, it appears remarkably guileless upon the page.


All of the designs that Unger undertook for Hell were guided by the need to solve a certain problem. Swift for example, designed in the early 1980s, was a response to the fact that there were very few successful newspaper typefaces available in the prevailing digital formats. As well as displaying all the characteristics of an Unger face, Swift is robust enough to survive very poor production techniques and it is endowed with a lively rhythm that allows it to work in a fairly conventional manner within the context of a broadsheet newspaper. But while Swift was designed with a very specific use in mind, translated into the PostScript format the typeface has escaped the tightly defined bounds within which it was originally conceived. In the early 1990s, the London based design magazine Blueprint began to use Swift in large sizes as a headline face. Once amplified, the devices that had been employed to make Swift legible began to resemble the jagged idiosyncrasies of the kinds of faces that are distributed by outfits such as Emigre.

Although Unger could not have anticipated this development, it is not one of which he has disapproved. Spending the first ten years of his career designing letterforms to suit tight technical restraints, he does not argue that the typefaces that emerged from those exercises depend upon certain technologies for their integrity. Unlike Jonathan Hoefler, who though rarely offered the chance, has romanticised the notion of working to the demands of a particular technologies, Unger has been happy to move on from various sets of constraints. Far from believing that his work for technologies with limited application is of more worth, Unger rather regrets that certain of his type designs, such as a very basic screen face for Phillips, have been rendered redundant by subsequent innovation.

Gerard Unger was an early adopter of the Macintosh computer, buying his first package of printer, computer, screen, scanner and software in 1986. This was shortly after his formal ties with Hell had been severed through an agreement that had given him the right to distribute the typefaces that he had designed for the company in the PostScript format, but had brought to an end any kind of regular, salaried employment for the designer. Unger was very enthusiastic about the facilities Macintosh technology offered to the type designer, particularly the ability to make changes directly on the screen and to print out samples immediately. But in spite of a certain amount of technologically inspired excitement, overall the mid 1980s were a time of anxiety for the designer. Losing a reliable source of income while feeling obliged to invest in expensive computer technology, the future seemed extremely uncertain.

Unger took to desktop font creation very quickly. A contented user of the keyboard, Unger has adapted to the software to the extent that, for the most part, he bypasses pen and paper altogether and goes straight to the screen. However that does not mean that he has lost touch with the materiality of the printed page. Talking enthusiastically of the interaction between his 600 dpi printer and some “very beautiful linen paper”, Unger has demonstrated a keen understanding of the continued importance of tactility in the digital age. Encouraging type design students to explore similar avenues, Unger has reported worthwhile combinations of radical typefaces and nineteenth-century hand-made paper. Juxtapositions of the new and the traditional of this kind could be seen as being not only at the heart of Unger’s project, but also significant within broader Dutch culture.

Unger’s first design to be released as an original PostScript font was the typeface Argo. First intended for Hell, when Unger left that company the design was sold to another German firm URW, who went on to distribute it in the PostScript format in co-operation with the specialist concern the Dutch Type Library. Crafting Argo on the Macintosh, Unger was for the first time digitising all his own designs. Discussing the project, Robin Kinross has argued that at this point Unger “in effect had returned to the old method of cutting letters in their final embodiment, as well as designing their forms.”[627] As a waged employee of Hell, Unger had always worked at home. But while previously he had sent drawings to be crafted into typefaces by teams of skilled employees at the company, now Unger had truly returned to the ways of the loan craftsman, creating his typefaces complete from first marks to final hints (although more recently he has employed ex-students to clean up digitisations and complete character sets).

Having been started as a design for the Digiset machine, the typeface Argo cannot be considered to be intimately bound to any particular technology. Rather than responding to technological opportunities or restraints, the forms of the Argo alphabet can be seen as having more to do with Unger’s long-term typographic project. The typeface, a chunky sans serif with a slightly chiselled edge, was undertaken as part of Unger’s sustained exploration of the generation of character and idiosyncrasy within the broader framework of conventionality. In the process of designing the face, Unger refined early, sharp edged letterforms into “well-tempered” sans serifs with balanced contrasts that risked being mistaken for the characters of a “souped-up Helvetica.” Returning to the keyboard and screen, Unger reinvested Argo with some of the “bite of the original conception.”[628] As well as sitting comfortably within the body of Unger’s type design, Argo could also be seen as fitting well with ideas and attitudes that have been considered typical of Dutch designers. The typeface reflects a commitment to certain, positive facets of modernism, maintained alongside the will to sustain the qualities of warmth and vitality.

After releasing Argo through URW and DTL, Gerard Unger made the decision to go completely independent. Well known within the profession, he had already established the contacts required to be able to market his typefaces himself. Undertaking very little advertising or any other form of publicity, Unger has relied largely upon word of mouth to sustain his business. Unger’s fonts are relatively expensive, he has set his prices in line with the other up-market Dutch digital typefoundries – Peter Noordzij’s Enschedé Font Foundry and the DTL – and as such they are sold for the most part to professional clients. Unger has not relied solely upon his income from the design of original typefaces. Like other independents he has undertaken custom work, for example adapting Swift for a Danish customer, and has also done a quantity of more general graphic work, such as magazine design. Since establishing himself as an independent, Unger has had moments of insecurity, for example when in 1993 “for almost six months no new work came in”,[629] but on the whole has felt positive about his new working mode.

As an independent, Unger has been responsible for initiating a large part of his own design programme. In the mid 1990s he was concerned with a project named Paradox, an exploration of the co-existence in eighteenth-century Europe of ‘modern’ and ‘old-style’ faces. Unger has said that he was prompted to undertake the Paradox project by the wish to do something “just for its own sake and very beautiful.”[630] In pursuing such projects, Unger has moved close to many of his younger type design colleagues. A new generation of type designers, never having experienced waged employment, have launched into programmes of work that are powered by demands of their own curiosity. Discussing how to fund this kind of practice, Unger has pointed out that current circumstances require that the designer invest his or her own funds in the creation of new typefaces: “That is what you have to do now if you want to do new type design, earn enough money beforehand.”[631]

Gerard Unger has envisaged himself as a historically informed designer, but he does not view history as a source in a manner akin to, for example, the designers of the early twentieth-century typographic revival. Rather than a catalogue of designs to be resuscitated, Unger has seen typographic history as the unfolding development of a core of concerns and principals upon his own designs are built:

“I think my work is immersed in historical principles, when you take conventionality as a starting point you realise that history is very important. For example in my type design Hollander I took some starting points of Dutch seventeenth-century typefaces, for example the Baroque contrast between thick and thin and the proportions of x height in comparison with total height. Those are elements that I put into that typeface.”

For Unger, exploring typographic history had become part of the broader task of addressing familiarity. Discussing this project, Unger has argued:

“Type design serves the reader not only in good legibility but also in recognising certain objects – that is my newspaper – typefaces offer orientation and identification. When you see information spread around the globe it becomes almost a world in itself: you have to find your way in the information world and typefaces give identity to objects, books, magazines, record covers. It helps people orient themselves if books look like books and so on.”

This view of type design is based in a belief in a set of common human assumptions, a collective societal consciousness, that extends to national boundaries and beyond. This belief, while certainly not exclusively Dutch, could be seen as typical of Dutch designers who throughout the century have been encouraged to bring the social concerns of the nation to the fore. Unger, like all type designers of his generation, has witnessed several major shifts in typesetting technology, but, weathering these, he has managed to pursue a consistent, socially-inflected typographic project.

Martin Majoor

Born in 1960, Martin Majoor attended art school in Arnhem between 1982 and 1986. During those years he became very interested in the design of type, but was not encouraged to concentrate upon the subject because the broadly Bauhaus programme pursued at the Arnhem Schools of Art aimed to promote a conceptually-based generalism rather than professionally-focused specialism amongst its students. Majoor’s interest in typography was fired by the history of the subject. He has remembered scouring the libraries of Arnhem for books upon the subject and has argued that his largely unguided research has left him with a healthy collection of “diverse” influences.[632]

Majoor’s enthusiasm for type emerged in the years before PostScript and the Macintosh computer. In his desire to design letterforms he was not responding to any immediate technological cues and after leaving art school, not yet able to design and distribute typeface independently, he went to work in the Research and Development Department of the company Océ-Netherlands. In the mid- to late-1980s, Océ was concerned with the development of proprietary digital systems. Investing heavily in speculative research, the company employed a significant proportion of Dutch type designers at the outset of their careers.

In 1988, after two years at Océ, Martin Majoor was required to fulfil his commitment to the Dutch government. As an alternative to military service, he was allowed to work as a graphic designer at the state run Vredenburg Music Centre in Utrecht. Designing the publicity and programmes for the centre, it was at this point that Majoor first started working with Macintosh computers. Soon dissatisfied with the range of typefaces that were available on the Mac, Majoor was quick to realise that he had access to the technology to craft his own face. He has remembered asking himself:

“Why don’t I make a typeface with all the things we need like lower-case figures, non-aligned figures, and ligatures?”[633]

It was the paucity of the Macintosh’s early typographic provision that prompted Majoor to design his first complete typeface, a face that evolved into the now widely used Scala type family.

Designing Scala specifically for the use of the Vredenburg Centre in 1988, the distribution of the face came about by chance two years later. Scouting for fonts to distribute under his new FontFont label, Erik Spiekermann from FontShop saw Majoor’s typeface at Type 90, the Oxford based ATypI conference. Spiekermann approached Majoor for the rights to license the design in tandem with a group of fonts from other young Dutch designers, including Max Kisman, Just van Rossum and Erik van Blokland. The face became the first FontFont that was designed specifically as a text face, and as such it remains rare within the collection which has remained largely devoted to distinctive display types.

In 1993, Martin Majoor designed a sans serif partner for Scala, Scala Sans which was also released as a FontFont. He has claimed that this, rather than being a response to the demands of the font market, was a project in which he had been interested from the outset. Through the 1990s, Scala and Scala Sans have remained the only pair of Majoor’s typefaces to be available through retail. The designer has argued that he is solely concerned with creating typefaces for specific typographic purposes and has no interest in the speculative design of type, becoming servant to the whims of font buyers. While Scala and its sans serif companion have become known well beyond the context for which they were originally conceived, Majoor has continued to regard them as the product of a particular project: the design of material for Vredenburg.

Martin Majoor has described Scala as being “based upon a humanist model with influences from different style periods.”[634] Expanding upon this, Robin Kinross has called Scala “a text-face without exact historical precedents, but rooted in tradition.”[635] Scala’s interdeterminancy of historical reference, its ability to speak broadly of typographic tradition while shying away from commitment to any single historic model, might be responsible for its success. Kinross gave it credit for being an “an all-purpose roman”[636], it allows the contemporary designer to give a nod to tradition, without getting involved in the baggage that accompanies the use of, for example, a meticulous reworking of the types of Garamond. The alphabet of Scala’s partner, Scala Sans, is derived from that of the seriffed original. This means that, unlike the large part of twentieth-century sans serifs which are based upon geometrical models, Scala Sans is of humanist proportions. Majoor has argued that this renders the typeface “more ‘open’ than non-humanist sans serifs”[637] The humanist sans serif, which has been a significant trend in post PostScript type design, might be seen as the outcome of a cultural sensibility that is particularly Dutch. Types of this kind could be said to combine a commitment to positive change with a respect for the past, effectively displaying a kind of soft-edged modernism.

Both Scala and Scala Sans offer extensive provision for the designer concerned with typographic nicety: real italics, non-lining figures, small capitals and ligatures. By including these kinds of features within a standard character set, Martin Majoor clearly demonstrated an allegiance to the values of the traditional book typographer. In the Scala Sans specimen book, Majoor stated that the combination of Scala and Scala Sans is effective in “the production of high quality typography.”[638] While Scala’s quality of generic historicism might have appeal for many new users of type, it is clear that Majoor was more concerned with the requirements of the more experienced typographer.

The popularity of Scala and Scala Sans has been striking. Possibly picking up on the faces original purpose, as a design for a small arts institution, the serif version was adopted immediately on its release by the British designer Tony Arefin, who used it within publications for innovative galleries such as east London’s Chisenhale. Later, both the serif and sans serif became widely used within art publishing. In the mid 1990s, probably as a result of acquired associations, they were picked up by Taschen, a large German publisher specialising in popular art books. Since 1995 Taschen have used the faces in the design of a large part of both their books and their publicity material. The prevalence of Scala and Scala Sans is such that by the mid-1990s it had begun to seem as if they were the in-house faces of the European art world.

But not only employed in cultural publications, Scala and Scala Sans have also been used for purposes much further from that for which they were originally intended. Particularly conspicuous has been their adoption by the Netherlands’ second highest circulation newspaper, Algemeen Dagblad, in March 1995. The paper uses the two faces in combination, for the most part employing the serif for headlines and text and the sans serif for more punchy side-bars and summaries. Majoor slightly fattened his designs to render them more suitable for newsprint, but apart from this he had nothing to do with the design of the newspaper. He has appeared slightly bemused by the increasing ubiquity of the Scala typefaces, whose correspondence with the cultural mood of the mid-1990s has been remarkable.

After leaving Vredenburg in 1990, Martin Majoor set himself up as an independent designer, sharing a set of studios with fellow type designer and typographer, Fred Smeijers. Rather than a type designer, Majoor has preferred to view himself as a book typographer, and is backed in this claim by a large body of finely crafted work in this area, using established historic faces and traditional typographic devices such as small capitals for emphasis. As a designer of books, Majoor has used many typefaces designed by others, about which he has strongly held and sometimes fairly idiosyncratic views. For example, claiming PostScript Type 1 renders typefaces “too light”, he has favoured the technically inferior Type 3 versions, which appear more robust on the page.[639] Still a devotee of typographic history, Majoor has welcomed many of the recent type revivals, singling out Adobe Caslon as being particularly successful, but has regretted the absence of good PostScript versions of other existing designs, such as those of W.A. Dwiggins. Majoor’s interests and enthusiasms ally him to some of typography’s most stalwart traditionalists, for example he has continued to make a strict distinction between the categories of text and display faces and as a teacher of design at the Schools of Art in Breda and Arnhem, it has seemed appropriate to him that type design remains the concern of a limited number of specialists. However the fresh, spacious, unconstrained nature of his designs, both for the page and the letter, belies the rigidity that these views might imply. Majoor is anything but a slave to typographic tradition.

Martin Majoor’s most significant type design project of the e