Sandberg, Designer and Director of Stedelijk

Reviews by Peter Biľak
1 118 words6 min read

Sandberg, Designer and Director of Stedelijk, presents Willem Sandberg’s pioneering work as the director of Amsterdam’s Stedelijk (municipal) Museum. The book is the second of five monographs in a series, initiated by the Prins Bernhard foundation, called Graphic Design in the Netherlands. In the words of Jan van Toorn, one of the series committee members, the idea here, as in the first book, Otto Treumann, was to get away from “the quasi-neutral format of the average book about design.” This is not a large coffee-table edition, but a soft-cover book in a convenient size for reading, rich in content, with minimal or no margins, inviting the reader to explore.

As the title of the book suggests, the focus is on the second half of Sandberg’s life. He was a late starter and produced the majority of his work in his late forties. Starting in 1945, when he became the director of the Stedelijk museum, until 1962 Sandberg designed almost all the printed matter for the museum (over 250 catalogues and 270 posters). Additionally, he was an active member of countless institutions, committees and advisory bodies – unusual for a director with executive and administrative duties. Sandberg transformed the Stedelijk physically as well as conceptually, modernized its spaces, initiated construction of a new wing, expanded the collection and introduced many new ideas into the often stuffy world of museums. His objective was to make museums more accessible to a wider audience, and museum attendance in fact doubled during his time as director. The Stedelijk, similar perhaps to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, expanded its collection to include industrial design, photography, graphic design, prints and drawings.

The author of the book’s text, Ad Peterson, presents Sandberg as a man with a flair for the provocative who did things very much his own way, without regard for criticism. Sandberg was openly sympathetic to left-wing ideas, and from 1949 to 1958, at the height of the cold war, he was consistently refused a visa to the USA. Not being able to be in direct contact with American culture certainly affected exhibition planning at the Stedelijk.


The years of the Second World War had a decisive influence on Sandberg, who later confessed that before the war, he had had little idea what to do with his life. When the Netherlands was occupied by the Germans in 1940, Sandberg became involved in subversive activities, forging documents (like many other typographers) and helping to organize a raid on a civil registry office in 1943. These activities forced him to go underground. The resistance forged a spirit of solidarity that emerged among artists, and months after the end of the war he became the director of the Stedelijk.

While in hiding Sandberg produced Experimenta typographica, print experiments which are presented in the book at length. These 18 short, mostly hand-made books made during 1943-45 seem to be the basis for a number of Sandberg’s later Stedelijk catalogues. Reproductions of the Stedelijk’s unmistakable promotional material form the bulk of the book. These reproductions are interwoven with Sandberg’s photographs, statements, and pictures from the exhibitions. Some elements of the Stedelijk’s trademark style are his often very slim catalogues printed on brown wrapping paper (due in part to material shortages in war-devastated Netherlands), the use of rough shapes torn from paper, and bright primary colors. Sandberg enjoyed the imperfections of the printing, turning limitations into motivation. His main sources of inspiration were the slightly older figures of Hendrik Werkman and Piet Zwart, both versatile typographers whose typography also abandoned symmetry of composition. In line with the ‘neue typografie’ of Jan Tschichold, Sandberg often used lowercase characters only. Sandberg pioneered unjustified text (flush left, with equal word spaces, which at the time challenged convention and had social overtones). Sandberg’s work, characterized by modesty, presents a sensitive alternative to the modernist quest for perfection.

Jan van Toorn, the designer and editor of the book, has succeeded in presenting Sandberg’s activities through contextualization of his work in a larger cultural and social perspective. In Dutch publishing it is not uncommon for the designer of a book to work as a co-editor, rather than being subordinate to the writer and publisher. Like Sandberg, Jan van Toorn has directly affected national cultural policies. Van Toorn has held various administrative positions and was the director of the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht.


Nine chapters of the book present Sandberg’s career chronologically. They seem to have been conceived individually, rather than as a continuous narrative, which means that they often repeat information found in other chapters. We are repeatedly reminded of Sandberg’s biographical details and his contributions. Petersen’s text is factual and academic, showing evidence of his art-history background; Van Toorn’s approach complements Petersen’s work, providing an enthusiastic visual narrative, or in his own words: “creating a ‘machine’ to generate exploration and interpretation not rooted only in facts and categorizations but also in the ambivalence of image and text.”

The main text of the book is set entirely in a selection of monowidth fonts — Letter Gothic for the most part, whereas quotations are set in a variety of heavy sansserif fonts, which sets the quotes apart visually. Sandberg’s voice is set in lowercase Chicago, perhaps as a reminder of Sandberg’s continual interest in the latest developments (Chicago was one of the first Macintosh operating system typefaces). The font is now associated with an obsolete OS, and so now looks somewhat more nostalgic than cutting-edge.

Setting aside the somewhat repetitive text, I would have liked for the book to have contained an examination of Sandberg’s museum policies. Because of his administrative activities and involvement with municipal and artistic organizations, he directly influenced cultural policies, city planning, and the presentation of Dutch art abroad. We are reminded of this several times in the text, but without many concrete examples or a treatment of the significance of such an influence.

The book is generously illustrated and impeccably executed with attention to material details such as binding and paper selection. The cover is made of brown wrapping paper folded around in the Japanese fashion, referencing the qualities of the object and Sandberg’s preferences.

The book coincides with an exhibition Sandberg Nu (Sandberg Now) in the temporary location of the Stedelijk Museum. The permanent home of the Stedelijk is currently undergoing a significant renovation and expansion guided by the newly-appointed director Gijs van Tuyl, who has praised Sandberg for the manner in which the museum was ‘thrown open’ for experimentation and activity. The museum will reopen in the renovated building in 2008.