From the 1960s on, the Netherlands aspired to modernity. This desire was characterised by a shared love of geometric design and the use of white, black and grey across architecture, product and graphic design, fashion and art.
For me, Modernism and the Netherlands go hand-in-hand, it’s hard to imagine one without the other, especially when looking back over this time period.
The Design Museum in Den Bosch’s exhibition Modern Nederland 1963–1989 explores the 20th century Dutch love of everything modern. During this time period, Modernism in the Netherlands had a distinctive and societal ambition thanks to state-owned companies such as the PTT, NS and tax authorities expressing an anti-traditional, tolerant and democratic concept, giving designers at the time amazing opportunities.
During the 1990s Modernism in the Netherlands was beginning to be seen as a negative thing, due to its supposedly ‘one-dimensional look’ and design in general began to move towards what is often now referred to as ‘Dutch Design’ with the likes of Marcel Wanders/Moooi (2001) and Gijs Bakker/Droog (1993); a style much more playful and with a different expression to what came before. The Design Museum Den Bosch calls this later period “famous yet socially sterile” and has put on this exhibition as a critical re-appraisal of Modernism in the Netherlands and across several topics, successfully achieves this.
“The development of Modern Nederland in the period 1963–1989 is a history of institutions and this history is reflected in the choice of themes. Designers—of course developed the design—but the way it came about was done in a context of convincing commissioners, design schools, festivals, museums and art committees. The exhibition knows the structure of a documentary and is apparently fragmentary. The various subjects are not a mini exhibition and together they do not form an exhaustive overview. The subjects are exemplary examples of important players in the design field in the period 1963–1989. With the help of counterpoints, the main theme is always nuanced or thrown out. The exhibition designed by Simon Davies and Jan Konings as a whole thus provides a picture of the cultural infrastructure as a condition for the development of design with a weekly social significance.
Design Museum Den Bosch (translated).
The Modern Nederland 1963–1989 exhibition is introduced through ‘Het Model/’The Model’ where the background to the Dutch love of Modernism is explained. This is essentially the art and design movement of De Stijl (1917–1931) and the vision of its founder, Theo van Doesburg (1883–1931):
“Van Doesburg’s architectural models and theories opened up the road for the development of the future. Finally, if a lesson can be drawn from Van Doesburg’s approach, it’s that first and foremost the artist’s life as a creative process rather than the production of many works of art. In this respect, Theo van Doesburg can also be considered to represent an extremely modern man “
Joost Baljeu (1925–1991), artist and designer.
This introduction is made up of scale architectural models by van Doesburg and other De Stijl artists such as Gerrit Rietveld (1888–1964), J.J.P. Oud (1890–1963) and Robert van ‘t Hoff (1887–1979). De Stijl set the groundwork for Modernism and is an inspiring example of Dutch avant-garde; art historian Hans Jaffé (1915–1984) called it “the only Dutch contribution to modern art”. Regardless of if this is true or not, artists of De Stijl’s progressive mentality continued to inspire Dutch designers throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s.
More about De Stijl here:
Graphic design and printed ephemera make up a large part of the exhibition; probably as graphic design and printed material was the most accessible medium for designers and the nature of the subject means a lot of things were produced in this period. There are several Dutch graphic designers who helped to create and define the Dutch Modernist style of graphic design both in the Netherlands and internationally. Many of these names are included in the exhibition but there is a much longer list of course who were not included.
Firstly Wim Crouwel (1928–) who to me epitomises the image of Dutch Modernism both through his general demeanour and of course his graphic design ‘style’. One of my first interactions with this era was through his iconic numbers stamp series (1976) for the PTT; each stamp using only a coloured gradient and his Gridnik typeface (1974), the numbers larger than the words. On display here is a selection of sketches large and small, along with some numerals on acetate and some signed cards. There are some un-cut print sheets laid out in numerical order; its satisfying to see so many of these together as they would normally be seen in isolation on an envelope.
More about Wim Crouwel’s career & an insight into Total Design here:
In 1963, Wim Crouwel, along with Friso Kramer (1922–2019) and Benno Wissing (1923–2008) (later also Ben Bos (1930–2017) founded Total Design who would go on to almost set the standard of Dutch Modernism for many years. Total Design was founded with the idea of being the first large design agency in the Netherlands to work on Dutch clients.
More information about Ben Bos’ career & an insight into Total Design here:
Several Total Design designer’s work appears in the exhibition such as Jurriaan Schrofer (1926–1990) who became a partner at Total Design in 1972 where he worked on several projects. Before this he produced the IAO (Internationale Arbeidersorganisatie) 50th anniversary (1919–1969) stamps using his distinctive and mathematical yet still spontaneous typography. This design exemplifies his ethos of “searching for the boundary between form and functionality of characters, where words became autonomous objects”. Here there were several early sketches of letters and the stamp compositions.
As mentioned before, Benno Wissing was a founder of Total Design and in 1967 he worked on the wayfinding for Amsterdam Airport Schipol. At the time this was a clear sign system for the new terminal that stood out for its simplicity. The text stated the destination, in Dutch and English, and arrows indicated the directions. The use of yellow stood for arrivals and departures and everything else was green, in true Modernist style the layout of these signs was reduced to the bare essentials; in this case destination and direction. His wayfinding design set an example for almost all early international airports which were equipped for the first generation of jumbo jets. The exhibition contains several physical, scale signs hanging from the ceiling as if in-situ as well as a number of annotated sketches and original icon drawing.
“The simplicity and straightforwardness were not only new but also immediately successful, so much so that other international airports soon imitated the system either partially or wholly. Examples are Heathrow and Singapore Airports, both of which went on to add so many superfluous elements, however, that only the concept of colour coding survived.”
Koos Bosma (1952–2015), author of Megastructure Schiphol.
Several of the stamps on display here were also designed by Ootje Oxenaar (1929–2017) who worked as head of the Art and Design advisory bureau (DEV/K+V) at the PTT. Here he was responsible for the comissioning of art and design of many stamps as well as producing his own. Perhaps his most iconic and known are the strangely satisfying geometric, computer generated stamps designed in 1970, exploring repetition through line. Here there were more early, very detailed sketches and seemingly un-used designs.
“In cooperation with the TU Eindhoven he used thin, computer generated lines in the background of the banknote’s motif to make it unforgeable. These lines were calculated by a mainframe computer and were (in these days) practically not imitable. The mainframe used was TU Eindhoven´s CORA I. The design process brought up the idea of choosing computer graphics as motifs for a stamp edition.”
More about Ootje Oxenaar here:
More about the design of stamps here:
Finally for now, there were two large-scale posters titled: ‘Dutch Design for the ‘Public Sector, one designed by Gert Dumbar (1940–) whilst at Teldesign (1973) and the other by Tom Homburg whilst at Studio Dumbar (1979). I believe that both of these are for exhibitions about ‘Design as a State Policy’, exploring the formulation and implementation of good design policies, seeing what proposals increase education, consumer information, organisations which promote design conciousness and government institutions concerned with communication.
The two posters show examples of Dutch public design such as the NS rail identity, ANWB roadside telephones, Ministry of Finance publications, stamps for the PTT, banknotes for the Dutch National Bank and several city identities. Both posters are beautiful examples of Dutch Modernism through their use of colour and typography.
More information about Gert Dumbar’s career here.
Modern Nederland 1963–1989 is on at the Design Museum Den Bosch until 18 August 2019.