Robert Deodaat Emile Oxenaar – or Ootje as he’s known – is, at 76, still teaching in the graphic design department of the Rhode Island School of Design. Born in The Hague in the Netherlands he attended the city’s Royal Academy of Art and then, from 1966 until 1985, worked for the Nederlandsche Bank on a series of new banknotes. It was here that he designed what came to be his most famous project and, in terms of currency design, what many consider to be the most beautiful money in the world.
CR spoke to Ootje about his work, how he added personal elements to approved designs and how it feels to have your artwork seen and used by millions, everyday, for over 30 years. (An edited version of the interview appears in our current issue, guest-edited by ad agency Mother, alongside a DPS reproduction of his classic 10 guilder note).
CR: How did you come to design this series of banknotes for the Dutch Central Bank?
OO: In 1964 the Dutch Central Bank invited three desigers to come in with a proposal for a new five guilder bank note. This was, in a way, very new in the world that a bank asked two designers and one artist. They chose me in the end, an independent designer, to do a series of five notes. Only in Switzerland had this happened before where independent designers were used. The first five guilder went well – it was really training for me; then they commissioned me to do the series: 5, 10 , 25, 100 and 1000. I knew that one note took three years to make and so that when the last one would come in to circulation, it would be 30 years from the moment I started the job! People would be walking around with my money in their pocket all that time!
CR: Can you describe how you went about designing the notes?
OO: The creative processs was very simple: paper and pencil. I was just sketching. When I presented my sketches, they were actual size and I used a bit of watercolour, pencil and coloured pencils… good quality ones. There were issues of security of course – the way I was making the sketches was simple, but before I could make a design, I received a book about the size of a telephone directory containing all the notes on safety issues; the paper, the watermark, everything. When you read all that information you think you can’t do it. Later on, I checked through it properly, and three years later came the first banknote.
I was already well known in the 60s by the printers of banknotes as I had made stamps and the head of the printing firm and I were good friends. What I was asking, however, was going to be a whole new way of doing banknotes and, slowly, there developed a circle of friends who believed in it. At first they said it was impossible: “because we’ve done it like this for a hundred years and now is not the time to change it,” they said. They were very traditional at the beginning – they’re a high quality firm – so it took a while to get a circle of believers.
CR: How did you feel about designing money? Did you have any misgivings at all, or did you see it as such a great opportunity that it wasn’t to be missed?
OO: I was really very pleased when they asked me, when I got the whole series. You’re making something that lasts for decades and is in everyone’s pockets, every shop; it’s a fantastic feeling. And a great feeling, especially, when you can do it in your own way. I was very proud when the first one came out in circulation. I could lay it next to the sketch and see that it was virtually the same. In the later part of the series they asked me to remake the five guilder, and then later the 100 note. I changed our war criminal – the grand admiral – to a snipe.
I was very pleased that after the series, when they needed the new 100 guilder note, that I had completely free reign. Then came the 50 guilder notes. Our phone rang and the man who later became the first director of the Central Bank of Europe says: “we’re going to make a new note of 50 guilders?” “OK!” I said. And they left me alone to make the sunflower. Then they needed the 250 note. These last three notes, where I had free reign to work, I had a wonderful time.
CR: Were you paid for the banknotes work in any money that you designed?
OO: Haha. For the banknotes work, they paid me in Giro but I got a few banknotes too. It’s a misunderstanding that when you make banknotes you will be rich! No; they were the most stingy bank and a stingy government. In a way both of them had this mentality where they thought I should pay them, as it was such an honour!
CR: Are some of the notes more special to you? Do you have a favourite?
OO: I always said that the last one is my favourite; I liked it best when I was completely free to do what I wanted with the designs. I also have a special place for the first one after the 5 guilder; the 10 note – on that one I engraved the face myself. I was engraving for nearly half a year as I wanted to know the difficulties and I was trained by the official engraver, with the magnifying glasses on, watching the shiny curls coming up off the plate – it has something sensual about it, something of high craftmanship. And it’s still one of the best defences against copying, this craftsmanship.
CR: Is it right that you included some “personal” touches on some of the notes – like a fingerprint?
OO: Yes, the fingerprint’s true. In the five guilders note I did, there’s a temple in the background where the holy things are – so I hid my name there. On the 1000 guilder note, it became a “sport” for me to put things in the notes that nobody wanted there! I was very proud to have my fingerprint in this note – and it’s my middle finger! It was too late when they found out and though the director saw it he said he wouldn’t stop the whole production.
My last banknote – the 250 guilder with the lighthouse on it – at the top are three names; my secret names! It’s three ladies: my grand-daughter, Hannah, my girflriend who I was living with, Ria, and a secret friend. When these were in circulation I got a letter from the bank director and he said someone – an idiot, a collector – who had had their magnifying glasses out had written to the bank asking what the meanings of the names were. The president of the bank had to write back and said he didn’t know! I was so triumphant – I’d made it, after all this time. Of course, they’re also a very good anti-copying device.
CR: How does it feel now to have been behind these notes?
OO: It’s impressive. The 10 guilders note was one of the most used. It was printed between 1966 and 2000. And banknotes print likes newspapers – on big paper that’s then cut up into notes. They print it with the speed of the newspapers too: day and night for 30 years!
I’ve never had a dull moment in all the 25 years I worked on it. The moment you’ve finished one banknote, everything in the world has changed and you also have to fight against the forgers. It’s never up to date, always slightly behind the times.