A clear break with the past

When the Stedelijk Museum re-opens later this year, it will have a controversial new visual identity, adopted following resignations and rows at the institution. In his latest logo column for CR, Michael Evamy traces the new work’s stormy back story

Without fanfare, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam has ushered in its new permanent visual identity – a mark and design system to coincide with the museum’s long-awaited re-opening in September following its refurbishment and the addition of its striking ‘bathtub’ extension. Art-loving Amsterdammers have been driven to distraction and protest by the delays that have plagued the construction project; the development of an identity to replace Wim Crouwel’s hugely admired and influential ‘SM Style’ has also been far from painless. It’s no wonder that the museum has opted for a ‘soft launch’ for its new ‘huisstijl’, given the travails of the last few years.

The Stedelijk’s identity crises kicked off seven years ago when studio Experimental Jetset resigned from the project to “introduce a system at express speed for Stedelijk Museum CS (SMCS), after the museum took up temporary residence in the huge former Post Office behind Centraal Station. According to the explanation on the design studio’s website, its departure “was partly due to the fact that (at that time) the museum was in such an interim state, without a clear director, and without a clear hierarchical structure”.

SCMS identity by Experimental Jetset, 2004

There was disarray again and heated debate about the museum’s strategy when newly-appointed director Ann Goldstein unexpectedly decided not to progress a proposed new permanent identity by French type designer Pierre di Sciullo. Perhaps Di Sciullo’s concept for an expressive, dancing logotype of upper and lower-case letters was thought to be too alien to the museum’s strongly Modernist heritage.


Early versions of Pierre Di Sciullo’s proposed identity

Goldstein, facing fresh delays to the new extension, put the permanent identity project on hold and drafted in Armand Mevis and Linda van Deursen to create an identity in double-quick time for Temporary Stedelijk, the display being created in the AW Weissman building, the museum’s historic home whose refurbishment was complete by 2010. This was a happier chapter, involving a lower-case Univers system rooted in the ‘SM Style’, with everything overprinted with an abstracted, provisional ‘T’.

“Our design came from more of a need to ‘earth’ the museum,” say Mevis and van Deursen. “The idea was that, after this identity, anyone could start from scratch.” Last year, as construction of the extension dragged on, the duo was handed the opportunity to do just that.

Their new permanent logotype follows Stedelijk tradition in providing the museum with a strong typographic hallmark based on one or more initials. “We started with the full name – Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam – and tried to turn that into a sign. Of course we were aware of Wim Crouwel’s famous ‘SM’, the ‘SMCS’ of Experimental Jetset and the ‘T’ we had used for the Temporary Stedelijk.” The new mark is compact and distinct enough to be repeated at supergraphic level, in and outside the building, but also instantly recognisable in the corners of posters and websites.

The font used in the logotype and all text is Union, designed by Amsterdam-based Radim Peško – a fusion of Helvetica and Arial (“intended for situations where Helvetica seems too sophisticated and Arial too vulgar, or vice versa”, says Peško), and as neutral a font as it is possible to imagine.

Proposals for signage using the new system

Its lack of charisma runs the risk of making the museum seem devoid of personality or standpoint, too; the almost exclusive use of upper case in the new identity – a very non-Stedelijk move – comes across as an attempt to up the volume of an empty voice. To Mevis and van Deursen, who had found using all lower case for Temporary Stedelijk to be “confusing, inconsistent and unworkable”, the all caps approach “looked good and we liked the reference to simple default lettering you can find in early conceptual art. Not too fussy and refined, just straightforward (even a bit childlike).”

Website proposal

Font aside, there’s a modern, radical edge to the way the elements are applied; the plainness of the font and the simple framing system deployed in the new communications are clearly intended to give primacy to the art. The draft designs for posters and website have a loose, naïve feel that suggest a fresh, invigorated, exciting force in the display of contemporary art.

The Stedelijk’s new identity has some big shoes to fill. Like the extension, it represents a clear formal break with the past, and a radical affirmation of its Modernist principles. All eyes will be on how it unveils itself in advance of the museum’s re-opening on September 22.

Michael Evamy is the author of Logo, published by Laurence King. evamy.co.uk


Michael Evamy writes a monthly column on logo design for CR. Usually his column is only available online for subscribers but we have opened it to the general readership this time in order to demonstrate the kind of longer-form content available to subscribers. If you would like to read articles like this every month, details on how to subscribe to CR are here (subscribers also get access to all magazine content online) and to the iPad App (where the feature also appears, but with additional content) here.

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