Jurriaan Schrofer: Pioneer and more

An exhaustive study of the “multi-active” Dutch designer Jurriaan Schrofer goes to new levels of biographical detail

Jurriaan Schrofer was a new name to many English-speaking designers when Unit Editions published Jurriaan Schrofer: Restless Typographer in early 2013. As its title suggests, the volume focused on the Dutch graphic designer’s typographic output. A nicely presented survey, it appealed to designers who relish optical distortion in lettering with a strong period (especially 1970s) flavour, but it aimed to spotlight only one side of Schrofer’s story, and not necessarily the most interesting part.

Restless Typographer was effectively a taster for this full-scale monograph by the same author, Dutch design historian Frederike Huygen. The breadth of Schrofer’s assignments and the complexity of gauging his achievement can be seen in this book’s unwieldy title: Jurriaan Schrofer: Graphic Designer, Pioneer of Photo Books, Art Director, Teacher, Art Manager, Environmental Artist, 1926-1990. Schrofer was all of these things and Huygen has responded with a study, based on her doctoral research at the University of Amsterdam, which may be the most exhaustive investigation of a graphic designer published in English to date. She had access to 270 boxes of material in Schrofer’s archive and conducted dozens of interviews with people who knew and worked with him. Her reading and bibliography – always a key indicator – are exceptionally wide-ranging and thorough.

Schrofer’s immense versatility and restlessness presents Huygen with some challenges in composing her narrative. “Was there any hat he did not wear?” she wonders. His interests and initiatives were so varied that the chapters devoted to different phases of his career could be episodes from several people’s life stories; a career summary that did him full justice would occupy my entire review.

After working as an assistant to Dick Elffers, Schrofer took a job as graphic designer at the printer Meijer’s. In the mid- to late 1950s, operating as a conceptual and artistic director, he created groundbreaking photobooks for Dutch companies. Vuur aan zee (Fire by the Sea, 1958) for the iron and steel business Hoogovens, featuring work by several photographers, expresses the drama of industrial production with images of great dynamism and poetry. Although books like this were intended to be publicity material, they allowed contributors a lot of freedom and largely concealed what Huygen calls their “propagandistic character”.

By the 1960s, Schrofer had changed direction. For 11 years, he worked as art director at the NPO advertising agency in The Hague. Later, he joined Total Design as a director. Throughout these years, he was a board member for the designers’ association GKf, board member of the Federation of Artists’ Associations, and founder and president of GVN, the graphic designers’ association. He taught graphic design at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy and from 1979 to 1984 was a controversial director of the Academy of Fine Arts in Arnhem.

As a designer, Schrofer’s output lacked a signature style. Unlike so many Dutch colleagues, he designed few posters. He opposed modernist uniformity – one way, perhaps, of setting himself apart from Wim Crouwel – and his brochures and annual reports are all different. “He rejected the idea that a designer working for different clients on diverse assignments should strive for stylistic unity,” writes Huygen. Her frank assessments of his character are some of the sharpest insights into a designer’s motivations I have seen in a design monograph. Schrofer was analytical, articulate and creative, a theoretically inclined intellectual who wrote about the emerging discipline, promoted debate and took pride in his ability to persuade others. He had a hefty ego and was ambitious and dominant. He craved influence, loved to formulate plans and to “embark on new adventures”, though he could be shy and reticent. This manager with a bohemian streak could also sometimes be authoritarian, lacking in humour, rude, moody and undisciplined. It’s even more unusual to find a designer’s love life up for consideration in a monograph. Schrofer, we learn, was a womaniser.

At such moments of revelation, I began to wonder what the book would be like if Huygen had shed the academic trappings of her PhD thesis for a fully biographical style. 2 3 Alan Fletcher once told me that a detailed biography about a graphic designer would be a non-starter since no one would be interested. I have always doubted that; it just needs the right subject handled with total conviction. Where does Schrofer’s main interest lie today for non-Dutch viewers and readers? In my view, the most exciting work is in the photobooks. His place in cultural history is assured by his design for the 1956 classic Love on the Left Bank photographed by Ed van der Elsken. The Dutch Photobook, published in 2012, documents nine of Schrofer’s projects. Others might rate the later typographic experiments more highly. The advertising work seems unremarkable to me.

Huygen’s diligent attention to context sometimes gets in the way. There are pages of historical digression where Schrofer is crowded off his own stage. (The discursiveness has its rewards, though. Huygen quotes at length a priceless attack on graphic designers from a 1960 Dutch newspaper: “They know only one emotion: the ecstasy of their own graphic ‘play’.”) In translation, sections of the book are very dry and the flatness of style isn’t aided by the use of Radim Peško’s F-Grotesk for the parsimoniously leaded text. Such a bold, passionate man deserves more vitality and warmth. I wish I could say that Jaap van Triest and Karel Martens have equalled the consummately modulated layouts they crafted for the famous Wim Crouwel – Mode en module monograph, co-written by Huygen, and still not translated into English. The Schrofer pages are more pedestrian and lack typographic colour.

In the end, Huygen’s argument for Schrofer’s significance has to be that as a force he succeeded in encompassing so many areas, often moving on restlessly when others might have consolidated their gains. For Huygen, he was “heterogeneous, multi-active and interdisciplinary” and, above all, a superb intermediary and strategist. Is that legacy tangible enough to win him a place in the contemporary pantheon alongside designers still revered for oeuvres we pore over and admire? In a monograph that should be seen as a landmark of graphic design scholarship, Huygen gives us 400 packed and painstaking pages to weigh up the evidence.

Rick Poynor blogs at Design Observer, observatory.designobserver.com/rickpoynor. Jurriaan Schrofer: Graphic Designer, Pioneer of Photo Books, Art Director, Teacher, Art Manager, Environmental Artist, 1926-1990 by Frederike Huygen is published by Valiz; €39. valiz.nl

More from CR

An interview with hat-trick

As well as offering a detailed look at the studio’s recent work, hat-trick’s latest book – 240pp of thoughts – also features an interview with founders Jim Sutherland and Gareth Howat. Writer Nick Asbury asks the questions – and gets some interesting answers. The full Q&A is republished here

Peer into Printemps prism window

A new video installation for the window of Parisian department store Printemps Du Louvre from creative consultancy Big Active, creates a moving kaleidoscope of archival imagery in the shop window.

Character Building: my introduction to signpainting

Most people can recognise a piece of signpainting, writes Karina Monger, but how many of us really understand the work that goes into making this unique form of communication? Last weekend I attended a hand lettering workshop to find out

Spotlight on Oscar

In a new identity system by 180LA, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences puts its prime asset centre stage

Graphic Designer

Fushi Wellbeing

Creative Designer

Monddi Design Agency