On the face of it, the Willem Sandberg retrospective at the De La Warr Pavilion is a straightforward celebration of the remarkable Dutch designer’s place in graphic design history. This extensive and engagingly curated exhibition is a rare treat for designers and demands a trip to the modernist art palace on the seafront in Bexhill. But the show, created by Carolien Glazenburg with the assistance of Fraser Muggeridge, also has an implicit message – call it a case of teaching by example – that could not be timelier when institutional branding holds sway in our major museums and galleries, and graphic communication is allotted a strictly circumscribed role. The longer this unimaginative state of affairs goes on, the more lacklustre design seems like the way it has to be, rather than a marketing-led imposition that may be self-defeating in the long run.
Sandberg’s extraordinary career as both director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam for 18 years and its designer-in-chief offers a vision of another way of framing the relationship between the museum and visual communication. There is a tendency in design to think of Sandberg as foremost a designer, since he produced a body of work on a par with other Dutch design masters, from Piet Zwart to Wim Crouwel (who followed him as the Stedelijk’s designer). This is the wrong way round. Sandberg’s greatest achievement was the creation and stewardship of the Stedelijk as a new kind of contemporary art museum, which placed the accent firmly on ‘contemporary’ and did everything within its power to reach out to a wide public. “I am actually a fierce enemy of the high-brow,” he said, looking back on his career.
Sandberg had no formal training as a designer. In his mid-20s, he learned typesetting during six weeks at a printer. He studied Otto Neurath’s pictorial statistics and worked for various government institutions. By the late 1930s, he was designing catalogues and posters for the Stedelijk, where he held a position as curator and assistant director. He met the artist/designer/printer HN Werkman, a crucial influence on his design, and during the war, while in hiding due to his activities in the resistance, he produced an enchanting series of manuscripts titled ‘experimenta typographica’. Here we see the emergence of the designer we know. He was by then in his late 40s.
In 1945, after the war, Sandberg was appointed director. He understood intuitively that design must be central. “Everything that was issued by the museum, even a catalogue, must have the same character, normal and vigorous,” he recalled. This unity of spirit came mainly from his own hand, although he did employ other graphic designers. Somehow, despite all the calls on his time, he squeezed in this second role, sketching ideas in meetings and designing on Sundays and during the night; a single catalogue could take from 50 to a 100 hours to finesse. Working for clients he had always felt constrained. Now, as his own client, he was free to experiment and do exactly what he wanted and it liberated him.
At the De La Warr Pavilion, a great run of posters occupies the longest wall and the cumulative impression is delightful. Sandberg developed a freewheeling graphic manner that is uniquely his own, somewhere between modernism and what came to be called postmodernism. With his characteristic lack of pretension, he described his approach as “cheerful simplicity”. Sometimes he included pictures, as in a Henry Moore poster where the same image of a sculpture is shown in black, red and blue, but mainly he worked typographically. He favoured large b poster types and had a taste for Egyptians and their slab serifs, and he mixed them together confidently in vibrant, asymmetrical arrangements that have the rhythm and fluency of visual music. In a poster announcing the last chance to see various exhibitions, the composition’s feeling of loose integration comes from the interrelationship of four colours against a plain yellow background and each line of type – Van Gogh, Miro, Rembrandt – becomes a graphic motif to be savoured. His style is warm, non-dogmatic, life (and art) affirming and open to improvisational possibility.
The ultimate expression of this informality, and virtually a signature for Sandberg, are his torn letters and shapes, seen in his catalogues – the exhibition has many – and on the masterly cover of Open oog (Open eye) magazine, designed in 1946. These devices, fashioned with absolute control of delicate materials, look as fresh as ever and stand today as a vital reminder that emotionally affecting graphic design doesn’t automatically require expensive technology or elaborately programmed effects. “I don’t like luxury in typography,” Sandberg writes – using handwriting – in ‘warm printing’ (1969). “I prefer the rough in contour and surface, torn forms and wrapping paper.” He often used wrapping paper as a contrasting stock for his text pages. He described himself as an “anti-perfectionist” and was always prepared to recycle old papers and to discover the most economical printing solutions. This restraint extended to his lifestyle. He would sometimes fast to bring body and soul back into balance and despite his social position he strove to live simply.
Like many 20th-century idealists in the visual arts from the Bauhaus to Bruno Munari, Sandberg believed that art should be integrated into everyday life. Were that to happen some day, institutions such as the Stedelijk, spaces for art as a segregated activity, would no longer be needed. By integrating his ideals in both life and work, Sandberg succeeded in designing visual communications that still connect with viewers through their aesthetic quality, lightness of touch and humanity.
Sandberg’s call for the museum’s output to have a consistent character sounds like what we would today term branding, except that it comes from a different motivation. Despite branding’s claims to do otherwise, it attempts to impose an artificially conceived and restrictive image on its clients. Sandberg’s richly varied work, which needed no fixed ‘identity’ to establish its origin or purpose, couldn’t be more different. Although it’s unlikely to happen again in a major national institution, his sometimes controversial joint role as director and designer arose from total conviction and expressed both personal and institutional values in an organic and believable manner. The challenge for art institutions is to find a way of utilising graphic expression with the same authenticity. This is only likely to come about where there is a close relationship between museum and designers and a deeply shared commitment to whatever the museum seeks to achieve.
Lead image: Pieter Brattinga’s portrait of Willem Sandberg at his desk at the Stedelijk Museum (c.1960) on display at the De La Warr Pavilion’s new exhibition on the Dutch designer’s work. The other wall shows text from ‘warm printing’, a 1969 article Sandberg wrote for Print magazine on the essence of his typographical ideas. Photography by Nigel Green
Willem Sandberg – From Type to Image is at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill, until Sept 4. dlwp.com
Rick Poynor writes a weekly column about photography at designobserver.com/profile/rickpoynor/81
This article was published in the June 2016 issue of Creative Review.