Ootje Oxenaar and a golden age of Dutch design

Under Ootje Oxenaar, the Dutch post office commissioned work of lasting worth, but the values he held dear have now fallen victim to commercial reality

There can be few Dutch designers whose work has touched more lives than that of RDE ‘Ootje’ Oxenaar. In 1964 Oxenaar won a competition to design the five guilder banknote for the Dutch Central Bank and was subsequently asked to extend his approach to the remaining denominations. His much-loved, striking designs stayed in circulation until 1988, when a new series designed by Jaap Drupsteen was launched, itself replaced by the introduction of the Euro in 2002.

But as well as the nation’s currency, Oxenaar was also responsible for the design of another staple of Dutch life: stamps. For almost 25 years, from 1970 until his retirement in 1994, Oxenaar was deputy and later head of the Dienst Esthetische Vormgeving (Department of Aesthetic Develop­ment) of the Dutch Postal and Tele­communications Service (PTT).

Designer and commissioner

Under Oxenaar’s direction, the PTT grew to become one of the major public commissioners of graphic design, working with many of the great fine artists and designers of the day and helping to establish Dutch design’s global reputation for excellence. But the Department of Aesthetic Development did not long survive without Oxenaar. In 2002 it was abolished more or less by the stroke of a pen. The decision not only had consequences for individual designers, suddenly cut off from one of the most influential commissioners in the Netherlands, but it also dealt a serious blow to an internationally acclaimed, vital design culture and infrastructure that had been built up over the years.

The Department’s abolition was a function of a modernisation process in which the PTT was gradually being transformed from a state enterprise with public tasks and responsibilities, into a profit-making organisation that was registered on the stock exchange. Economic pragmatism, backed up by PR and a new management ideology, was to prevail over the general cultural interest at the PTT – a policy that contributed to the erosion of the conditions in which Dutch design was able to make headway. So almost ten years after its demise, it is perhaps time to scrutinise the role and agenda of the Department anew, including that of Oxenaar himself.

Oxenaar was originally an artist. He trained at the Art Academy in The Hague, an institution that also provided its students with considerable applied baggage, introducing them to illustration, calligraphy, typography and book design. So perhaps it is not surprising that Oxenaar took up the pursuit of design, but he did so while staying true to the artist’s utopian mentality.

In the 1960s, Oxenaar established his reputation as a designer with two prestigious commissions: a postage stamp to mark the 150th anniversary of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, a project that suited Oxenaar the monarchist to a tee; and the banknote series. These two commissions earned Oxenaar not only an appreciable income but also cultural credit and he now became a member of the prestigious Association of Practitioners of Applied Arts (GKf).
Oxenaar had been working for the PTT on various graphics and interiors projects as a freelancer since 1963. In 1970 came his appointment as deputy head of the Department of Aesthetic Development, and in 1976 he became its head. Under Oxenaar, the group of aesthetic advisors that he inherited from his predecessor, art historian Hein van Haaren, grew to become an elite corps of specialised consultants that sought to guarantee professional judgement and good taste in every field of visual cultural production. Oxenaar’s intent was to create the maximum scope for the public and cultural agenda of the PTT, for the department and for the artists and designers committed to it. And, out of enlightened self-interest, for himself at the same time.

Oxenaar’s older brother Ruut, appointed in 1963 as director of the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, the number one museum for modern and contemporary art in the Netherlands, introduced his younger brother to many leading artists and designers. Supplemented by his own connections, Oxenaar was able to draw on a pool of enormously talented contributors to work on PTT projects.

But perhaps more important than his relationship with the design profession was the one that he enjoyed with the Dutch court, especially with Queen Beatrix. From the early 1980s, Oxenaar was effectively the Queen’s personal adviser in the field of good taste in art and design. The prestige that he derived from this relationship cannot be overestimated. Outside the PTT it served him in numerous cultural circles, but it also strengthened his position inside the organisation. With his royal connections, Oxenaar could sidestep bureaucratic decision-making procedures and hierarchical structures within the enterprise, even at the highest level.

Once Oxenaar had left the PTT in 1994, time ran out for the Department of Aesthetic Development. But this was less as a direct result of his departure and more because the department had become redundant in a society in which economic capital gradually came to prevail almost completely over what sociologists term symbolic capital [that which accrues via prestige or recognition].

Oxenaar himself had seen the clouds gathering some years before. In his first departmental annual report in the early 1980s he warned that its “cultural responsibility may be regarded as less important” as a result of “the growing commercialisation of the PTT”. The pressure on representative cultural productions (ie postage stamps, annual reports, desk diaries) grew as the PTT began to favour instrumental communication such as marketing and promotional material.

A humanist tradition

The experience of the PTT was reflected in wider Dutch society. The graphic design that had grown to become such a flourishing form of cultural production in the Netherlands in the 50 years after the Second World War (partly thanks to the existence of a strong design culture and infrastructure that institutions like the PTT had helped to build up), was coming under increasing pressure. Oxenaar’s long career mirrors the history of Dutch graphic design – an extremely important, high quality creative industry in which the intellectual, artistic or idealistic agenda has, in the last 30 years, suffered progressive erosion.

For my part, the book Ootje Oxenaar: Designer + Commissioner (010 Publishers) is an attempt to honour the humanist tradition of Dutch graphic design that Oxenaar always warmly advocated: the result of an intensive cooperation between author, designer, printer and publisher in the service of the public. 

Els Kuijpers teaches the history and theory of graphic design at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague and exhibition design at Artez: Institute of the Arts in Zwolle. She is the author of Ootje Oxenaar: Designer + Commissioner, published by 010; €29.50. See 010.nl.

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