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Room: The Written Keystones

4. Design as Art: restoring contact between art and the public

Théo Miller, The Witten Keystones (spread 4), offset, 210 mm x 297 mm, 2020.

Typographic masonry is an art, applied in everyday life. Likewise its practitioners should not hide in their studios but be able to assert themselves in public spaces. Approaching the typographic mason as an integral part of societies is crucial for The Written Keystones.

Bruno Munari (1907-1998), hailed by Picasso as the ‘Leonardo of our times’, was an industrial and graphic designer, author, inventor and poet. He started out as an artist, however, and was originally a member of the Futurist movement. He soon disassociated himself from several of their radical positions and threw himself into concrete and kinetic art. Over time, he became increasingly disillusioned with art as a practice that existed separately from day-to-day life.

From 1962 on, Munari wrote a regular column for the Milanese daily Il Giorno. His columns have been collected in the book ‘Design as Art’, published in 1966. In it, he writes that “(…) today it has become necessary to demolish the myth of the 'star' artist who only produces masterpieces for a small group of ultra-intelligent people. (…) the artist must step down from his pedestal and be prepared to make a sign for a butcher's shop (if he knows how to do it).”

Munari writes that the contemporary designer can repair the connection between art and the public. He believes that art should not be separated from life in any way: “If what we use every day is made with art, and not thrown together by chance or caprice, then we shall have nothing to hide.”

While Bruno Munari was sharing his thoughts with Il Giorno, Wim Crouwel explained the principles of his stamp designs to Dutch television viewers (3) and graphic designer Willem Sandberg staged striking new exhibitions as the director of Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum. Designers and their expertise were active in the heart of society, making their mark on the visual exponents of social democracy. Based on the ideal of social engineering, well-designed products were seen as beneficial to society at large and as an expression of the wish to build an egalitarian society. In the Netherlands, this philosophy was not only adopted by the government and state-owned enterprises, but also by private companies like Philips and Bruynzeel. These clients saw designers as their equals and their collaborations resulted in an honest form of co-authorship.

Who today is able to restore contact between art and daily life? Where in the media and museums can we still hear the designer’s voice? While relations have dramatically altered in our times – and are less than ideal – through the Palace of Typographic Masonry, I hope to keep the public informed about the enigmatic phenomenon called graphic design. As palace custodian, I have written four open ‘Letters to the Minister’ from the ‘Secretary’s Office’, in which I remember the profession’s free, shaping and innovative status in the public space of the 1960s and ’70s, during which it entered into dialogue with citizens in the public arena. This is in stark contrast with the illustrative role graphic design plays in today’s neoliberal society – a role that is operationally ‘managed’, in an attempt to gloss over every possible complexity.