Richard Niessen’s text ‘Facing the Palace floor plans’ was published in a 32-page supplement in September 2020. A number of notes could only be transcribed at a later date, and have now been issued as an addendum to this publication.
“What strikes you about these examples?”
I saw that they were all the same. The Designer was holding up a sheet of A4, printed with the logos of various museums – including the Stedelijk Museum, the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum – all in san-serif and capitals. He then showed me a second print – this time with the logos of various fashion brands, internet behemoths and banks. They looked exactly the same.
“As you can see, they’re crystal-clear, rock solid, completely unambiguous… what happened to things that are odd or irrational – that deviate from the norm? Or give rise to questions? Products of uncertainty, or heroic failures?”
I could hear a tram clanging its bell outside.
“This is basically window dressing: a front of efficiency. We don’t get to see anything that doesn’t fit in this picture; whatever lies behind the facade.”
But is there no way we can escape from this inexorable uniformity? Surely no one is even able to identify with this stuff anymore? We had already talked about institutes, professional associations… couldn’t degree programmes make a difference?
“Free market thinking and globalisation have also had a dramatic impact on art degree programmes in the Netherlands…”
The Designer laid the sheets of paper aside.
“Like other institutions, art schools have become a kind of in-school training companies, with a team of senior executives at the top and a constantly increasing workload for the remainder of staff. Meanwhile, teachers work on the basis of temporary contracts – or no contract at all.”
Things started going south from the start.
“These training companies operate in an increasingly globalised market. With their aura of openness, exchange students – it’s irrelevant whether they’re from South Korea or Brazil, Italy or Ukraine – enhance the school’s reputation. And they bring in extra money. By operating as ‘market players’, our art schools get to benefit in both financial and substantive terms from the internationalisation of the higher education sector.”
It’s somewhat ironic, I remarked, that even as our own society lost interest in the collective knowledge and expertise of its graphic design community, international students started travelling to the Netherlands to soak it all up.
“It definitely gets you thinking – that’s true. And vice versa, this creative ‘brain drain’ may actually prove disastrous for the ‘countries of origin’…”
I hadn’t thought of that. At any rate, it won’t hurt an even wider-ranging expansion of Western design principles, I added – although I wasn’t sure whether I was joking or not.
“Not only that: it also plays into the biggest fault line running through society today. Over the past few decades, our communities have split into two distinct sides. They’re the winners and losers in the globalisation game: the ‘anywheres’ and the ‘somewheres’.
I had heard it before. Society, under the sway of a merciless economic imperative, had become organised according to the narrative of the neoliberal meritocracy. Everyone is deemed personally responsible for his or her success or failure. Nevertheless, this model of competition is based on very unequal starting positions…
“You could define the ‘anywheres’ as a minority that together make up almost every elite in politics, journalism, business and the arts. They are proud of their tolerance, egalitarianism, self-sufficiency, openness to change and individualism. At the other end, you find a majority of ‘somewheres’. Their lives are rooted in local norms and customs, and they are more community-focussed, stable, patriotic and traditional.”
The Designer pushed back his chair and stood up. He started pacing the lobby, meanwhile picking up where he left off.
“I can see you thinking: ‘what has any of this have to do with our art schools?’ Well, in some departments – and specifically graphic design – the share of international students already stands at over 80 per cent. And it’s safe to assume that most of them come from highly educated families with a cosmopolitan world view. And although they grew up in completely different places around the planet, their cultural backgrounds overlap to a very large degree – meaning that in effect, they actually form a fairly homogenous group.”
He paused for a moment.
“Graphic designers will be drawn even less than before from the ‘somewheres’ in society. While this segment may well offer the most diversity of all, it is completely absent at our art schools. As a result, the lower classes have even less of an impact than they used to on our collective imagination.”
In the back of my mind, I tried to summarise his argument: we were not only moving towards a smaller playing field, but also one with marked access restrictions.
“The generation of designers that included the likes of butcher boy Anthon Beeke or the tailor’s son Jan van Toorn was able to shape society ‘from the bottom up’, with work that was informal, poetic or political. This led to a diverse cultural landscape in the public space. It gave some sense of control and influence, grip and trust.”
This spirit had definitely faded away over the past few decades. I could imagine that on the ‘somewheres’ side of the divide, our profession – if people were even aware of it – didn’t enjoy a particularly high status.
“With no guarantee of success working as an individual designer, the children of truck drivers, care providers, shop assistants or cleaners are unlikely to enrol in a graphic design degree programme. In his book Entreprecariat: Everyone Is an Entrepreneur. Nobody is Safe, author and designer Silvio Lorusso persuasively argues that the so-called ‘creative industry’ is kept going to a large extent by an ‘entreprecariat’. Lorusso coined this term – a portmanteau of ‘entrepreneur, ‘precarious’ and ‘proletariat’ to describe the enterprising and optimistic, but also relatively poor and insecure group of designers who often work for little or no money but hope to capitalise on their efforts at some point in the future.”
There’s no way the ‘somewheres’ can afford that kind of long-term investment.
“Exactly. And obviously, the ‘anywheres’ have a lot less trouble with that kind of thing. With their cultural capital and financial resources, the children of successful officials, academics, artists, doctors and judges are able to hang in there a lot longer.”
The Designer sat down again.
“There’s no lack of creativity, but this isn’t used for true emancipation. On the contrary: the ‘visual jargon’ only reinforces the divide: there’s no sector where class distinctions have proven more intractable than the arts. Access to one’s own group is regulated via subtle codes, which are understood within the walls of a museum or the exclusive design community, but which barely penetrate the public space.”
No, the general public was placated with ‘Typically Dutch’ stamp series, with pictures of HEMA sausages and the like! I understood that people weren’t really interested in bridging the gulf between the two groups. And the implied message of cultural superiority only reinforced the narrative of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.
“Designers put a lot of passion into work about themes like technology, the climate, privacy, inclusion and health. This creates an impression that they want to change the world – even when the result amounts to little more than a gesture across the divide: ‘look: we’re on the right side of history!’ It draws attention away from the fundamental question: Which class has ultimately benefited most from the exploitative systems that created this world they’re so excited about improving.”
That imagination was being organised top-down – and that this undermined people’s scope for real defiance, subversion or criticism – this we could agree about.
“What I hope to see is an all-out attack on today’s aestheticized social standard, with its clear, unyielding and unambiguous forms.” The Designer pointed to the A4 sheets with virtually identical logos lying on his drawing board. “This single-minded monoculture in the public space – what will it ultimately do to our collective memory?”
There seemed to be a glaring absence of an alternative. After all: utopias are fed by the powers of imagination – and for this, designers needed to be able to fearlessly stray off the beaten path.
“That’s why it’s encouraging that the Creative Industries Fund is trying to actively contribute to a more pluralistic landscape. The fund organises what it calls ‘scout nights’ for designers, researchers and creators who have built up a practice without having attended a design programme. A lot of the designers who take advantage of this come from a ‘somewheres’ background, where the option of enrolling in art school is by no means a given.”
I understood that this was intended to help them access the public domain, which in turn could lead to healthy diversity – and more scope for different audiences to identify with what was on display.
“Of course, our public institutions will also need to expand the playing field, let these designers in and give them the freedom to do their thing – not just within their own walls, but more than anything in the public space. As commissioning parties, public organisations need to step up to the plate and ditch this purely instrumental perspective, which has led to such a uniform facade. After all, quite a lot is at stake, I’d say!”