Come in, don’t be shy – could one of you close the door over there? We don’t want any distractions: this place deserves our full attention. First of all, a warm welcome to the Palace of Typographic Masonry. Your architect is Richard Niessen. But he’d like to make clear from the start that he isn’t looking to be the centre of attention. This Palace is about the profession, its history, its famous forebears and fundamental principles. And, above all, about the community of confreres, connoisseurs and enthusiasts. Right now we’re standing in The Masonic Lobby, where I’ll be telling you a bit about the building and what you can expect to find behind its doors. Everything you see here in the Lobby represents one of the departments of the Palace. There are nine departments in all, and the logic behind the whole place will become clear as we progress with the tour. In fact, anyone who appreciates the building blocks displayed in this hall has already started looking with the eyes of a Typographic Mason.
Like any trade, that of the Typographic Mason starts with a sense of wonder and heightened interest in something. In this case, mankind’s wondrous ability to build shared imaginary spaces using only signs and symbols. Once you’ve been initiated into this profession, you’ll discover that you never stop learning new things; that it has a seemingly inexhaustible past and offers unlimited freedom. You can safely call it the miracle of unfettered, disinterested attention – as volatile as it is powerful. Some of you are able to muster a huge amount of attention in an instant; others maybe less so. But regardless of how strong your capacity for concentration is, I’d now like to ask you to draw on it. Because it’s basically a precondition for a pleasant and productive stay in the Palace: a bit like tuning your radio to the right frequency.
Come a little closer. Take a look at this stone. You can see a number of glyphs scratched onto its surface. This example comes from a corner of the Palace called The Labyrinth of Scripts, where it can be found in the Department of Sign. These markings are in an ancient alphabet called Tifinagh. This script developed in the 3rd century BCE in a part of present-day Morocco. The indigenous population of this region, the Amazigh, used it to write words in their language. They used Tifinagh on rock faces and buildings, clothing and weapons. It’s a vowel-less alphabet, which you can write in whichever direction you like: from left to right or the other way round; downwards or upwards. After the Arab conquest of North Africa in the 7th century CE, indigenous languages were oppressed and the script fell into disuse. It was rediscovered and revitalised in the 20th century during the cultural emancipation of the local ethnic groups. They recognised it as a proud medium for their indigenous languages. Today Tifinagh is once again a living language, used for posters, websites and books.
Looking at it a bit longer, you start to understand why this is the first item you run into when you enter the Palace of Typographic Masonry. Tifinagh doesn’t immediately remind you of the Greeks and Romans, Ancient Egypt or the Far East. It’s an alien, self-contained alphabet. It allows you to move without further distractions or obstacles to script’s primeval origins – the bedrock of everything that is showcased here. The making of signs: human beings’ urge to carve, paint, write and print symbols and letters – so that they can store and transfer their language and thoughts, their words and ideas.
It’s a wondrous invention, all things considered – and in the beginning it must have seemed nothing short of magical. Who doesn’t remember as a small child feeling an eager, inchoate fascination for letters and writing hands? The warm light that popped on in your head when you finally grasped the idea behind it all: from sounds to letters; and from words to sentences. You were initiated into a club – the society of literate people – and overnight you became a relentless reader of millions of labels, magazines, books. From now on, you carried a cypher inside your head that could turn sight into understanding, and that could extract all imaginable knowledge, stories, fantasies and theories from combinations of 26 black squiggles. As a reader, a new and astonishing dimension of the world opened up to you – one which had already existed for thousands of years and was virtually inexhaustible.
Another thing that becomes clear from the story of Tifinagh is how closely the histories of the information that is recorded and of the communities that use these scripts are interwoven. Although they never completely overlap. The Amazigh’s fortunes – their dependence on the Phoenicians, domination by the Romans, submission to the Arabs and colonisation by the French – gave birth to Tifinagh. But for centuries, they also caused the alphabet to be nothing but a collection of dead letters.
Although eventually, Tifinagh resurfaced as a powerful instrument for the Amazigh, which they could use to promote ethnic pride, emancipate their people and claim the right to speak their own language, study their history and embrace their music and customs. Any group that has its own alphabet – its own system to order, present, save, expand and spread words and ideas – has a powerful collective entity at its disposal that can absorb its experiences and customs.
Standing here in the Masonic Lobby, the next image is a fairly straightforward example what we can expect to find in the Tracing Board Treasury. It’s part of a collection stored in the Department of Symbol. An isolated hand clasping a chisel symbolises how the stonemason’s craft can turn a piece of rough quarrystone into a perfect building block: right-angled, smooth and uniform. You could say this image is an emblem. A symbolic representation, evoking an entire virtue with a single image – you could even call it a moral concept in its own right. Symbolic images of this kind have adorned the Lodges of Masonic brotherhoods for centuries. They represent the candidate’s gradual initiation into the organisation, from Apprentice to Fellow to Master Mason, via symbols based on the tools of practising stonemasons. Examples include the compass, square, hammer, chisel and trowel. These images are painted on canvases and panels and often include the gate of the temple of Solomon, stairways and halls full of geometrical figures.
What is conveyed by this image? The geometrically perfect building block is an ancient symbol. It marries two distinct concepts. The forecourt of the Temple of Apollo bore an inscription: ‘Know Thyself’. This image symbolises our fundamental obligation to pursue an upstanding life. It represents a tireless, selfless devotion to perfecting one’s craft – and as such, perfecting oneself as a moral being.
The second concept actually expands on the first: any individual who works to perfect his own conduct may see himself and his actions as building blocks for a better world. The act of building shouldn’t be seen as a metaphor for individual activities; it is undertaken by a group or community of fellows – similar to how this Palace is being erected by a professional fraternity of Typographic Masons. The temple serves both as a metaphor for higher knowledge and as a symbol for a concerted effort. The dressed quarrystone refers to the Grand Lodge. Among the Freemasons, the moral improvement of the individual and of the community are two sides of the same coin.
I’m seeing a few raised eyebrows. What does this reference to an ancient and mysterious brotherhood of – often well-heeled and well-educated – fellows have to do with Typographic Masonry? Well… more than most of you would think, probably. The layout of this Palace and your passage through it are actually modelled after an initiation ceremony. Similar to how the apprentice and the journeyman, in full awareness of their ignorance, are officially admitted into the guild, where they go on to learn all the knowledge, skills and wisdom associated with the trade, step by step. That’s the position and mind-set that the architect of the Palace of Typographic Masonry has envisioned for its visitors. For no other reason than that is also how he sees himself, in his chosen profession: as an inquisitive, dedicated pupil, filled with respect for his masters.
A ritual is a succession of activities that, thanks to their sequence and form, emphatically separate the performer from day-to-day life. They are intended to effect an invisible change within the participants. In this case, invisible should be understood as imaginary – in other words, relating to the imagination: our ability to experience facts and sensory information, interpret them, connect and share them. The Palace’s architect wants to coax you into opening your mind for his particular conception of the design profession, which he has named Typographic Masonry. And that’s why his layout for the Palace resembles that of a ritual environment that initiates visitors into its mysteries. Nothing captures and focuses people’s attention as effectively as the prospect of learning a series of secrets, acquiring valuable knowledge, experiencing arcane wisdom, tasting unknown pleasures. Yes indeed: you will be initiated into a world view that promises all of this and much more. Allow your interest to be sparked; savour the feeling of deferred gratification and a yearning for revelation. Don’t be afraid to join in – you’re an apprentice in the guild of Typographic Masonry.
Here’s an item from the third department of the Palace, which is devoted to Ornament. It’s an example from Von Wersin's Kitchen. Von Wersin was a German who made a handy little reference book with a wide range of different ornaments, grouped into families and types. A bit like Linnaeus’s system for classifying plants. Why ‘Kitchen’, you ask? Well, you could say ornaments are the herbs and spices of the typographic universe.
And to underline ornamentation’s ancient and archetypical power, this room also contains painted clay mosaics from Uruk, a city that experienced its golden age some 4,000 years before our own era. In evolutionary terms, humanoids seem to possess two traits that clearly set them apart from other species: the tendency to explore the world around them by travelling large distances on foot, and a strong urge to decorate things – with beads, inscriptions, feathers, flowers, shiny pebbles. The designs decorating these ancient Sumerian columns resemble the very oldest patterns made by man: those found on dyed reed baskets. Which reminds me of another characteristic of this Palace: it also offers a dizzying array of sensual pleasures: patterns, contrasts, elegant lines, optical illusions and dazzling spectacle. Ornamentation is a powerful instrument for exciting and directing people’s desire and interest. An enchanting element – a form of visual magic – that comes into play whenever something is designed. Far from being a side issue, ornamentation is actually a powerful and indispensable ingredient.
Has everyone had a sip of water and a mint? Great, then we can get started on the second series. This presents examples of connections you can make with the basic elements from the first series. Yes, we’re kicking it up a notch.
Look: here’s a cheerful yet profound throwback to the base of all human structures: a box of unit blocks. This item is kept in the Palace’s big storage room for unit blocks: the Building Sets Storage. Which, of course, can be found in the Department of Construction. The man responsible for this particular item, Friedrich Fröbel, was convinced of a divine order in nature. He developed a play-based approach to education for children under six and designed the accompanying box of ‘gifts’. Eyes and hands, playing and discovering: Fröbel believed this was how we gain an understanding of space, interrelationships and the basic principles of structure. You could say that this set of blocks marks precisely where design and architecture touch on children’s uninhibited perceptions and poetic experience. That’s why Richard Niessen decided to put this early 19th-century invention on a pedestal, here in the museum lobby. You’ll soon be roaming through the Museum’s corridors, chancing upon sophisticated showpieces of design that are heavy with references to architecture and lofty ideals. When you do, keep this image in the back of your mind – of a toddler’s receptive, still malleable cognition and perception. Everything starts with the recognition of patterns in a jumble of blocks, letters, images.
After establishing the basic principles that underlie the structure of graphic design, we can move on to the second step in the deployment of its base elements: distinguishing which patterns can be used to evoke and convey meaning. Patterns like these actually visualise the fundamental connection between form and substance. Examples include the structure of a sonnet, a drawing’s composition or the alternation of voices in a fugue. A similar connection is found in graphic design, and is treated in further detail in the Palace’s Department of Poetics. One of the rooms in this department is devoted to the instrument of the grid – or rather of the array of grids and lines used by typographic masons. This takes us to The Gridded Section in the Palace. A splendid example of a grid design that is as versatile as it is simple is the Plaque Découpée Universelle, patented by the American Joseph D. David in 1876. It can be used as a stencil to marshal a variety of lines, symbols and letters. You could call it a drawing machine without any moving parts. In its brash simplicity, it evokes the youthful ambition that infused early modern design: a desire to shape the appearance of all printed matter with the aid of carefully selected angles and uniform curvatures.
More than anything, this universal stencil and other items in The Gridded Section lead to a realisation that all these templates and restrictions, rules and laws don’t produce dull results – on the contrary! A mere 26 letters and some 20,000 words can yield an infinite variety of literature, and you can see something similar in Typographic Masonry. In language, the rules of syntax and grammar, metre and rhyme – as well as the deeper-lying patterns hidden in stories and lines of reasoning – seem independent forces that engender boundless variety. Likewise, in Typographic Masonry the friction between the grid and meanings seems to generate a mass of poetic energy. Yes, Ladies and Gentlemen, this ingenious stencil reminds us that the Typographic Masonry that your architect wants to celebrate through this monumental building is not only a useful invention that aims to please and amaze. It is also a medium that connects dimensions and forms to meaning. The process isn’t without its uncertainties, ambiguities, friction and irony. But that’s exactly what gives life to any attempt at poetic effect.
The next item in the lobby comes from the Palace’s Department of Play – the Game Board Corridor, to be precise. Does anyone have an idea of what we’re looking at? Yes, you’re right: it’s a game. In fact, it’s one of the oldest ever found. It’s from the city of Ur and was made in Sumerian times, some 2,600 years before the start of our own era. Hopscotch? Yes, it does resemble it a bit. In the early 20th century, archaeologists found examples of this game in the tombs of high-ranking and powerful Sumerians. It probably played some role or other in their conception of the afterlife. The archaeologists called it the Game of Kings and believed its rules are a variant of backgammon, or tables, which people to this day use to while away the hours.
What makes games so irresistible? The idea of getting together and demarcating a separate space, subject to different rules to those found in the rest of the world. And the sense that your movements within this space have symbolic meaning and can be either advantageous or disadvantageous. And with games, you can always start over – something that isn’t possible in other areas of life. Every time you play, it’s a different game: you never know what to expect and there seem to be an infinite number of variations. You can be someone else to who you are outside the game. What’s more, games choreograph time and space. They offer peace and certainty, because everyone knows exactly what is and isn’t allowed. Games are parallel universes that exist in the midst of our daily lives.
Otters and dolphins, chimpanzees and ravens play too. But among human beings, the concept has taken on epidemic, insanely complex forms. From innocent board games to the horrific, real-life re-enactments of battles and massacres in the circuses of Rome. Indeed, as Johan Huizinga suggested, human culture itself – from the most primitive to the most sophisticated examples – is a deadly serious form of play: with rules and rituals, rewards and penalties, symbols and forms of victory and defeat. And those engaging in Typographic Masonry are also playing a game. With their clients, predecessors, colleagues and audience. And the whole objective is to get other people involved. And sometimes, you can do this by presenting the audience with a puzzle. They’re forced to guess which rules may apply – as is the case with this ancient Sumerian board game. Which has a delicious feel of masonry to it, by the way… you could pop it straight onto a poster.
Look at this weird object. This image was conceived by the 17th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler. Kepler’s discoveries suggested a cosmology in which the orbital paths of the Sun and planets are governed by geometrical patterns nested within five so-called Platonic solids. The interrelationships of Earth and Mars, Jupiter and Mars, etc. were symbolically frozen in crystalline stereometric figures. Why is this allegorical model representing the essence of our Universe exhibited here, in the Palace lobby? It can be found in the Department of Order, in one of The Cosmographic Chambers. Sure, you can smirk about this image, which seems very old-fashioned in its hubristic desire to capture the ultimate nature of reality in a single geometric structure. But when you’re designing posters, catalogues, stamps and magazines, you actually can’t avoid expressing various basic convictions about beauty, mankind and society. Even when these perspectives are only implicit and involuntary. Typographic Masons express all sorts of cosmological concepts through their work – whether they want to or not. That’s why the Palace includes this department. And that’s why this extraordinary example from our past has been set up in the lobby. It’s a kind of infographic – one that focuses on a way of thinking and living. A means to communicate the gravity and value of a specific form of cognition and observation. The design of a world view.
This image by Johannes Kepler also marks an interesting watershed in history: between alchemy and science. In Kepler’s work, the material, factual world and fantastic and the sublime are still in balance. Typographic Masonry isn’t hard science. To this day, the craft has a whiff of alchemy about it. It continues to involve aspects that elude our full comprehension. And as the designer tries this and that, he or she always hopes that these experiments will produce something magical; some little wonder – the philosopher’s stone.
There’s a collective and idealistic side to the design profession. A cornerstone for the craft’s aesthetic and functional considerations. This involves a way of thinking, experiencing and observing things: an entire culture that forms a foundation for the overall design of a temple or cathedral. This world view serves as a source for the arrangement of space, for aesthetics, for technical showpieces, ornamentation. As a 21st-century designer, why would you walk away from all the potential found in this discipline?
For centuries, people have been depicting the imaginary spaces in which they live together: in buildings, on walls, in documents and books. In their ideas and feelings. Public space exists first and foremost in the minds of individuals. Whether they’re drawing up a plan for a town square, a school or a monument or writing the Great American Novel. In other words, there is an ancient and exquisite connection between the depiction of ideas and social relationships and how people interact and communicate via signs, symbols, streets, interiors and works of art.
And of course, the present-day and historical Craft of graphic design also deserves its own Department. Graphic designers have taken and continue to take an endless variety of approaches when it comes to shaping and presenting words and images – to entertain, instruct, incite, inspire, inform and so on. This is also where you will find The Pavilions of Honour.
The magazines I’m holding here actually come from this corner of the building. They’re the issues of the magazine Wendingen devoted to Frank Lloyd Wright. Why? Because Hendrik Wijdeveld, the man who launched this multidisciplinary periodical from the 1920s – and also served as its editor-in-chief – is closely associated with the phrase Typographic Masonry. Wijdeveld was a visionary architect, a designer of furniture, useful items and graphic work. Like its contemporary De Stijl, Wendingen formed a focal point for new ideas about design, art, architecture and society. Wijdeveld was the driving force behind this enterprise and made an indelible mark on the publication with his distinctive style of design. The term ‘Typographic Masonry’ was used by Wijdeveld’s confreres to describe his approach to graphic design. Filling spaces with lines and blocks, he seemed to view paper itself as an architectural space. Using simple lines and ornaments, he transformed the magazine pages into the rooms of an imaginary building. There’s a clear connection with the mystery and symbolism of masonry. The Pavilions of Honour shouldn’t be seen as icing on the cake, but as an integral part of the profession. Time and again, Typographic Masons return to the achievements of predecessors and visionaries to once again reflect on them. It isn’t just the future that holds infinite possibilities in store. So does the past – and maybe even more so.
The final glimpse of what lies behind this lobby is a scale model of Aldo van Eijck’s Sonsbeek Pavilion. The Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck (1918-1999) designed it in 1966 for an international sculpture exhibition at Sonsbeek Park in Arnhem. Despite only standing for one summer, this temporary structure has become a fixture of Dutch architectural history. A delicate and mysterious building. The model can be found in The Playground of the In-Between, in the Palace’s Department of Practice. But what is the Department of Practice actually? And what’s this model doing there? It’s simple enough. Anyone who understands which building blocks and basic techniques Typographic Masons work with and who is knowledgeable about the history of the discipline – and consequently the wealth of connections between ideas, imagination and design – only has two questions left to answer: “Do you want to practise this trade? And if so, how?” In other words, it boils down to what Typographic Masons make of their era and circumstances, their personal backgrounds and ideas. And which choices they make in their day-to-day work. A mix of economics, fashion, politics, aesthetics and personal narratives. That’s what the work of the Typographic Mason entails – and that’s where its clashes and conversations take place; its collaborations and confrontations.
The Palace’s architect, Richard Niessen, draws inspiration from the ideas of architect Aldo van Eijck about the genesis of designs. Van Eijck based his thought on the philosophy of Martin Buber, who describes encounters between individuals as the creation of a third space with its own dynamism and value. He sought to do justice to these intermediate environments in his designs. Van Eijck’s solutions are attuned to the mingling of worlds, functions and groups of people. His schools, orphanages, playgrounds and other buildings serve as meeting points for security and openness, order and freedom, individuals and groups, adults and children. This pavilion is an example of such an eminently communicative space. For Niessen, the model of Van Eijck’s pavilion serves as an emblem for the dialogue between client and designer, editor and Typographic Mason, colleagues and authors, scholars and curators – each of whom works to take maximum advantage of what graphic design has to offer.
The latter ambition is under some pressure nowadays. The Palace and (specifically) its Department of Practice are intended as a meeting place, an environment that sheds light on and provides a platform for new ways to stimulate critical imagination, for playful contributions to public life and for the uninhibited and disruptive experience of customs and stereotypes in our perception. That’s what The Playground of the In-Between – which is where we will be ending our tour – is all about.
Well, I hope you won’t be running off straight away. Why not wander through the lobby one last time? Take a moment to reflect on the nine objects and how they interrelate. The same rule applies here as anywhere else: the spirit of design lies hidden in the form and nature of the intermediate space; the dialogue between the items exhibited in this hall. Because the trade of the Typographic Mason works according to the same principles that shaped this Masonic Lobby and underlie the structure and layout of the entire Palace. Its elements are all pieces of a puzzle that fit together when the designer practises his or her trade – like cogs and wheels in an inquisitive, playful, form-generating machine. When he talks about Typographic Masonry, Richard Niessen approvingly quotes Johan Huizinga’s statement about games and play: “Into an imperfect world, into the confusion of life, it brings a temporary, a limited perfection.” But don’t let the name ‘palace’ fool you. This is not some sacred, immutable monument. Graphic design never stops changing. Its history is never fully known, its practice is always in flux. And so this palace remains forever under construction. Dialogue and play, experimentation and radical re-interpretation are the lifeblood of Typographic Masonry. And this Palace is dedicated to these activities.
I bet that has piqued your curiosity. So let’s take a short break. And after you’ve all been to the restroom and had another drink, how about we enter the Palace? It has cellars, attics, corridors and halls, which… No, this way: through the big blue door.