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Room: The Playground of the In-Between

Conversations of Julius Vermeulen, Els Kuijpers, Richard Niessen

Conversations of Julius Vermeulen, Els Kuijpers, Richard Niessen, The Palace of Typographic Masonry - a guided tour, 210 x 297 mm (364 pages), 2018

Behind this curious system of partially intersecting panels and open spaces lies The Playground of the In-between: a salon-like environment residingin the depths of this palatial department. Find a spot somewhere in this room where a conversation ensues between the palatial initiator and graphic designer Richard Niessen, art- and design historian Els Kuijpers, and former advisor of the PTT/KPN's Aesthetic Design department and gallery owner Julius Vermeulen. It will likely be a somewhat meandering exchange that continues to touch on the main subject asking how we can allow the freedom that graphic design needs to expand and assert itself through all it has to offer in todays world.

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Richard: We’re in The Playground of the In-Between, which focuses on the concept of the encounter. I’m fascinated by the idea that encounters can evoke an ambiguous, dynamic in-between space, like the environments Aldo van Eyck gave shape to in his architecture. How does such a practice come into existence? What is required for it? What does this have to do with your ideas about the profession? The decision to embark on the Palace of Typographic Masonry project was actually triggered by the observation that while we see a wide range of graphic and other design, there seems to be less and less scope in our society and the market to exploit its potential – both in cultural and intellectual terms. In fact, our discipline can potentially get people involved in issues of public interest.

After WWII, Aldo van Eyck designed hundreds of playgounds in the city of Amsterdam.

Els: If I understand correctly, by ‘practice’ you mean communicative practice: design’s role in the public sphere; as a part of public life – one of the factors that shape our democratic society…

Richard: Yes, but actually my main point is that this role should be an integral part of the profession. So that it can also inform clients’ deliberations. How do you incorporate this role – and how do you maintain it? How can designers perpetuate it? Our society needs to appreciate design’s ability to get people involved in public issues, by challenging them and stimulating them to think for themselves. Instead of what we tend to see: a reconfirmation of lifestyle clichés and existing relations.

Els: It may be a good idea to distinguish between the notion of public in the sense of ‘the public’ as concrete addressees and recipients of messages; and in the sense of the ‘public sphere’ as a democratic space for the free exchange of information and opinions. These are different aspects of communication – although of course, they are also related.

Designers who, like you, claim to work towards designs that generate value, need to reflect on the nature of this value. To this end, they have to focus on developing and deploying concrete visual means of communication that ensure the design works as intended.

In this process, it remains important to recognise the design’s social context: to assign meaning to the social, economic, technological and media-related circumstances under which you’re making your work.

The economic principle plays a very dominant role in our times: virtually every relationship is defined in economic terms. Including many forms of communication. The question remains how you can create space for this kind of thing under these conditions.

Julius: Hmm… isn’t it sooner a case of individuals all having their own mental environment? And that something interesting can happen when their worlds intersect? Or nothing could happen of course. But I understand your point. The playing field for designers can be too limited – because not that much is allowed or because you’re oppressed. But occasionally there simply isn’t that much room to move due to a lack of talent at that particular point in time: no one’s questioning the rules.

Els: Yes, that’s true. And it remains to be seen how you can create room for yourself under specific conditions. Graphic designers have always had to deal with this issue – even in the early 20th century, when graphic design was developing into an autonomous discipline. At that point, a lot of people working in the arts – including designers – saw that the world around them was changing – indeed, needed to change. In response, they went in search of new structures; a new formal and visual language that related to these developments. That’s different to merely serving a market. Of course you can become very successful in that field too, by communicating efficiently and to the point. At the same time, you know – if only from personal experience – that communication involves so much more. If you want to do something with this, you need to pose a different question. Or rather you need to rethink your assignment.

This reminds me of the writer and literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky and his circle. They were doing something like this in the Russia of the 1910s – a society that had ground to a halt. Their ideas and discoveries are still a source of inspiration. Later on, in the 1920s, this approach engendered propaganda: the instrumental use of information to promote the Party’s revolutionary struggle. But that’s a whole other story.

Victor Shklovsky, Theory of Prose, 1917

Julius: Well, isn’t everything that’s printed propaganda for something? Whether it’s a political idea, a charity, some detergent or a specific position on art.

Richard: Yes, designers tend to focus on the most persuasive message. Or the most effective design. You want your work to have impact. But I’m personally interested in something else: the idea that designers could see themselves as the people who discover and disseminate a new visual language. A language that deals with the way we live now, with what’s going on in society. This could stimulate and help people to discuss these developments and clearly communicate their personal experiences and ideas. It’s a bit like building a public square for the mind with letters, images, forms and colours, encouraging people to discuss issues that are important to them. You need poetry for that kind of thing; ambiguity.

Els: A lot of designers see their profession in a different light. It depends on their mind-set. There’s always this question that each designer has to answer for himself: What’s my position – in other words, how will I be approaching this project? And, following from this: Which mechanism should the message use? Based on functional aspects, for example? Or consumption, or otherwise dynamic production? The character of the communication may vary depending on your answers. Maybe this comes close to what Richard’s driving at: what he refers to as poetry and ambiguity. I agree, provided we realise – and this is the crux of the matter – that one poem is different from the next. The poems of Neruda and Cavafy – to name two examples – are completely different in nature. There’s a world of difference between the two, because the poets are striving for very different things.

So yes, I definitely understand the quest for a new language for a new era. But always with the knowledge that it will be a temporary, provisional language – of necessity incomplete. Because circumstances are always changing. Any time someone claims to have arrived at an all-encompassing formula – a miracle solution – it’s basically a recipe for disaster.

Julius: It’s about how you address your society as a designer. Do you adopt a commanding, overbearing tone – similar to what Jan van Toorn and various other engaged designers do. Or is it more of a playful attempt to create a feeling of uncompromised freedom, the way you see in Jan Bons’s work. His entire oeuvre is an expression of universal freedom.

Richard: They’re simply two different approaches to showing your involvement from a sense of enthusiasm and conviction. But I’m not particularly interested in being engaged for the sake of it. For me, the important thing is that a design both raises questions and has a poetic side. That as the viewer, you are forced to form your own opinion. Design should inspire fundamental questions and explore things that seemed self-evident. Last year, I saw a poster made for Stedelijk Museum and one made for Lancôme, and they were virtually identical. They followed the same strategy. That sort of thing amazes me: surely that can’t be right.

Els: Throughout history, independent concepts – including cultural ideas – have always been applied and subsequently adapted so that they find broader acceptance in society. The activity that used to be called graphic design, and which is now an industry in its own right – a creative industry – uses its visual products for a wide range of purposes. But where can we find these designs that search for this new language and structure?

Julius: It’s different nowadays. Perhaps designers no longer have the freedom to really distinguish themselves. The freedom you used to have at PTT – you don’t see that anymore. The Albert Heijn supermarket chain even stopped working with KesselsKramer. Everything is motivated by fear and defined by commercial interests: there’s no room for experimentation. Where does this come from?

Els: Well, a lot of people have written about this development, and quite a few designers – including Richard – have spoken up about it. Which makes sense considering what a critical mind-set many designers have. But if you’re looking for examples, like this Shklovsky we talked about earlier, then you need to realise that they actually did this mountain of work during a period when their society had more or less ground to a halt. The entire social structure was ossified and directionless. In many cases, what Shklovsky and the Russian Formalists were doing – but also the Russian Futurists and Constructivists – was quite different to what their Western colleagues were interested in. They sought to renew perception. And how this new mentality speaks to the viewer through form. Right now, many people once again feel we’re going through in a period of stagnation. There’s a sense of the world having come to a standstill – that it’s time for change.

Julius: If you’re wondering how something like this can be brought back to life, you should also consider why it isn’t the subject of broader discussion. Do we really want this? Hasn’t the world of design become a very individualistic field? As well as timid. In the 1960s, life’s flower unfolded after a period of dreariness and hard work. There was a spirit of togetherness: Kralingen, Woodstock, Isle of Wight. You could see people liberating themselves in all sorts of areas, venturing down new roads. That’s gone now.

Els: Well, I’m afraid that due to Americanisation, this period also saw a spread of individualism and identity politics throughout Europe. Gradually, the reasoning behind the social democratic approach became less self-evident. You could see the close bond between design and the public sphere being loosened to a considerable degree.

Julius: Sometimes, this relationship is also dependent on chance circumstances or individual contributions. Take Van Royen at the PTT. The company didn’t have any kind of top-down doctrine: it was simply a case of have a specific climate where one unique person – an enlightened individual, who furthermore had a close relationship with the members of the Board – wielded considerable influence. Van Royen understood that the graphic industry was going through a very exciting period. And he knew a great deal about art and poetry. Plus he was tuned into the spirit of the times. He went for innovation, which didn’t go down well with everyone. It was typical of the times – there were other companies, political parties and trade unions that had become aware of the possibilities offered by a strong visual language.

Jean François van Royen (1878-1942)

Els: You should definitely see in the context of its time. After all, you’re always a member of a specific society, including the specific circumstances that come with it. Van Royen’s example shows that if you want something, if you have something to say, you need to determine which freedom you have – or will be able to create – within society to realise it. It’s designing as a kind of strategic activity. I’m interested in finding out which ideas are at play. And how do they pan out? If we stick to Richard’s architectural metaphor and take Berlage’s architecture from the 1910s, for example, it paints a pretty clear picture: on the one hand, this rationalistic architecture presents a new formal alternative to the then-current Art Nouveau style; on the other hand, its mechanism is entirely classical: harmonious proportions, calm, equilibrium.

Which point is the designer trying to raise through his work? Even Jan Bons, who mostly talked about the free expression of individuality, chose elements with a public effect. Handwriting for a poster advertising a Greek tragedy, for example. Handwriting is a very loaded form of typography: it feels as if someone is speaking to you personally, addressing your relation to the themes of the play.

Richard: The point is that there doesn’t appear to be any room left for that sort of thing nowadays. Even public institutions like museums and schools seem to be taking their cue from the private sector. I’m once again reminded of Thatcher’s statement “There is no alternative”. And it’s almost as if she’s been proven right: no one seems to be interested in change – most clients can’t even imagine what it looks like.

Julius: Perhaps the times we’re living in are marked by a fear for the new and unknown. Nowadays, even when you’re designing for Stedelijk Museum, you’re subordinated to a marketing department. Which in the case of the Stedelijk is headed by a former employee of Albert Heijn.

Els: Lately I’ve been reading Democratic Enlightenment, the third part of Jonathan Israel’s trilogy about the Radical Enlightenment. What I find so inspiring about Israel’s take on this period is that he shows that all these radical and innovative ideas didn’t come out of a collective movement, but were developed by individual thinkers who worked separately from one another and often in peripheral settings across Europe. This development cut straight through classes, professions, regions and states. The key discoveries and breakthroughs weren’t made by members of the so-called elite or within their knowledge institutes. Rather they developed in the wild, so to say, and were sooner incidental than institutional. Hearing you talk about this development, Richard, my first thought is: Yes, that sums up the situation pretty well. But then I wonder whether your approach couldn’t actually be one of those ‘incidental’ developments I was referring to.

Jonathan I. Israel, Democratic Enlightment, 2011

Julius: Sorry, I’m late for another appointment. But I’d like to say one more thing before I go. For a while, I thought graphic design had played out. Due to the commercialisation of all cultural institutions, impoverished education, the neglect of arts and culture – contempt even. But lately, I feel that graphic design could actually see a revival. Because it’s all about activating people’s mental attitude.

Sorry – have to be off!

Richard: Say that we need designers to develop a new language to convey new forms of perception, you also need room for this development. Where can we find space that can serve as a kind of public square? Without a stage to perform on, bands pine away in their rehearsal spaces.

Els: I think you can secure a share of this room yourself in relation to your assignments. Each time round, the opportunity to gain freedom of movement can present itself in a different guise. I agree that many organisations no longer have people who are competent to commission a good design. But the designer’s mission to reformulate – to create a link with the renewal of the viewer’s perception and of the public debate – remains unaltered. Although it’s true that nowadays designers have very little room to play around in. But just talking about it won’t help much. Many designers – many of ‘my’ students – have no trouble analysing their intentions and personal engagement: there’s a flourishing discourse, but this criticism isn’t given any further shape. It remains generalised and abstract rather than specific and concrete. Only rarely do they wonder which form should be associated with their professed positions. Which images, shapes and structures present this opportunity for dialogue and exchange, for public involvement? What do I make in this context? Concepts win out over visual devices: analyses are no longer interpreted in visual terms. This reduces the political scope to politically charged subjects, to semantics; rather than translating it into visual language, syntax. That’s why I believe the contemporary design practice is often such a descriptive and moralising affair. Why isn’t the act of creation and imagination used to express these ideas, which are often imaginative and critical in their own right? That’s what the avant-gardes fought for so passionately from the early 20th century on: this connection between imagination, and the power of imagination, and the representation of a different world. They used their imagination to explore which opportunities there were to visualise this relationship within a given social configuration. By the way: digital technology is hardly making things easier nowadays. There’s this mass of disengaged information going around online. This leeches much of the complexity and ambiguity out of human communication, so that we end up with increasingly efficient streams of bite-sized digital information that has been made fit for immediate consumption. Our sensory experience is pushed further and further into the background.

Richard: I agree. In fact, this entire Palace stems from a refusal to simply resign myself to this trend: to the impression that no one was doing anything with the possibilities offered by design that I used to see as a student. Be it the clients; Stedelijk Museum; the theorists. So I thought: Why don’t we have an Institute for Graphic Design? Or a Palace of Typographic Masonry, to give it a more poetic name. We shouldn’t let ourselves be marginalised even further, but fight back – and we can use this joint structure to make our case. I decided I could just as well start thinking it out and realising it – in exhibitions and a book – in the hope that other people would join in. It’s precisely this call on people to use their imagination.

Els: One reason to work in education – I teach theory – is that students often still have such an open mind that they pose very fundamental questions about the profession in relation to the world. Issues that I have also struggled with – or still struggle with. We may articulate them differently but basically they’re the same questions. What do you want to achieve in this profession; what are your options; what do you think of its public role; how can you develop it? These basic questions never change. What we need now is designers making us proposals that we can relate to. Something that provokes me to take a position of my own. There’s no point in cultivating a universal, almost wilfully vague humanist idealism. That won’t help anyone. Which means we need to stop this endless inventorying and reflecting. I like to be confronted by a specific, perhaps even provocative statement or proposal that is intended to renew its cultural environment according to the best traditions of investigative journalism – visual or otherwise. This tendency to contextualise for the sake of it – as an intellectual, descriptive discipline – is the bane of art education. It leads to formalism: ultimately, it doesn’t really address anything because thought remains separated from action: insights don’t have any impact on the form. What I’d like to see, for example, is that young designers learn to look from a contemporary perspective at examples from history – after all, we are left nowhere in these times without a memory. And that they draw inspiration from what they see and use it to shake things up in the here and now. This really needs to happen. I recently read an insightful essay with my students written by Umberto Eco in the early 1990s. It discusses what he calls Ur-Fascism: in other words, not the historical fascism of days gone by, but the fascism that can rear its head at any time under specific circumstances. It hardly makes for cosy reading. But the fact that a text like this is making the rounds again speaks volumes.

In short: time to get busy.