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.
I interrupted the Designer’s carefully structured plea for a free and playful design process – and explanations of how in recent decades it had only been hemmed in further. I was surprised that the Netherlands didn’t have any institutions that focussed specifically on graphic design. Surely some organisation had to facilitate the development of insights into the profession’s form and substance, heritage and future? Didn’t the country have a single location that paid attention to the intrinsic value of the design process? Or that could serve as a platform for debate? After all, quite a lot was at stake – if we weren’t already too late as it is. Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, for instance – with its famous design collection?
He sighed. “The Stedelijk Museum has been pining after its golden age – under the directorship of graphic designer Willem Sandberg – for decades now. But its last serious survey of graphic design, ‘Niet mooi maar goed’ (‘Good rather than nice’) must have been 25 years ago. Since then, they’ve sporadically presented examples of graphic design, but these presentations have always been one-offs, and rather piecemeal. A particularly striking illustration of the Stedelijk’s relationship with design would be the goings-on surrounding the commission for the museum’s new house style. Then director Gijs van Tuyl decided that it had to be a shining example of public procurement: the Stedelijk was determined to set a new standard with its tender. However, things took a different turn: Van Tuyl was succeeded by Ann Goldstein, who dropped the winning proposal – by the French designer Pierre di Sciullo – without even bothering to substantiate her decision. Di Sciullo’s house style was never used. Film maker Lex Reitsma made a documentary about this affair, and it is painful to witness the shallowness and stunted vocabulary underlying the Stedelijk’s move.”
I had also seen Reitsma’s documentary. What was possibly even more unsettling, I added, was the deafening silence on the part of the design community. With such a lack of solidarity, the profession proved to be its own worst enemy. We both smiled grimly.
“Of course, with the recent appointment of a new curator for graphic design, the chances of the Stedelijk once again embracing and supporting our profession have improved…”
As welcome as that would be, we’ll have to wait and see. On top of which, the museum had been privatised in 2006 – meaning it hasn’t been a municipal department for some time now. I wondered: has the government ever invested in any other locations?
“It has,” answered the Designer, “but to no avail – and in some cases it has actually had the opposite effect. In 1993, for example, they ploughed considerable resources into the establishment of the Vormgevingsinstituut, which was intended to stimulate interest in design and stir up debate. It didn’t take long for this discussion to shift to the institute’s own role in all of this, and it closed a mere seven years later. Its successor was called Premsela. With a budget of millions, this institute was expected to give fresh impetus to the sector. It survived precisely ten years, from 2002 to 2012. But it has never become entirely clear to me what this foundation achieved exactly – or what it stood for, by the way. I know that there has been research into the economic importance of the so-called Creative Industry, and that people have questioned – possibly with good reason – the supposed heroic status awarded to some designers. Anyway… Premsela had its own exhibition venue, called Platform 21. It served as a breeding ground for an intended design museum in Amsterdam, which actually never made it past the planning stage. The curators at Platform 21 were mainly interested in shedding light on product design from a democratic perspective. This led to a very strong emphasis on ‘social design’. Which is fine of course. But it did mean that over the course of an entire decade, the institute only devoted a single exhibition to graphic design. And the irony is that this was a retrospective for graphic designer Reza Abedini – intended to underline his heroic status. And it had more than a whiff of a ‘contractual obligation’, by the way, because Abedini had recently been presented with a Prince Claus Award. Do you want me to continue?”
“It’s hardly uplifting though. In the end, Premsela and Platform 21 also got the chop, and the government continued on this path with something called Het Nieuwe Instituut. This has been around for eight or nine years now. Leaving aside the fact that Het Nieuwe Instituut positions itself as the ideal client for graphic designers – which we can hardly grumble about, of course – apparently graphic design itself can’t be fit into one of its adopted ‘lines of research’. The institute has embraced a philosophy within which it reflects on activities like gardening, the obsessive collecting of objects and the installation of full-scale pieces of scenery – in an attempt to ‘develop a clear focus on the design disciplines’. Which is not to say these matters lack interest – and they can occasionally lead to very inspiring findings! But it does mean that once again, we shouldn’t expect too much from this multidisciplinary institute.”
I sighed. Put this way, the events of recent decades seemed almost comical – if it wasn’t all so dreary.
“They also put a lot of energy into Graphic Design Museum Breda, which first opened in 2008. But within three years, it had already been rechristened Museum of the Image, and had expanded its focus to visual culture in general. This museum also closed after five years. Let me round off this overview with the University of Amsterdam’s ‘Special Collections’. While they primarily focussed on the printed heritage of books, they also managed to organise several interesting design exhibitions. Unfortunately, they were also forced to close up shop a few years ago, with nothing to replace them.”
I had to agree with the Designer: none of this sounded very encouraging. I realised that it had become unbearable for him to simply stand by watching his profession’s horizons steadily dwindle – while one big-budget institute after the other was set up and then torn down again.
“Fortunately, all the while, designers themselves also undertook initiatives to celebrate and nurture their profession. In Amsterdam, for example, in the early Noughties, you had dedicated evenings called Jack, and then the living room gallery Schrank8. And we still have the art book shop and presentation venue San Serriffe, the Monsterkamer, fanfare’s programme of events, exhibitions at ENTER ENTER, the platform for internet culture The Hmm, lectures at Letterspace.…”
The Designer seemed to cheer up as he went on.
“The profession has no lack of enthusiasm and energy, and through initiatives like these, graphic design continues to make itself heard – and to develop further. But with only a fraction of the manpower found at those big institutes, and with shoestring budgets, a lot of this amounts to preaching to the choir, unfortunately.”