Palace of Typographic MasonryPALACE about
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Richard Niessen, Facing the Palace floorplan, Offset, printed by RaddraaierSSP, 13 x 21,5 cm (32 pp), 2020

Naturally, the Vestibule of Principle & Rationale is one of the receptional areas of this immense construction. Surrounded by the drawers and cabinets is the drawing table on which the Initiator is continuously reworking and extending this building’s floor-plan. Under the title ‘Facing the Palace floor plan’, you can read back detailed notes taken from a conversation that took place here between one of the palatial visitors and the Initiator (also known as the Designer). Without doubt it will offer insights on the structure and underpinning reasoning of The Palace of Typographic Masonry.

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It was still early in the morning when I stood at the door. I looked up and read the facade letters, "The Palace of Typographic Masonry." So it really existed, I had found it. In front of part of the exterior brick wall was a scaffolding structure of black and white striped poles: this building was clearly still undergoing a lot of work.

‘Welcome, come in!’

I had not yet knocked on the door or it was already swinging open. A man who presented himself as the Designer beckoned me inside. I shook his hand, introduced myself as well and stepped past him into the unfamiliar space. Soon I realized that this had to be The Vestibule of Principles & Rationale, the entrance hall of the building. From an image on Facebook, I recognized the colored box that contained the nine puzzle pieces that could be read as a summary of everything else that was supposed to be in this Palace. That had prompted me to sign up for the newsletter and I had been following the progress of construction ever since. I looked around and saw many more boxes piled up against which several framed posters were leaning. Drawers, tubes, and again black and white painted posts. In the center of the room was a large wooden drafting table. A sheet of tracing paper was stretched on the tilting top. Curious, I walked up to it.

'If you want to get acquainted with the structure and content of this building, this floor plan is an excellent tool,' said the Designer enthusiastically, 'as you can see I am still in the process of drawing, but I can show you from this floor plan what I have managed to realize so far and what goal I have in mind. That's what you've come for, right?’

I knew that The Palace of Typographic Masonry was intended to give place to the numerous aspects of the graphic design profession, but how and, more importantly, why did you embark on such a thing? Out of curiosity, I had made an appointment to visit the building. Looking at the floor plan, I immediately noticed that it did not have a unified design. I could recognize a temple in it, but also a labyrinth, a warehouse, a sitemap, a lettercase, a secret corridor system, a circuit board, an infinite library, a royal residence, a monument or ... yes, even an alphabet.

As if the Designer had read my mind he continued, ‘I will tell you that this structure is all of everything at once, but perhaps I should begin by telling you why I started it.’ He pointed to two chairs. 'Shall we sit down?’

'Almost twenty-five years ago I graduated as a graphic designer from the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. I was burning with desire to pursue this profession. I saw graphic design as a public activity that gave a culture its orientation and collective representation.'

This went way too fast for me as an outsider. I must have frowned, because the Designer paused for a moment.

'Wait, let me start differently. Perhaps we should first discuss the designer's playing field ... the public domain.'

The space accessible to all, I immediately complemented. The physical, social and mental place where public life took place, the terrain where people's interests and identities intersected.

'In it, the government acts as guardian of the public interest, in the form of organizations such as ministries, municipalities, executive departments and inspectorates including the tax authorities and the police. Citizens in turn enter the public domain individually or organized in interest groups, action groups or protest movements. In public space they all enter into conversation, citizens among themselves, governments with citizens and governments with each other.'

I understood that this is where graphic design came into the picture. All these institutions had to have a face, their voices a form, the conversation with their audiences was largely through texts and images.

'Public space in the physical sense also falls under the public domain, as do the institutions of culture and knowledge. Think of educational and research institutions, museums and other cultural organizations. In a healthy democracy, the shared values and interests in this public domain are determined in an open way. This happens in a ceaseless exchange of power and counter-power, of images and counter-images, of proposals and counter-proposals.'

Did he mean debates, information campaigns, demonstrations, pamphlets, representation on banknotes, stamps, memes, statues - which at some point were removed from their pedestals again, videos that went viral, posters - over which new posters were pasted, discussions in television programs?

'These are good examples, which immediately shows that we live in a world that is largely understood through image making. Values and interests are visually examined, implied or questioned by designers. Graphic designers play an important role in the visual language in the public domain. Through their work, they can spark discussion, convey complex information, make concerns and emotions visible and represent voices. Designs create meaning and identification and they represent social relationships. The profession is an important tool in the development of a collective visual memory.'

The Designer seemed to look at me for a moment to make sure I was still following him, but he did not wait for a sign of confirmation.

'During my training I fantasized about designing banknotes, stamps, stationeries, posters in the city, leaflets, tax forms, books, calendars and all the other forms with which everyone communicates visibly and tangibly in the public domain every day. It is a dream playground for the designer who wants to contribute to a vital and pluralistic society.'

I asked the Designer if graphic design was held in high regard in the Netherlands at the time of his graduation.

'It has of course always been a rather unknown profession, invisible “behind the message it carries itself” as Hugues Boekraad once described very nicely. Yet at that time, the largest client in the public sector, i.e. the government, was convinced that a community could benefit from good designs. This awareness therefore also permeated civil organizations that were active in public life, the so-called non-governmental and non-profit organizations: churches, trade unions, environmental movement and all kinds of social organizations.'

Had not the Designer now forgotten the market? Trade and activity, as the third part of “democratic triangle”?

'Indeed. Irreverently, graphic design in the private realm is mainly used for promotion and advertising, but there too the spark of social value struck. Although, of course, you could also say that a much-cited example, the world-famous SHV book designed by Irma Boom, ended up being nothing more than an eleven-centimeter thick, 2,136 unnumbered pages and costing 1.3 million euros advertising brochure.'

The so called Golden Age of Graphic Design in the Netherlands! I myself had still paid with the banknotes designed by Ootje Oxenaar. On the yellow fifty there was a sunflower, on the brown hundred a water bird with a long beak, and on a purple two hundred and fifty guilder bill there was a lighthouse: personal, poetic symbols that replaced the usual historicizing portraits. Who couldn't relate to that? And this was just one of countless examples of graphic design from the Dutch public domain, which not for nothing was regarded by the international design field as a "designer's paradise”.

'Design is always embedded in a local or national tradition and history. It plays a role in the public domain of common codes, where it can question established values. Therefore, there must be room for play, experimentation and free artistic expression.' It was clear that the Designer was now really getting into its stride. 'Graphic design takes place in the social interaction between commissioner, designer and user. I do not believe in the designer as a pure service provider, a design is at best the result of a conversation, where the designer brings in his or her analysis, form research, typographic knowledge and visual intelligence. It is an adventure with an unknown outcome. Would you like some coffee, perhaps?’

The Designer walked away and returned not much later with two steaming mugs in his hands. Unsolicited, I tilted the drawing board with the floor plan so he could put them on it.

'Thank you, where was I? Oh yes, a free and playful design process. That automatically results in a diversity of designed books, posters, exhibits, websites, signage, apps and fonts. A diversity to which users can relate. This game has come under increasing pressure.'

I asked the designer how he thought this had happened. He took a sip of his coffee and thought for a moment.

'As you know, over the past twenty-five years the boundary between the public and private domains has become blurred. The public sector has shriveled up, government has privatized, and the ideal of community has been exchanged for the utopia of the free market.'

My next question was whether that was a bad thing.

'In the ensuing market-based function, design becomes a marketing tool, something that has to be managed, kept in check. Graphic design in public space has now become a tool to maintain or even accelerate existing patterns. It is judged according to the quality criterion of "success in the marketplace”. Think of the visitor numbers! A designer who tries to embark on the adventure is quickly whistled back by his client: 'As a designer, you might like that, but our public wouldn't understand it.’'

This indeed sounded familiar to me; in the end, everything everywhere had to be clear and recognizable. The emphasis in all sectors had come to lie on a predictable result, the most important factors had become efficiency, control and measurability. It sounded like the dictatorship of the wind tunnel in which everything is streamlined.

'That's right. It leads to a paradox: despite all the market's emphasis on distinction and identity, there is a clear tendency toward uniformization and standarization. In other words, the diversity of visual culture is decreasing rather than increasing.'

That paradox reminded me of something I had just read in a book. From progressive thought, we had been taught that we had to get rid of our attachment to traditions and our fondness for the local. Globalization meant that we had to leave behind the provincial. As a result, we would register more varieties, take into account a greater number of cultures, phenomena, organisms and people. But it had brought about the exact opposite. One vision, limited to a few measuring instruments, standards and protocols, had imposed itself on everyone and spread everywhere. The result was that eventually no one could recognize or attach themselves.

'All communication in the public space now speaks to us in the same way, in one direction. Just look on the street, not only advertising, but also the posters of theaters and museums, they all use the same strategy. Consider the language used by the government. It lacks imagination and imagination. Look at our money, do you know the difference between a 5, 10 or 20 euro bill? Do you feel addressed by their symbolism? Think about how the most wonderful writing systems around the world are being supplanted by one and the same keyboard. Algorithms design the most optimal digital communication leading to robotic equality. When the ability to play is under pressure, and play is the opposite of efficiency, it inevitably leads to a monoculture.'

As I listened to the Designer, it occurred to me that not only is everything becoming similar, but poetry was being lost. Everything that could not be read clearly at once, that revealed itself layer by layer, only in the course of time: in the long run these things gave me much more satisfaction. I knew that obstacles stimulated creativity; resistance and obstinacy forced me to think, to become active, to engage. A certain amount of disruption could break my indifference and laziness. Conversely, I knew that once I got used to simple fare, it became increasingly difficult for me to make an effort to discover something new....

'As a designer, I have enormous difficulty with the constant curtailment of freedom of play in favor of efficiency and predictability. Not only is the outcome of this game shabby because it is so monotonous, there is a certain danger in it. When social communication is dictated by the same forms and strategies over and over again, it results in mental rigidity and all possible alternatives become out of the picture. We make ourselves vulnerable, imagination falters, and eventually many of us no longer recognize ourselves. A monoculture depletes the soil so you can no longer take root.’

The analogy to nature made me think of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. I told the Designer that on the island of Svalbard for conservation of crop diversity, people built a world seed bank. By now, about 1.5 million different seed samples are stored in this "Noah's Ark." The Designer perked up.

‘Exactly! So why not also a storage place for all those scripts, hand gestures, emblems, symbols, patterns and ornaments? For the countless ways of making compositions of them, reproducing them and transforming them into books, websites, maps, posters and rituals ? All the design tools used in the process, the grids, printing techniques, stencils, rulers and alternative programming languages? The countless cosmological models and alchemical systems? Why, in short, not an infinite edifice to collect all aspects of shaping human information, from all times and all places in the world?'

Aha, I understood; it was precisely this question that had spurred him to begin work on The Palace of Typographic Masonry. The Designer pointed to the floor plan.

‘This building is much more than a storehouse. All these rooms, halls, corridors, stairwells and galleries actively celebrate the richness of the craft. I engage colleagues to build collections, add to them, explore them in all their diversity and relate them to one another. The stories hidden in all those systems of writing and notation, inks and papers, color fans and computer programs, defeats and victories of our predecessors in the craft, canons of the profession and myriad conceptions of practice are stirred up and relayed here.’

He fell silent for a moment. Meanwhile, I tried to grasp his ambition; this was a life's work that took shape over many evening hours.

'I felt the need to start a structure to house all parts of the graphic design profession, but my mission meanwhile extends far beyond the walls of this building. In collaboration with specialists such as peers, theorists, spatial designers, publishers and printers, with The Palace of Typographic Masonry, I produce installations, posters, invitations, card sets, books and websites that make the collections public, interpret them or engage with them in the imagination. I send this representation of everything in here out into the world. This fortress is also a safe place from which I can give voice and defend the profession, as in my four Letters to the Minister.'

Those I had received. At a time when no institution still sent physical mail, a paper version of The Palace of Typographic Masonry had landed in my mailbox bit by bit.

'Look, it's largely honor-seeking, for sure. I'm looking for recognition for my craft. And maybe that's childishly naive! But I like to align myself with my great role model Hendrik Wijdeveld, who lived from 1885 to 1987. He was a designer, editor-in-chief, typographer, designer of books, theater sets and costumes, jewelry, toys, furniture, utensils ... he even designed bathing caps. The motto of this ambiguous fantasist was "Dream the impossible!” I mention Wijdeveld for a reason, of course: his unprecedentedly versatile work was mockingly referred to by his contemporaries as “typographic masonry”, one of the reasons for giving this building such a mysterious name.’

We both looked at the floor plan on the drawing board. Although from that you could tell that this structure grew organically like an Arab palace complex, there had to be an idea of arrangement behind it, right?

'I gave The Palace of Typographic Masonry its own specific arrangement from the beginning. The encyclopedic whole that you see before you here is in fact structured into nine sections, divided into three floors, within which I ultimately think I can give a place to the richness and variety of the profession. On the first floor you will find the Departments of Sign, Symbol and Ornament, on the second floor Construction, Poetics and Play and at the very top Order, Craft and Practice.'

Dizzy, I asked the Designer if he could explain it to me more clearly.

'Don't panic, at least now you know why I started it. All these departments and rooms will have their own explanations further on in the building. The connections between them will automatically become clear in the next room, The Masonic Lobby.'