Many people believe that the Supreme Being (God) created the World and the Universe. We cannot proof that, but even the most religious creatures cannot deny that, when it comes to Holland (the Netherlands), God stopped to finish the job. There were some major Middle-European rivers that ended in a delta where we now find the North Sea. There was mud, there were swamps and men had to finish the work by themselves to turn that into land on which you can live. The Dutch designed their land. They had to invent dikes, canals and polders before they could keep their feet dry.
So Design is a true Dutch activity – otherwise there were simply no Dutch. It is a small country and nevertheless it once was a real world power, sailing all seas and building their capital on trade. It was at the same time also a great country of the world’s most famous painters and scientists, map-makers and book printers.
Now let’s look at graphic design. It didn’t really exist in the 17th century, Holland’s Golden Age. Yes, there were excellent cartographers and type cutters such as Johan Enschede and Plantijn. But graphic design is so much more. At the beginning of the 20th century architects designed books, calendars, even postage stamps, letterheads and such, as they also drew interiors, furniture and lamps. Some of these architects began to spend more and more time on graphic and product design. Holland had it’s own kind of constructivists Gerrit Rietveld and Bart van der Leck, who – back in 1917 – formed with others the De Stijl group. A more romantic counterpart was the Amsterdam School: once more with architects in command Wijdeveld.
A real breakthrough came with Piet Zwart, Paul Schuitema and Gerrit Kiljan. Although also with a background in architecture, they pioneered in graphic design, choosing for sans-serif typefaces, often with diagonal lines, playing with type material, a-symmetric layouts. Like Al Lissitzky they
worked with their own photography (and photograms), mainly because the professional photographers of the time didn’t make the kind of images they wanted. Theirs are the world’s first postage stamps with photomontages.
The 30’s were mainly the period during which the future Dutch graphic heroes went to Bauhaus-related academies. During the war years 40-45 several Dutch designers worked for the Resistance, forging documents, stamps and food-coupons (Dick Elffers, Otto Treumann, Jan Bons a. o.). Printer/artist/designer Hendrik Werkman was executed by the Germans only few days before the liberation in May ’45.
During WW2 a group of designers had prepared the structure for the post-war professional organization. Willem Sandberg, who became the director of the famous Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum of modern art, was one of them. The policy of his museum was an effective stimulus for the then still small group of graphic designers in the early years after the war. The organization, called GKf, developed over the years to its present unique format: BNO is now representing a broad field of design disciplines with numerous members. BNO is active in seminars, permanent education, exhibitions and publications. Within Icograda and AGI the Dutch played a strong stimulating role.
The professionalization of graphic design went quite fast. The old craft got rapidly ‘wings’.