A look at the Dutch graphic design museum

The Dutch have clocked another world first – a museum devoted solely to graphic design. Michael Johnson wonders at their seemingly disproportionate impact on the profession and asks what it would take for London to follow suit

The Dutch have clocked another world first – a museum devoted solely to graphic design. Michael Johnson wonders at their seemingly disproportionate impact on the profession and asks what it would take for London to follow suit

Most people when quizzed about the Dutch will reel off clichés about clogs, cheese, carrots and/or the colour orange and easily available drugs. Soccer-jocks will eulogise about ‘that volley’ by Marco Van Basten, or more recently Wesley Sneider.

But mention The Netherlands to graphic designers and they go a little dewy-eyed. They’ll know that a tiny nation, with about 5 per cent of the population of the US, has had an entirely disproportionate influence on their business.

From Piet Zwart and Willem Sandberg to Ootje Oxenaar and Wim Crouwel, from Kessels Kramer and Irma Boom to Experimental Jetset and Mevis en Van Deursen – that’s nearly 100 years of groundbreaking design in one sentence. Their émigrés, such as Rudy Vanderlans, pushed pixel-based design under the noses of American designers and Gert Dumbar’s two stints at the Royal College of Art have influenced generations here.

Most of us are guilty of simply piecing together transatlantic design trends, with the occasional nod to Japan, but forget the Dutch and you miss a significant part of the jigsaw. Spend any time in Amsterdam and you’ll admire one of the few city identities that actually works (courtesy of Thonik) and you’ll visit one of the world’s finest design bookshops (Nijhof and Lee).

Much has been made of the relationship of Dutch designers with their clients – someone to collaborate with them in their search for new ideas, not someone to tell them what to do when and which colour to use. Many London consultancies do Government work of a dubious, committee-crushed standard, but the Dutch government’s sponsorship and encouragement of their designers is legendary. Max Bruinsma once saw this as a ‘combination of analytical professionalism and artistic freedom, that has led to a nickname for Dutch graphic design – “official anarchy”.’

Not content with their position of ‘most admired official anarchists’, the Dutch have pulled another fast one on us by opening a Museum of Graphic Design. The little town of Breda, previously known for a castle, a church and the birthplace of Elvis Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, rolled out the PMS 485 carpet for Queen Beatrix on 11 June. The museum says its mission ‘is to gather, manage and maintain information and knowledge about the history of the graphic design profession. This knowledge will be passed on, in an accessible and comprehensible way, to the young, to young adults, to the general public interested in culture and to professionals’. So there.

‘The world’s first museum of graphic design’ has a great ring to it. I’d love the world’s second to open in London, but that would take some doing, persuading and financing. After all, London has its Design Museum, and the Victoria & Albert Museum bills itself as ‘the world’s greatest museum of art and design’.

We all know, of course, that graphic design is just a constituent part of these institutions, not the lead story. Yes, the Design Museum has featured exhibitions by Alan Fletcher and Jonathan Barnbrook over the past few years, but under its new regime you suspect a move back to edges, form and 3D.

The only recent significant UK exhibition of graphics was Rick Poynor’s Communicate at the Barbican, in 2004. Rewind, at the V&A (2002/03), was by definition a cross-disciplinary show, and before that you have to go back to The Power of the Poster in 1998. One of my greatest revelations, while assisting with the curation of the latter, was touring the V&A’s vast and very private poster archive. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrecs, Alfons Muchas, Adolphe Mouron Cassandres – they’re all there, some the size of a wall, most never to be seen. Every year or two I strike up an informal conversation with the museum about ‘finding a gallery for all those posters’. The response is always the same/ ‘Have you got the £1m to pay for it?’ Er, not currently, no.

But is London that badly off? US designers were recently debating on Design Observer the Art Institute of Chicago’s Graphic Thought Facility show. Alice Twemlow’s view that the institute chose ‘the equivalent of an indie movie’ whose ‘distinctly unostentatious work is relatively unknown in the US design community’ is revealing, as is Michael Bierut’s comment that he would ‘love to see a graphic design blockbuster… at a US museum sometime in my lifetime, but I’m not holding my breath’.

Tokyo, of course, has long been the leader of the pack, with two galleries dedicated to the graphic arts – the GGG and the Creation Gallery G8 – in Ginza. But these feature temporary exhibitions only, not permanent. So the Dutch have even stolen a march on the Japanese.

Perhaps Breda, located in the south of the country, is a bit of an obscure location? But if the French town of Chaumont can ring-fence the art of poster design for its annual festival, then Breda could well become the museological epicentre of graphic design, just by being first. l

The Graphic Design Museum in Breda opened to the public on 11 June. See www.graphicdesignmuseum.com

Michael Johnson is design director of Johnson Banks

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