A Dutch controversy – Graphic design vs ‘reclame’


Throughout the 20th century, graphic design in the Netherlands has followed a two-track course: design and advertising were always two separate worlds. In an interview in this journal,¹ Will de l’Ecluse of UNA Amsterdam spoke of ‘a somewhat childish rivalry’ between the two communities, adding: ‘Four or five years ago, all of this was suddenly over. It seems we have finally grown up.’ It was more than just rivalry. For many decades, there was bitter hostility between Dutch admen and graphic designers. The 1940s – the years of the German occupation, and the immediate postwar years – were a particularly grim episode in the relationship between these two groups of professionals.

The controversy between the two groups had been signalled as early as 1917, when the Dutch arts-and-crafts society VANK held an exhibition titled ‘Art in Advertising’ (De kunst in de Reclame). The artist Albert Hahn Sr. wrote: ‘With the opening of [this] exhibition the fight has begun, or rather: it had already begun earlier, when the magazine De Bedrijfsreclame (Commercial Advertising) was first published...’ His colleague R.N. Roland Holst, a graphic artist who designed books as well as cultural posters, gave a lecture in which he stated: ‘A poster can fulfill two different requirements. It can be a simple announcement, and it can be a shout.’ Roland Holst evidently despised the shout; he also rejected the idea, held by Hahn and others, that advertising could play a social role as a source of information: ‘There is no question of telling the truth, only of enforcing a dubious version of the truth.’
While the collaboration between business and artists had been an uneasy coalition up to circa 1918, a truly professional advertising sector developed in the 1920s. Dutch admen capitalized on a new invention called marketing, which they imported directly from the United States – making transatlantic trips to research its daily practice. The rational approach suggested by ‘marketing methods’ made it easier for advertising agencies to be taken seriously by businessmen. At the same time, their products, as well as the artists that were hired to execute them, were held in contempt by designers who felt they were on the other side – the elite of idealist aesthetes who worked for literary publishers and cultural organisations.

Lust for life
There were others who had a more positive view of the phenomenon. In his Introduction to The Development of the Applied Arts (1923), the architect H.P. Berlage wrote: ‘Nobody can be annoyed by advertising which is artistically sound; moreover, it will also result in a stronger approval of what it is aimed to convey. If this direction is taken a step further, then the poster as well as the wooden fencing, which have both been given their own form of art, will eventually turn the whole street into an object of advertising in the good sense.’ In a 1923 issue of Wendingen, Jac. Jongert, a painter as well as a commercial artist, argued in favour of a more realistic collaboration between artists and businessmen: ‘The industrialist will have to have confidence in the artist, but the artist will have to appreciate the reasonableness of the constraints which life imposes on the industry.’ Jongert himself had extremely good relationships with the industry: one of his long-time clients was the Rotterdam coffee and tobacco factory Van Nelle, for whom he created packaging and showcards which formed an ever-evolving corporate identity. In 1927, Jongert wrote an enthusiastic song of praise to ‘reclame’: ‘Advertising gives us lust for life, it brings us the knowledge which can not be found in books. We must all be grateful to advertising: it gives an appearance of newness to the world and teaches us more graceful manners. This is how the word should be, desirous of all that makes life worth living. Life will now appear to our eyes in a splendid glow, which is created by the industry and promoted by advertising. There will be a wonderful unity of forms and colours. Before, advertising was the individual means for the manufacturer to promote his wares, now it will be an intense force in which individual desire unconsciously rises towards social beauty.’
As head of the decorative arts department of the Rotterdam Art Academy, Jongert had ushered in the future by appointing Piet Zwart as teacher (a job Zwart held from 1919 to 1933). Zwart had equally strong ideas about the necessity of a different, more socially responsible kind of advertising. He teamed up with Piet Schuitema and Gerard Kiljan to form a kind of avant-garde design troika. Independently from one another, the three men had developed ideas about form and function, which they now expressed in collective articles and exhibitions. Their view was influenced by Russian constructivists, and developed along lines that were similar to those of the Bauhaus. They strongly opposed ornaments and pretty pictures and advocated optimum rationality and functionality. In advertising, they preferred photography to illustration because of its ‘objectivity’. The functionalist graphic form they developed was part of the international tendency labelled ‘typo-photo’ by Moholy-Nagy.

The Maniacs
In 1930 Gerard Kiljan convinced the directors of the Academy of Arts in the Hague, where he had been a teacher for several years, to start a new department. He invited Paul Schuitema to join him as a teacher. The curriculum – which had a strong affinity to Bauhaus principles – was to include ‘grammar of form’, cultural studies, graphic and three-dimensional design; yet the name that Kiljan and Schuitema gave to the department was ‘Reclamevormgeving’, literally: form-giving (design) of advertising. This choice was a programme in itself: their objective was to reform a discipline which they felt had gone astray, and to give it back the idealism which they, like Jongert and Berlage, felt should be part and parcel of advertising.
Not only did Kiljan and Schuitema introduce a pioneering design programme, they also envisaged an unprecedented democratization of the education process. In a preparatory declaration drawn up in1929 with the students of the arts-and-crafts department, they wrote: ‘We will found an organisation, a working community. We will work in a way that will not be “schoolish”. The students must learn to work independently, organize and manage their own labour community, so that they will not be strangers to reality when, one day, they will suddenly face the real world. The teachers are the spectators, with the authority to intervene when the students are not capable of managing the community.’ To the press, these and similar statements were obvious indications that the winds of change at the Academy came from the extreme left: ‘These gentlemen are communists,’ wrote one daily paper. At the Academy, Schuitema and Kiljan were labelled ‘the maniacs’.
The social idealism of Kiljan and, more importantly, Schuitema (who, like Piet Zwart, was a member of the radical socialist organisation Links Richten, ‘Aim to the Left’) was in fact part of a tradition which can be traced back to the arts-and-crafts movement of the 1890s. Many of the country’s leading designers and architects – De Bazel and Lauweriks, Chris Lebeau, Sjoerd de Roos and others – had been inspired by socialism, which in some cases was mixed with anarchism and/or theosophy.
Apparently, Schuitema’s commitment to ‘collective objectivism’ did at times tend towards a dogmatic stance. The well-known graphic designer Jan Bons, who briefly attended classes with ‘the maniacs’ in the 1930s, recalled: ‘Perfectly ordinary drawing, or even lettering [was] rejected as being counter-revolutionary. For illustration, you had to choose either photos or photomontage. You had to design with either one or two unadorned typefaces (antiques!).’ Bons moved to Amsterdam, where a more informal school based on similar principles, called De Nieuwe Kunstschool, had been founded by the former Bauhaus student Paul Citroen. The German Hajo Rose – ‘a true Bauhäusler’ according to Jan Bons – was head of the advertising department. One of Rose’s most dedicated pupils was Otto Treumann, who had left Germany for Amsterdam in 1935. Treumann took over many of the Bauhaus views propagated by Rose, and embraced the idea of asymmetric typography as an expression of progressiveness and dynamism; he eventually became one of Holland’s most successful postwar designers.

Day-to-day reality
When studying source-books on typographic history, one might get the impression that pre-war Dutch graphic design was completely under the spell of these new, modernist ideas. Nothing could be further from the truth. In book design, only a very limited number of works were made in the ‘typo-photo’ or constructivist manner. Traditionalist typographers such as Jan van Krimpen and AAM Stols were much more influential, whereas book covers for large audiences were mostly designed in a hybrid Art Deco style. In advertising, ‘typo-photo’ was rather marginal as well. Only in left-wing political propaganda did the style have a serious impact: political organisations saw photomontage as a strong means of conveying ideas of progress and solidarity.
The day-to-day reality of posters, brochures and advertising in The Netherlands was populist and friendly; seductive hand-lettering and illustration were the rule rather than the exception. Needless to say, the professional admen and commercial artists who produced this daily diet of images and slogans were not concerned with the social and spiritual ideals of the avant-garde. Their concerns were pragmatic, their political views tended to be pro-capitalist and often slightly right-of-centre. In the polarizing pre-war era, they were naturally despised by their idealist peers, who regarded them as shameless populists and deceivers of the public.

The war years
In May 1940, Hitler’s army took The Netherlands by surprise. The German occupation, which lasted five years, was an era which seemed to sort people into categories: the brave, the bad, the cowards. Many Dutch were passive, or ‘careful’. They let the deportation of thousands of Jews and leftists happen without risking their lives by resisting. Some actively participated by performing administrative tasks which in themselves seemed rather innocent but which helped German bureaucracy develop into a well-oiled machine. Countless others, on the other hand, worked for the resistance, or gave shelter to those who had to go underground.
The occupation enhanced the polarisation between commercial artists and idealist designers. Few admen turned out to be heroes. They had never been used to asking moral questions in their daily practice, and some took on work from Nazi-supported organisations (such as the dubious ‘Winterhulp’) without realizing they had crossed a line. The way in which the editors of the monthly magazine Revue der Reclame allowed the usurper to use it as a platform, was quite embarrassing. In the August 1940 issue, ample space was given to an officer of the German ‘Werberat’ (Advertising Commission) to express the Nazi view of advertising. The editors commented that it seemed like a good idea to look at the accomplishments of the Germans at a time when the Dutch economy, too, seemed to develop ‘in the direction of a stronger order of the economic life, of a stricter economic organisation.’ In other words: as in Germany, the end of free competition might be near. Note that the trade magazine published these articles four months into the occupation, when the new regime was still in the process of organising itself; at that point any indulgence towards, or collaboration with, the occupying force was undoubtedly an act of free will.
During the first year of the occupation, strong disagreements about the position to take arose between members of the other camp – the designers who were united in the applied arts association VANK. According to some, there was too much lenience towards those members who sympathized with the Nazis. For this reason, a few artists handed in their memberships. Among them was Willem Sandberg, a graphic designer as well as the director of the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum. In November 1941, the Nazis created the Culture Chamber, at which all artists, writers and musicians had to register. This was a signal for many artists to go underground, organize themselves informally, and participate in the resistance. The skills of graphic artists were a very convenient asset to the resistance’s resources. Designers like Sandberg, Bons, Treumann, Dick Elffers and Henk Krijger became master forgers. They forged identity cards, permits, travel documents and other papers issued by the Germans. Printers, too, were part of the complex network. Both Frans Duwaer from Amsterdam and the Groningen printer Hendrik Werkman – the latter an extremely original thinker and modernist experimenter – were shot during the last year of the occupation because of their clandestine activities. The resistance’s biggest coup took place in March 1943. The Amsterdam resistance burnt down the municipal office of records – the Germans’ only means to check the validity of identity cards. After one of the couriers had been captured, most members of the action group were arrested and shot; but the informal leader, Willem Sandberg, escaped and managed to stay out of the Nazis’ hands.

GKf and VRI: Two designers’ associations
Plans for a new Dutch artists’ organisation were outlined as early as 1941.Two commissions were independently developing ideas, but the resistance became a unifying factor. Less than five months after the liberation, the new association, GKf (from Gebonden Kunstenfederatie: Federation of Applied Arts) was established. The flamboyant Sandberg became the Federation’s chairman and spokesman; from 1947, the GKf’s graphic design department also had its own board of directors.
The GKf was an idealist organisation which developed in the optimistic atmosphere of post-war reconstruction. As Leonie ten Duis and Annelies Haase wrote, ‘the times called for a stand to be taken’: there was a strong polarisation between conservative forces aiming to restore old values, and young people – including artists and former members of the resistance – who wanted a more democratic and just society. In this landscape, the GKf was erected as a leftist stronghold, with a heavy representation in Amsterdam. One of the GKf’s purposes was to maintain a high standard of professionalism; therefore membership was subject to ballot. In practice, ‘new members were scrutinized to establish not only the quality of their work but also, more particularly, their political colour’ (Ten Duis/Haase). Not only were socialists more easily admitted than those with Christian democratic or capitalist views; the most crucial distinction was between those who had been ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ during the war. There was a spirit of ‘political cleansing’, in which the self-righteous left-wingers of the GKf tended to excommunicate all those whom they regarded as opportunists – especially the commercial artists, although only a few of them had actually collaborated with the Germans. Once again, and more sharply than ever, advertising was condemned as ‘wrong’. (There is something thoroughly Dutch about this stance – an attitude which, in The Netherlands, is referred to as ‘Calvinism’. The Calvinist reflex is a complex kind of moralism, which denounces frivolity and materialism, and demands social or ideological justification for every decision).
The commercial artists – including illustrators, lettering artists and packaging designers – soon established their own organisation. In 1948 the VRI (Vereniging voor Reclameontwerpers en Illustrators: Society of Advertising Designers and Illustrators), was established in The Hague. The VRI was by no means a club of former collaborationists or a right-wing bastion: among its members were Max Velthuijs, a left-wing (even communist) activist, and Henk Krijger, who had worked for the resistance. The VRI simply wanted to be an apolitical organisation with purely pragmatic objectives. One of its purposes was to protect the interests of freelance commercial artists and small creative studios in their continuous tug-of-war with the world of big advertising agencies, who were their main clients as well as their competitors. The VRI was also good at self-promotion. It published two VRI books (1955 and 1964) which still stand out as wonderful portraits of an era. A similar book on the GKf was thirteen years in the making; it was printed in 1968 but never bound, and eventually was shredded.

A long-awaited merger
As we have seen, the animosity between two professional groups and their respective organisations in The Netherlands went back a long way, and was at its most acute during the 1940s. It raised its head again in the 1960s, when members of both organisations examined the possibility of a merger. When during a turbulent meeting, the members of the GKf’s graphic department voted against a merger, the board resigned; one of its most prominent members, Wim Crouwel, left the GKf in protest. Soon after, however, a commission including Jan Bons, Jurriaan Schrofer and Gerrit Noordzij was more successful. In 1968, graphic designers in The Netherlands finally had one single association: the GVN (Grafische Vereniging Nederland), which would later merge into the current BNO (Bond van Nederlandse Ontwerpers: Dutch Designers’ Union).
This was not the end of the controversy between two mentalities. While commercial artists and graphic designers had finally found common ground, the world of advertising was developing in a completely different direction. Marketing surveys and target groups were not the kind of thing that graphic designers wanted to worry about. And so the heirs of Schuitema and Zwart, who were now calling themselves ‘functionalists’, simply cancelled the word ‘advertising’ from their vocabulary. No longer did idealist designers want to change advertising; they simply refrained from being bothered by it. From the late 1960s onwards Dutch designers increased the scale of their activities, and began creating medium-sized design agencies following Anglo-Saxon models – just like their peers in advertising. Yet they continued to see themselves as professionals with a higher mission, rendering a service to the public by giving clear, objective form to information. To many of them, advertising remained as despicable as it had always been.
All this finally changed in the 1990s. The shift happened on two levels: method and form. In order to appeal to the country’s independent youngsters, advertising began to adopt a more intuitive and non-conformist language. Young graphic designers were often hired to provide this idiom. The Amsterdam branch of Wieden & Kennedy, for instance, hired cutting-edge design studios for its Nike and Coca-Cola campaigns. Then there was the phenomenon of hybrid agencies. Kesselskramer, for instance, operates more or less like an advertising agency but uses the personal approach as well as the challenging visual language usually identified with a small graphic studio. Similar things have happened elsewhere. But as I hope to have shown, they were less obvious to happen in The Netherlands because of an historic controversy between two types of image-makers.

TypoGraphic 61, International Society of Typographic Designers ISTD, London

References 1.Jan Middendorp, ‘UNA: beyond Wallpaper ’, TypoGraphic 54, ISTD 1999.

Selected literature H.P.Berlage, Inleiding tot de kennis van de ontwikkeling der toegepaste kunst. W.L & J.Brusse, Rotterdam 1923 • Leonie ten Duis and Annelies Haase, The World must Change – Graphic Design and Idealism’. Sandberg Institute/De Balie Amsterdam 1999 • Toon Lauwen, Otto Treumann . 010 Publishers Rotterdam 1999 (English version 2001) • Ank Leeuw-Marcar, Willem Sandberg – Portret van een kunstenaar. Meulenhoff Amsterdam 1981 • Dick Maan De Maniakken Lecturis Eindhoven 1982 • Dick Maan, ‘Zo moet de wereld zijn’ in Druk 008, 2001 • Jan Middendorp, ‘Ha, daar gaat er een van mij!’. Stroom HCBK The Hague/010 Publishers Rotterdam 2002 • Titus Yocarini Vak in beweging 1 + 2. 1904 -1991 VANK-GKf-VRI-GVN-bNO. Lecturis, Eindhoven, 1992

Chris Lebeau, cover for De Bedrijfsreclame (‘Commercial Advertising’), VII-5, 1920. Woodcut.

Jac. Jongert, showcard for Van Nelle rolling (shag) tobacco, 1920s.

Top: 1930s designs by left-leaning Dutch constructivists Paul Schuitema (l.) and Gerard Kiljan (r.). Schuitema’s is a cover design for the political magazine Links Richten (‘Aim Left’); Kiljan’s ia poster for his own series of post stamps for the benefit of poor children.
Bottom: Posters in the usual optimist and deliberately naive advertising style of the post-war years. Heineken Beer by Frans Mettes (early 1950s), Vredestein rubber factory by Hünd advertising, late 1940s.

Otto Treumann, poster for the Dutch Federation of Artists’ Assiciations – one of which was the new GKf, Federation of Applied Arts. 1946.

Otto Treumann’s 1960 series of stamps published on the occasion of the 15-year anniversary of the 1945 Liberation. The photos used show three monuments commemorating the victims and anti-nazi fighters of World War II.

Willem Sandberg, cover for art brochure Open Eye, 1946.