Tuesday, 13 March 2012

The golden age of Dutch design - Wendingen, Van Nelle...and Droste!

The years between 1900 and the beginning of the second world war saw developments in European design that still resonate and have impact on today's world. Much has been written about the Wiener (Vienna) Werkstatte, the Bauhaus School in Germany, the arts and crafts movement in Britain, Scandinavian design of the period and the Secession movements across much of central and eastern Europe. Slightly less well known, but equally significant were developments in the Netherlands where Dutch design was amongst the most modern and innovative in Europe during this time.

Many European artistic movements have used an often short lived, but highly influential magazine to promote their cause. Examples of this include "Ver Sacrum" (1998-1903), the official journal of the Vienna Secession, "Der Sturm", the magazine of the Berlin Expressionist Movement founded in (1910-1932), whilst in the Netherlands, "Wendingen" was established in 1918 and ran until 1932.

"Wendingen" is translated as "upheaval", "inversions" or "twists" in English and was the mouthpiece of the architects' association Architectura et Amicitia (Architecture and Friendship). Architect H. Th. Wijdeveld was the chief editor and the journal was initially the main platform for Dutch expressionism, better known as the Amsterdam School. Wijdeveld designed theatre sets, costumes, book covers, furniture and many other items but was primarily an architect working in various modernist styles. Living to the age of 101, he fulfilled the role of chief editor until 1925 when he resigned due to a range of disagreements with board members.

Despite its strong identification with architecture, the magazine covered many art forms including painting, sculpture, theatre design and ceramics. The work of artists as diverse as Gustav Klimt, Eileen Gray, Josef Hoffman and Osip Zadkine was featured as well as whole editions being given over to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, Erich Mendelsohn and a 1920 edition detailing H. P Berlage's designs for the Gmeentemuseum at Den Haag.

The magazine was ground breaking in including detailed architectural drawings, reproductions of works of the featured artists, provocative articles (sometimes in English) on design issues and as an income stream included advertising for a range of products and services such as book binders, fabrics, bathroom suites and floor materials such as parquet and terrazzo. Many of these advertisements are works of art in themselves, but the star of the show is the front cover of each magazine, exquisitely produced and looking modern today, almost 100 years after the first edition was published.

I became aware of this magazine when I discovered the book "Wendingen 1918-1932: a journal for the arts" offered for sale in the gentleman's barbers shop in the basement of Liberty's department store in London. The book contains two essays on the development of the magazine, but most importantly reproduces the cover design of every edition published over the 14 years of the magazine's life.

It is still possible to find occasional copies of the magazine on e-bay or in book markets. They are not cheap but I have acquired two treasured editions, one from a great stall in the Spui Straat book market in Amsterdam and another from the extremely helpful and very friendly Marx Warmerdam at her Delta 98 antiques stall at the weekend antiques market on an extremely rainy and muddy day last August in Den Haag. Ah, those western European summers...

If Wendingen was produced by and aimed at architects and other artists, a more commercial form of high quality design was used to advertise a range of products in the Netherlands especially in the 1920's and 1930's. Dutch society at this time was essentially conservative and Steven Heller and Louise Fili in their magnificent "Euro Deco"argue that until the late 1920's "antiquated approaches had dominated Dutch graphics even as European design was changing by leaps and bounds". They blame this on what they refer to as a "deeply rooted Calvinism even among non-Protestants (which) inspired a fundamental distaste for marketing of any kind" and going on to claim that many Dutch considered advertising a necessary evil, even "sinful" and that business people were unenthusiastic supporters of the practice.

Heller and Fili argue that this changed after the First World War as conditions of the working class improved, more consumer goods became more obtainable, and general social change encouraged more artists to take more critical roles in arts and culture, including political posters and works of art which inevitably spilt over into more commercial art. This may or may not be true, but what cannot be denied is that in the late 1920's and throughout the 1930's there was an explosion of high quality, striking and still remarkably effective advertising work produced for a whole range of products.

I do not entirely agree with their view that earlier Dutch graphics were, well, dull - witness the works of great proponents of the poster such as Toorop, de Bazel, van Hoytema and Theodoor Willem Nieuwenhuis, several of which were featured in an excellent exhibition at Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum - "Dutch works on paper" back in 2000. However, the volume of new and exciting work produced in the late 1920's onwards clearly outweighs earlier efforts.

The master of this new style was Jac Jongert who produced posters  initially for Van Nelle Coffees and Teas. His works are striking, make use of primary colours and de Stijl inspired geometry. The tobacco industry has always been important in the Netherlands with many specialist cigar shops in Amsterdam and other cities. Jongert also designed tobacco posters and packaging for Van Nelle. Some of these wonderful graphic works can still be found at antique stores or in markets. Again, I managed to find a small collection of war time produced tobacco labels from Van Nelle's - although probably not a Jongert design - at the book market on Spui Straat - one is pictured alongside this post. Incidentally, the Van Nelle factory near Rotterdam, is a wonderful modernist building constructed between 1925 and 1931, designed by Johannes Brinkman and Leendert van der Vlugt, it has listed status in the Netherlands.

There is something specifically Dutch and attractive about the graphic art of this period that ensured big sales for manufacturers and the appeal of which lives on for collectors and for those of us who still choose to buy items such as Droste hot chocolate. I happen to believe that Dutch hot chocolate is the best in the world - and it is - but I am sure that the lovely red and brown tin, introduced in 1904, with the nurse serving the "Droste cacao" played a major part in forming my view. I can't bring myself to throw the tins out once empty... Interestingly the brand has given its name to an artistic effect where the main image displays smaller and smaller versions of itself possibly to infinity - since the 1970's the term "droste" has been used to describe this effect - displayed on the famous tin.

Other art forms benefited from this explosion in graphic design. Examples include play bills, exhibition posters, record sleeves and the covers of another fantastic magazine called "de Reclame". I have not been able to find copies of this magazine anywhere (so if you know where to get them, PLEASE, leave me a comment to let me know!), but this website shows images of some of the covers. The earlier mentioned Heller and Fili describe it as a trade magazine more interested in decorative style than the functionalism of much work of this period, but using modernistic images on its cover, many of which influenced and served as models for print shops, advertising agencies and other commercial designers.

Once again, I am struck by the modern appearance of the advertising, art, design and architecture of this period and how it still works today - in many cases more effectively and certainly more stylishly than much modern advertising. I am also struck by how little is written about the Dutch work of this period which easily matches the better known schools from other countries. And we haven't even considered the Amsterdam School and architecture yet. More to follow...

1 comment:

  1. More about the Amsterdam school on this site