Creative Civil Servants
A Century of Dutch Design Education
In a broad range of disciplines, Dutch design has a global reputation for being cutting-edge, experimental, funny, quirky, conceptual. Dutch architects and graphic, product and fashion designers are among the figure heads of their trade world-wide: Rem Koolhaas, Irma Boom, Marcel Wanders, Victor & Rolf, to name only a few. Many critics have analyzed their fame in the context of the specific Dutchness of their work, an often rather paradoxical combination of rebelliousness and market orientation, of idiosyncratic irony and rational analysis, that is associated with the combined Dutch traditions of the Reformation, political and religious tolerance and inventiveness in engineering and trade. All of that may be to the point, but how did these designers’ training shape their talent? How did Dutch design education help produce so many outstanding designers?
As with many things now thought of as being Dutch, modern design education in the Netherlands started by adopting a model from abroad. Dutch artists and designers introduced the educational model and ideology of the German Bauhaus in the Netherlands almost immediately after the famous institution was closed in 1933. In that year, the painter Paul Citroen, who had studied at the Bauhaus in the preceding years, founded the Nieuwe Kunstschool (“New Art School”) in Amsterdam. And architect Mart Stam, guest teacher at the Bauhaus in the late 1920s, became director of the Amsterdam Institute for Applied Arts (now the Gerrit Rietveld Academy) in 1937. Many other Bauhaus alumni and former teachers, among which Hajo Rose, Paul Guermonprez, Johan Niegeman and Piet Zwart, moved or returned to the Netherlands after the Bauhaus was closed by the Nazis to teach at Dutch art and design schools. But the Bauhaus was not the only model, nor was it the only reference for the innovators of design education in the Netherlands. Already in the previous century, politicians, designers and educators complained about the dire state of Dutch design education and advocated a new approach that would go beyond slavishly copying traditional models of arts-and-crafts. In 1874, Dutch politician and civil servant Victor de Stuers wrote that there was an urgent need to innovate “drawing education,” as a powerful means for “raising and developing” the general cultural state of the country: “For the artist, the architect and the industrialist it is obligatory; and it is useful to all. It elevates the taste of the entire population, because it raises the producer’s competence and educates and civilizes the user.” 1)
The idea that design as a craft has an outspoken social and cultural responsibility has deep roots in a general characteristic of Dutch Protestant culture, often summarized as a peculiar combination of ‘merchant and missionary.’ It can also be seen as a typically Dutch interpretation, or accentuation, of the Bauhaus ideal of connecting art, architecture, technology and society. This missionary feature spans the entire political and professional scale of Dutch design practices, that may vastly differ in other respects. This scale, and its extremities, was represented most intensely by the two leading figures of Dutch graphic design and education in the 1970s, Wim Crouwel and Jan van Toorn. Crouwel was an eloquent spokesperson for Functionalism, or what came to be known as the “Swiss school of typography” in the Netherlands, arguing for a neutral design devoid of personal interpretations by the designer. Van Toorn, on the other hand, stated that designers have a personal obligation to show their commitment and engage with the social and cultural contexts of their work. They both, however, are firmly rooted in the same modernist tradition that connected rational analysis with social commitment in the early 20th century. 6) In general, one could say that the position of Van Toorn proved to be more influential in Dutch design education. Crouwel, who later also taught at the Technical University Delft and served as director of the Boymans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam, vainly advocated a strict separation between art and design education – most art schools in the Netherlands still combine courses in art and design. Van Toorn brought together art, graphic design and cultural theory during his directorship at the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht, one of the first post-graduate academies of art and design on the European continent in the late 1980s and an inspiration for research-oriented graduate schools in the Netherlands.
Concept and Context
In recent years, the “Bologna process” of bringing together European universities and institutes of professional and vocational education has resulted in an ‘academization’ of art- and design education in the Netherlands, which tends to strengthen the already existing emphasis on ‘conceptuality’ and argumentation by fostering theoretical development and research. But this holds risks, because even in the most ‘conceptually-oriented’ schools, the combination of thinking and making has always been the foundation of the educational program. Practical experimentation with materials and ways of manipulating them has been a strong tradition in the Netherlands, even if the emphasis was often not on the canonical ways of doing that. In other words, when Jan Bons recalls that “the focus was more on the personal development of the pupil than on learning a trade,” he did not mean that the school was solely interested in conceptual enunciations. It meant that making things is personal rather than general, and that developing a conscious personal stance vis-à-vis the trade is more important than merely going through the motions.
The emphasis on social and cultural aspects of design education in the Netherlands has naturally resulted in an increasing interest in social design, the design practice that aims to co-create with the end users of the design, and co-develop design projects with all ‘stakeholders’ involved. Often, such approaches lead to a ‘transdisciplinary’ approach, in which a range of design and communication disciplines are joined in amalgamated projects. These might embrace urban design, an online collaborative platform, printed publications, events, ‘fab labs’ and on- and off-line meeting places, all connected to a specific theme or project. At the Sandberg Institute, for instance, students have engaged with organizations like Greenpeace and Amnesty and causes like privacy, refugees and cultural/ethnic integration by designing and conducting campaigns, events and communication channels. In a sense, graduate courses like the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam, the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam and the graduate schools in Eindhoven, Breda, Utrecht and elsewhere more and more function like conceptual laboratories that address and research social and cultural problems and phenomena by design.
The combined tendencies of conceptuality and social orientation gradually lead away from the product-oriented focus of Dutch design and education that became so prominent in the 1980s and 1990s. The ironic wit, which characterized a generation of Dutch designers and found its expression in rubber vases that looked like glass (Hella Jongerius), cabinets that consisted of a loose heap of drawers held together by a sturdy belt (Theo Remy) and furniture made from discarded wood (Piet Hein Eek), now emerges less in objects than in what one could call ‘design dramaturgies.’ Setting up a pigeon-post communication channel to criticize the increasing breaches of privacy by governmental and commercial services, for instance (a Sandberg Design project from 2008). Or an app that meshes up feeds form a variety of news sources on the same subject, making the user aware of the bias of each of these sources (Andrea Vendrik, Breda Master Graphic Design, 2013). Beyond objects, life itself – and the ways we habitually ‘read’ it – becomes material for redesigning our perception of reality. This, essentially, has been a defining trait of Dutch design education. At root, Dutch design education is about providing society with creative civil servants.
^1) F. Huygen, ‘Visies op Vormgeving’, Deel 1, Architectura & Natura Pers, Amsterdam 2007, p.15
^2) ibid. P.25
^3) ibid. P.31
^4) ibid. p.39
^5) ibid. p.38
^7) Camiel van Winkel, Het Primaat van de Zichtbaarheid, NAI publishers, Rotterdam 2005