Jan van Toorn, subject of a meticulously researched retrospective that opened today (21 March) at the Kunsthal in Rotterdam, is one of the most distinguished and provocative figures in an exceptional generation of Dutch graphic designers. Van Toorn’s social and political concerns, and his way of talking about them, set him apart, even among such colleagues as Wim Crouwel, Anthon Beeke, Gerard Unger, Swip Stolk and Hard Werken founder Rick Vermeulen, who all attended the opening celebration. Van Toorn has described himself as someone interested in the history of ideas, who also happens to be a practical person, a designer, and this is how he comes across. The observations that follow are based on a talk I gave at the opening ceremony.
I first met Van Toorn in the early 1990s. He had recently been appointed director of the Jan van Eyck Akademie and I travelled to Maastricht to interview him for Blueprint magazine about his plans. The whole experience made a powerful impression. Designers and design watchers in other countries have always viewed the achievements of Dutch graphic design with envy, and the 1980s had been a highly creative period. Now here was Van Toorn about to embark on what promised to be an unusual attempt to unite art, design and theory within a small institution blessed with a handsome building, plenty of equipment, a fine library, luxurious amounts of space, and some promising-looking teachers. Frankly, I felt envious of the students – or participants, as they were always called at the Akademie. Who wouldn’t want to spend time in such a haven, pursuing their personal researches? The appointment of a designer to head a centre of postgraduate study that also covered art and theory seemed like something that could only happen in the Netherlands. It recalled Willem Sandberg’s role as director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and Wim Crouwel’s position as director of the Boymans-van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam.
During his time at the Jan van Eyck Akademie, Van Toorn and his staff initiated a series of conferences and related publications. These included “And justice for all . . . (1994) and Towards a Theory of the Image (1996), culminating in Van Toorn’s final project at the end of his time as director, design beyond Design (1998), based on one the most stimulating conferences I have ever attended. Looking at this activity from the outside, and knowing just how much effort is involved to make these things happen, it seemed extraordinary that such a small institution could generate so many worthwhile contributions to debate. In the 1990s, I taught for several years at the Royal College of Art, London, a much bigger establishment than the Akademie. During the same period, the RCA produced nothing comparable in terms of ambitious academic events and publishing. This was another sign of Van Toorn’s commitment to critical analysis, dialogue between the disciplines, and the exploration of ideas.
It was his achievements as a designer, though, as well as his experience as a teacher, that made the Jan van Eyck venture possible. Van Toorn has often remarked that he wanted to approach communication design as a form of visual journalism. In other words, the designer could function as a kind of reporter – investigating, reflecting, editing, shaping and delivering his findings in the form of a visual outcome. He spoke of his wish to use design as a way to “argue with visual means”. If you compare the publications and posters Van Toorn produced in the late 1960s and 1970s with typical approaches today, his deliberately dissonant work can look astonishingly direct and uncompromising. This was, of course, a period of loosening and liberalisation when every kind of social convention was being challenged, and matters of politics and ideology were central concerns for many people within western societies. For a short, heady spell in the 1960s, revolution was in the air and to a designer with Van Toorn’s inclinations it must have seemed entirely natural to bring this spirit of social questioning into the “laboratory situation” – as he called it – of his own work.
Consider, for instance, his series of calendars for the printing house Mart Spruijt. This kind of calendar is produced as a promotional item because the company hopes it will act as a reminder to use its services. Anyone who put Mart Spruijt’s 1972/73 calendar on the wall would have been reminded, every week of the year, of the complex, contradictory, troubled nature of the contemporary world. Van Toorn’s calendar showed black and white portraits of women shoppers in an Amsterdam street market, colour photos of women in bras and corsets from underwear catalogues (an ironic feminist commentary), and references to the war in Vietnam. There was a recurrent emphasis in his work on the ordinary – on everyday situations and the experiences of real people – as well as allusions to the political realm. A poster insert for a PTT Dutch post and telecommunications company report presented an informal, entirely unglamorous montage of postal workers. It couldn’t be further from the kind of glossy PR shots used so often in company literature since then. A cover design for Museumjournaal in 1979 confronted curators and scholars with a photograph of seven chubby naked men chatting in a shower. Another Museumjournaal front cover, which would be unimaginable in institutional publishing in the US or Britain, showed a man’s horribly mutilated naked body laid out on some wooden planks. This was an astringent visual sensibility that refused to flinch from even the least pleasant aspects of human experience and required the viewer, as a moral imperative, to see.
Some of these communications are not without humour, but, like Van Toorn himself, they are utterly serious and purposeful. What they embody, above all, is an idea about citizenship. Their unapologetic realism is underpinned by a deep strain of social idealism. They address viewers not as consumers with tiny attention spans who must be perpetually entertained and flattered if they are not to grow bored, but as critical, thinking individuals who can be expected to take an informed and sceptical interest in the circumstances of their world. Even in the 1970s, this was a very strict demand to make of design practice, but by the 1980s, with Reaganomics, Thatcherism, the rise of neo-liberalism, and the doctrine of the free market, it was becoming much harder to function as a designer in this way. Van Toorn continued to produce some challenging work, such as his series of posters for the De Beyerd art centre, but he found fewer opportunities for the kind of critical practice at which he excelled. Design, as he often noted, was increasingly part of the problem. As he told Eye in the early 1990s: “Everything is possible, you can quote everything, you can use every style, but where are the arguments that are really contributing to a fundamental change in our social conditions?” Becoming director of the Jan van Eyck Akademie was one way of helping to encourage young designers to examine this question for themselves.
In 2004, we confront essentially the same question: where, in visual communication, are the arguments that are contributing to a fundamental change in our social conditions? To make such arguments, you must first believe that social conditions require change, and you must possess a clear sense of the kinds of change that are necessary and possible. But, despite the global crisis caused by terrorism and our responses to it, these are less certain, less politically motivated times in the wealthy nations, and designers, as a social group, share much the same disengaged outlook as other similarly educated people. In recent years, I have heard few designers express the sort of concerns and convictions that motivated Van Toorn’s generation.
Nevertheless, the example of his long career is hugely inspiring and the Kunsthal exhibition (until 20 June), curated by Els Kuijpers, provides a valuable opportunity to reconsider the possibilities of engaged design. (It may be shown later in the US at the Rhode Island School of Design, where Van Toorn has been a visiting teacher for 15 years.) There is every reason to hope that young designers encountering this exceptional body of work for the first time will emerge asking tough questions about the way things are now, and wondering what they, as visual communicators, might be able to do about it.