The Hague's new logo, designed By Anton Corbijn
There are so many graphic designers in The Hague that it came as something of a surprise when the city commissioned its logo from Anton Corbijn, a music video and film director. The logo — brush strokes and script — made some Netherlanders angry: was it a kite drawn with magic markers? Could it be printed on a truck, bag, or bus? And what to make of the playful, do-it-yourself amateurism that so defiantly departs from the classic Dutch Modernism of Zwart, of Mondrian and De Stijl?
As it happens, that rigorous geometric tradition carries on still today in professional graphic design, most notably in a specially-designed logo for an architectural conference held not long ago in Rotterdam.
The logo for the DOCOMOMO in Rotterdam, designed by David Knowles
The logo for DOCOMOMO, an organization founded 20 years ago by a group of Dutch architects, was designed by David Knowles of the Rotterdam-based Tremani Studio. (The aim was to advocate for the preservation of iconic Modern buildings in Holland.) For the DOCOMOMO mark, Knowles used a somewhat softened geometry that he believes draws from the abstract minimalism of his predecessors. He is aware of the strong graphic traditions in the Netherlands and accepts its visual language.
The logo appeared on the website and the publicity materials leading up to the Tenth DOCOMOMO Conference in Rotterdam, which took place last fall. Together with bright orange (the Netherlands is a monarchy held by the House of Orange), blue bands and no shortage of Futura Bold, the logo was used to identify posters, schedules, papers and booklets featured during the week.
Karen Knols, the graphic designer of Studio Lampro, implemented the DOCOMOMO logos — both type and mark — on murals and printed matter for the conference. In her view, the abstract DOCOMOMO mark represents a spirit of transformation — not unlike a building moving from one state to another — which, through subtle but significant alterations, arrives eventually as another identity entirely. (The theme of the conference was The Challenge of Change.)
The talks at the conference reinforced the awareness of Modernist design traditions alternately revised or reused; the Van Nelle coffee, tea and tobacco refinery of the late 1920s, where the conference occurred, is now an office building called the Design Factory. Speakers from Germany to Ghana presented examples of Modernist renovations, both successful and disastrous: the Gropius’ Master’s House at the Bauhaus, for instance, was given a peaked roof by East German authorities. (It is now a picturesque cottage.)
Graphic designers in the Netherlands possess a similar challenge: they can reuse or reject. Some continue the Dutch tradition of abstract minimalism, while others elect to incorporate new media trends and more progressive design idioms into their work. It may well be the older generation which tends to adhere to a more traditional approach (called ‘real design’ by some), while a younger generation is more likely to adopt shadows, buttons and other easy options in web design programs. David Knowles uses the term ‘crossover designers’ to address those who create work for both traditional and new media.
When I asked Corbijn how he arrived at his logo for The Hague, he told me that his chief objective was to follow the commission’s instructions, which included eliminating the stork (formerly part of the city’s logo), to emphasize the city’s sense of freedom (the International Criminal Court is located there) and to appeal internationally. The blue stroke is intended to evoke The Hague’s location near the sea, notes Corbijn, while the yellow, green and black strokes allude to Mondrian's painting Victory Boogie Woogie which is in the city's collection.
Corbijn started as a photographer 30 years ago; today, he designs record covers and anything that appeals to him. He had no training in graphic design and doesn’t study it now. He sees the logo as “playful and very un-corporate” and reminds me that he is accustomed to criticism and doesn't care what people think of his logo.
The ultimate question of whether playfulism and pictorialism will make a comeback, or whether abstraction and tradition will continue to prevail in Dutch design (and elsewhere) may be a non-issue, as most information today inhabits a decidedly virtual arena. The Metro stations around Rotterdam inform travelers through digitized panels with train arrivals in real time (as do some New York City subways) and pictures aren’t typically essential. Modernism’s efforts to establish worldwide visual communication systems in the 1920s — as demonstrated in Otto Neurath's family of isotype pictographs, for instance — seem to us now as relatively ancient, a part of history as remote as silent movies and the once ‘universal’ alphabets of Herbert Bayer and others. As representations of graphic form, they remain interesting, if not necessarily relevant, today.