Bill Shaffer | Essays

Willem Sandberg

Portrait by Pieter Brattinga, 1960

The legacy of Dutch modernist graphic designer, Willem Sandberg, is not well known, but his contributions to the museum world, modern design, and his countrymen during World War II are profound.

Sandberg began designing publications for the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in the 1920s. He became a curator in 1938 and returned after the war—on an unlikely path for a graphic designer—as the Stedelijk Museum Director, from 1945 until his retirement in 1963. Under Sandberg’s direction, the Stedelijk modernized and compiled an important collection of European modern art. He designed exhibitions to be less aristocratic and more engaging for his visitors, and introduced the first museum audioguides and headsets in 1952. “A fierce enemy of the high-brow,” is how Sandberg described himself.

Sandberg’s visual vocabulary relied on typography rooted in the style of his Dutch contemporaries Piet Zwart and H. N. Werkman, but was never overwrought or unnecessarily complicated. “I don’t like luxury in typography,” Sandberg proclaimed. He used torn paper, and the occasional photograph, to assemble collages that deftly married his graphic forms and typography, and printed his work on plain paper stock. 

Sandberg estimated that he produced 350 exhibition catalogs during his tenure (some appear below), designing more than 275 of them himself, even as Museum Director. When the hundreds of posters, tickets and advertisements that Sandberg designed are added to this total, it is an impressive body of work generated over the course of a career. However, the most impressive of Sandberg’s accomplishments did not take place in the Stedelijk, but rather under a sand dune near the seaside, and in his own home.

In May 1940, Germany invaded The Netherlands, even after the nation had declared neutrality in the war. Sandberg was aware of the Nazis’ dim view of modern art—what they called Degenerate Art—and had ordered construction of an enormous vault under the sand dunes near the coast for art storage. Sandberg shipped important works from the collection, and all of his recently acquired modern art, to the vault for safekeeping. Other museums asked Sandberg for space (Rembrandt’s The Night Watch was kept here for a period), as did private collectors. Artwork owned by Jewish collectors was purposefully left unregistered. Over 500 collections were kept in Sandberg’s vault during the war.

In November 1941, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, the German Reichskommissar for The Netherlands established the Culture Chamber. Any artist, writer, musician, or actor who wanted to perform publicly needed their approval. The creative community saw their livelihoods begin to wither away—out of this morass emerged their involvement in the Dutch Resistance. The deportation of Jews had begun at this same time, affecting many of these same artists and writers. Sandberg enlisted his colleagues and used his design skills to create false documents, allowing Jews safe passage out of The Netherlands. 

The forgeries were easy for Sandberg, except for the raised watermark (anyone who has ever tried to comp a blind emboss can surely emphasize). After many failed experiments, they hit upon a method of creating a negative plate that was slipped between two sheets of paper—when the top sheet was printed, an impression remained from the plate mimicking the original documents. The forgeries were distributed to those in need, and friends of Sandberg began to depart the country. He called it, “the best piece of typography I have ever done.” 

The major flaw in the effort was that the documents didn’t match existing records at the municipal registry. For Sandberg, there was only one thing to do: destroy the original documents. On March 27, 1943, Resistance members posing as policemen (Sandberg personally made their helmets) entered the registry, doused the records in benzene and set fire. Sympathizers in the fire brigade took their time responding to the alarm, to allow for maximum damage. Unfortunately, only twenty percent of the records were destroyed before the Germans compelled the firemen to extinguish the flames.

One of the “policemen” was apprehended and divulged everything. On April 1, the group was rounded up, except for Sandberg, who escaped. His wife and son were detained and imprisoned while Sandberg hid near the German border. In exile, he produced a series of pamphlets filled with drawings, collages, and typography that he called Experimenta Typographica. Sandberg was reunited with his family at the war’s conclusion—sadly, his twelve co-conspirators were executed. 

Sandberg forever remained humbled by his work with the Resistance, and his ability to help some of his Jewish friends escape the concentration camps. He took a particular point of pride in the fact that the indictment handed down in the aftermath of the fire noted that, “a specialist from the German investigation center in The Hague could not easily recognize the forgery.”

On the cover of his recent book, How to, Michael Bierut notes that graphic design has the ability to, “… every once in a while, change the world.” To which we can add in the case of Willem Sandberg, to save lives as well.

An exhibition of Willem Sandberg's work is on display at the De La Waar Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, UK, until September 4.



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