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New Amsterdam

MICA Shows Off Dutch Design's Greatest Hits

'Rolzegel,' postage-stamp, 1997, Beukers/Scholma, Haarlem (since 1998), PTT Post, The Hague
'Prémonitions,' poster, 1994, Marten Jongema (1951), Amsterdam, Groupe Emile Dubois, Grenoble
Letterror (Erik van Blokland & Just van Rossum), illustration typefont ‘Letterror presents.’ 2000
A 1997 ad by the design firm Studio Boot gives a theatrical performance the royal treatment: 'Menalaos,' 1997 Studio Boot, Den Bosch (since 1993), Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam

By Phil Andrews | Posted 2/7/2001

Roadshow: Dutch Graphic Design (1990-2000)

The friendly Dutch, whose name invokes dikes, windmills, cheese, painters, and faceless multinational corporations, have added one more specialty to the list: design. By spearheading much of the progress in the field of commercial design in the last decade, the Netherlands has quietly risen to dominate the industry. With business centered in the hedonist Mecca of Amsterdam, the Dutch are changing the way designers look at ads, corporate identities, Web sites, and pretty much everything else.

A new exhibit in the Maryland Institute, College of Art's Decker Gallery, Roadshow: Dutch Graphic Design (1990-2000), offers a sampling of this innovation in a variety of media. Curator Toon Lauwen is the former director of the Netherlands Archive of Graphic Design, and he is savvy enough to pick both worthy veteran designers and hot up-and-comers for this touring show. Established figures such as Anthon Beeke, who swam ahead of the new-wave design movement in the '70s, and Studio Dumbar, operating smartly since the early '80s, mix with edgy groups like Mediamatic and maverick typeface designers Emigre Fonts and FontShop. The design movement has gained momentum worldwide in the last decade as the digital tools of commercial designers have become one and the same with the tools of artists. Lauwen's show, which celebrates this convergence, is itself a blend, both an art exhibit and an advertisement for his countrymen.

Dozens of flashy posters and fliers for theater groups, clubs, and museums dominate the Decker Gallery's main room. Worth a closer look are a visually exciting set of notices for the Rotterdam Dance Group and several minimalist Holland Festival street ads. The elements of modern Dutch design runs through these works: Subjects extend outside their borders, words in broken typefaces sit at right angles to each other, and photography is often manipulated or combined with computer graphics. But the Dutch designers' innovation is tempered by taste and restraint.

Modern design has invaded almost every aspect of the Netherlands' business culture, with not only corporations but also public agencies signifying their identity by adopting a distinctive design style. A photographic display at the Decker showcases the ways in which cutting-edge design extends not just to company logos but to architecture, signage, vehicles, ads, and stationery, for everything from hip Internet companies to corporate behemoths to the Dutch mail service, hospitals, municipalities, and even police departments. (Now if the Netherlands could only drop the tolerance and get a good, old-fashioned drug war going, Amsterdam cops could get busy chasing down hapless potheads in their fashionable Studio Dumbar-designed cars and uniforms.)

Dutch designers are even reworking our ideas about typefaces--this is not your father's Times New Roman. For examples, see Erik van Blokland's work--his studio LettError, has produced some rambunctious fonts, including Beowolf, whose ratty edges shift randomly as you type or print, and LettError's flagship typeface, Trixie, whose mysterious capital "X" was appropriated for The X-Files' logo. Work by other font studios such as Enschede Letter Foundry is less impressive, especially when it's blandly presented in the form of alphabets on poster board rather than in a design context.

Presentation is also a problem in the Decker's main lobby, occupied by a giant padded cube with various Dutch design magazines tethered to it. The display looks out of place next to the delicate examples of form that make up the rest of the exhibit. At least visitors are invited to sit and browse current issues of Blvd, Dutch, and Mediamatic, which showcase many of the artists and firms featuring in the exhibit.

On the periphery of the show's major pieces, book covers, travel brochures, stamps, and money all testify to the exhibition's assertion that "In the Netherlands, everything is designed." My personal favorite was the colorful packaging for something called "Australian Homemade Ice Cream." The exhibit might do well to include more of these everyday objects, as posters seem to be too obvious and static a medium for design-company showiness.

Despite the exotic languages and locations, the styles and attitudes on display are familiar. Design, now more than ever, is a global movement, and the innovations of the Dutch have been picked up everywhere. See your local billboard or magazine for details.

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