When it comes to versatility, Hendrik Wijdeveld (1885 – 1987) is probably without peer. Throughout his long and active life (he reached 101), Wijdeveld worked as an architect, editor-in-chief, typographer, designer of books, theatre scenery and costumes, jewellery, toys, furniture and utility items – even bathing caps. He sees himself as a theatre director, treating the world around him as a gesamtkunstwerk and working in his own, new formal language: Wijdeveld designs in the expressionist style of the Amsterdam School but adds elements of the New Objectivity movement. He occupies an ambiguous position between these two extremes, leading both classic typographers like J.F. van Royen and S.H. de Roos and ‘functionalists’ like Paul Schuitema to criticise his architecturally-informed typography.
Nevertheless, Wijdeveld enjoys a strong international reputation. He is able to build a large network of international contacts: among other things, he travels to the Middle East with Erich Mendelsohn and visits the Soviet Union in 1931. During a trip to the United States, Wijdeveld makes the acquaintance of Frank Lloyd Wright. He tries to set up an international art academy in the South of France. And he doesn’t shy away from a range of utopian and futuristic projects, including the ‘Grand Popular Theatre’ – shaped like a gigantic vagina – the Amsterdam-Zandvoort National Park, various massive high-rise programmes and his 1944 project ‘15 miles into the earth’. The latter is a proposal to bore a shaft deep into the Earth’s soil: a symbolic plea for peace and international cooperation. The shaft is intended to house an international geological research centre, covered by a glass dome – so that the people working inside can keep a clear mind. The base of the shaft would become home to a ‘world theatre’ where nature’s primordial forces and man’s creative powers can collide in a shower of new ideas.
The year 1918 marks the publication of the first issue of ‘Wendingen’, with Wijdeveld as editor-in-chief. The contents of this magazine, which runs for 116 issues, are as multifaceted as Wijdeveld himself. ‘Wendingen’ pays attention to almost every contemporary movement in art, architecture, typography, theatre design and applied art. Wijdeveld usually commissions other artists to design the publication’s covers, including Art Nouveau representatives like Lauweriks and Toorop, Expressionists like Sluijters and the Constructivists Lissitzky, Huzsar, Duiker and Gispen. Whatever the case, one needn’t assume that the magazine is content to keep ploughing the same furrow: there are thousands of stylistic options, and these are but a few.
The text and illustrations within the publication’s covers, however, are exclusively typographic. These typographic decorations are ingeniously composed with the aid of ordinary typesetting elements. Wijdeveld plays with the possibilities offered by moveable type, which he uses to combine letters and ornaments into carefully integrated compositions. He also uses this method to fill surfaces with lines and blocks – a process that some of his contemporaries refer to as ‘typographic masonry’. This form of typography is clearly influenced by architecture. In ‘Wendingen’, L. Ronner describes the relationship between the two disciplines: “Put in the simplest of terms, typography is the structuring of surfaces. Similar to the architect’s efforts to assign the blind expanses of wall, windows and doors their correct positions, and to how each architectural element fulfils a specific function, the typographer – if he wants to do a good job – has to arrange and group the positions of his letters, words and lines of text.”
For me, the ‘typographic mason’ Hendrik Wijdeveld serves as a prime example. First and foremost due to his versatility – expressed both in his work and his interests. It shows that for Wijdeveld, design amounts to a complete world view. He consistently occupies an intermediate position: between New Objectivity and the Amsterdam School, between dream and realisation, between architect and typographer, between megalomania and self-mockery (as borne out by the title of his autobiography, My First Century, published on the occasion of his hundredth birthday in 1985). In addition, he has a singularly fertile creative vision (his motto: “Plan the impossible”) and he isn’t afraid to embark on mad and inspiring ventures. Above all, I admire him for his alchemistic ability to turn lead into gold, drunk on the magic elixir of the imagination.