Richard Niessen’s text ‘Facing the Palace floor plans’ was published in a 32-page supplement in September 2020. A number of notes could only be transcribed at a later date, and have now been issued as an addendum to this publication.
As the Designer described the state of affairs in his profession – explaining how for the most part, design had become an instrument for maintaining the status quo – I wonder whether there were any professional associations that could have questioned this development. I knew that in 1946, the museum director (and designer) Willem Sandberg had founded the Gebonden Kunstenaarsfederatie (Federation of Applied Artists, GKf), which included a number of former resistance fighters among its members. This organisation selected candidates at the recommendation of its members, and formed a collective of socially engaged artists with a strong focus on cultural emancipation. Did it still exist?
The Designer rummaged through his bookshelves and recovered a book. Its cover clearly marked it as a publication from the 1990s.
“This describes the history of the various professional associations of graphic designers in the Netherlands.”
He handed it to me. It bore the title Vak in beweging (‘Profession in Motion’). I leafed through it while he continued his story.
“The 200-member association GKf expanded through a succession of mergers – to start with the more commercial and less principled Vereniging van Reclameontwerpers en Illustratoren (Association of Advertising Designers and Illustrators, VRI), and later on with other associations for industrial and interior designers, illustrators and comic book artists. The outcome of this, the multidisciplinary conglomerate BNO, currently has no fewer than 1,800 members…”
Reading the book, I saw it had been published to commemorate the founding of this large new ‘sector association’. I clapped it shut and handed it back to the Designer.
“When I tried to become active within this association in the late 1990s,” he continued, “I saw first-hand how BNO was primarily geared towards the interests of the larger firms. They obviously wanted to highlight the economic importance of the sector. Independent designers who were interested in developing the more artistic aspects of the profession – who still focussed on cultural emancipation as pursued by the GKf, in other words – had long since cancelled their membership.”
The Designer was silent for a moment, as if he wanted to leave it at that. But weren’t there any other associations with a more specific slant – international ones perhaps? This question seemed to rekindle his interest.
“In 2014, I was accepted, after balloting, as a member of Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI). This professional organisation, which was founded in Paris in the early 1950s, has around 500 members. They’re drawn from ‘leading graphic artists and designers’ from 40 countries worldwide. That same year, Nikki Gonnissen, who heads the graphic design firm Thonik together with Thomas Widdershoven, was appointed as president of AGI. Her mission was to make sure that AGI would remain relevant to the next generation. She wanted to involve everyone – from every culture and different generations – driven by the idea that ‘every democracy needs to have a plurality of perspectives’.”
I imagined that before that, AGI was reserved for established ‘giants of graphic design’. An exclusive club like that could definitely use a bit more diversity.
“2017 saw a big AGI conference in Paris,” the Designer continued, “and in the run-up to this event, Thonik released a press release. It took the form of an interview with “the woman who puts the ‘nik’ in Thonik” and headed off with an announcement of the upcoming conference, where attendees would be debating the relevance of graphic design in our day and age. A subject that was close to Gonnissen’s heart, apparently, since, as she put it: ‘graphic design is an art form that is equipped to develop a dialogue between the sender, the message and the audience.’ She wanted to show that ‘AGI will spare no effort to take its responsibility vis-à-vis society,’ because, continued Gonnissen, she herself ‘played an important role within the Amsterdam “school” of free spirits who aim to point the way for social change through their work’.”
The Designer took another sip from his cup. I could hear by the tone of his voice, that deep down, something was bothering him…
“The next paragraph of the press release, which bore the title ‘Graphic Design is an Art Form’ incidentally, presented Thonik’s own work for the Socialist Party as an example of this dedication to social change: ‘It presented us with a unique opportunity to work in the vanguard – there where political debate gains shape.’ This, in other words, was the ‘commitment’ that Gonnissen had adopted as a guiding principle for her AGI presidency.”
Was this a bad thing, I wondered, when we were interrupted by the doorbell. It was the postman with a package. The Designer accepted it, laying it aside without giving it a second glance. He was impatient to continue with his story.
“So how does Thonik demonstrate this commitment that they claim so emphatically in practice? Well, that year, the firm had been asked to handle the design for the Holland Festival, for instance…”
Traditionally, this was seen as one of the most prestigious commissions that a Dutch designer can get. For the past 70 years, the festival’s posters had served as striking additions to the Netherlands’ public space, often forming an apt reflection of – or commentary on – their times. I can remember first seeing the posters designed by Daniel van der Velden & Maureen Mooren around town, and the ones made by Gielijn Escher, or Studio Dumbar. Surely, I suggested, these stood as good examples of products made by free spirits leading the way with their work?
The Designer laughed: “It’s funny that you should say that. The theme for that year’s edition of the Holland Festival was ‘democracy’. A theme that suited Thonik to a T, as Gonnissen explained in another press release: ‘I believe that one very essential connection that exists between the festival and our studio is that we both feel that culture plays a vital role in guiding social and technological changes’.”
The Designer reached for his laptop and searched for some images.
“Look: for their design, Thonik adopted what they themselves called a radical approach. Their point of departure was a digital code ‘that works as a machine that produces bits of data: a vast, democratic process that aligns very well with the theme. It connects colours, in the same way that people are connected within a democracy’.”
Meanwhile, we studied the various posters, billboards and stickered trams that passed by on our computer screen. I recalled running into them when I was out and about. But the different colours that faded into one another definitely hadn’t brought the concept of ‘democracy’ to mind.
“If you take Thonik at their word, the fact that there are socially engaged designers is a something of a consolation! But do the images designed in connection with the Holland Festival truly serve as drivers for change? Because… how could they? And which similarities or differences can you see in terms of engagement between Thonik’s work for the Socialist Party, and what they made for the Hyundai Department Store, for instance?”
It was clear that Thonik had paid due attention to their PR, and that they were using AGI to deftly position their own work: a smart way to frame the firm as ‘socially aware’ opinion leaders. They were hardly the only ones doing this – these past few years, I’ve seen various firms making a big show of ‘putting the world to rights’. This is the same kind of perception management that has proven so effective in the private sector; and in politics.
“Designers can get away with claims like this thanks to the lack of independent design criticism – which has even poorer chances of surviving on its own than regular journalism. In the hope that I could broach this subject with my colleagues, I sent Gonnissen an open letter. While Thonik didn’t waste time taking the press release off their website, they never deigned to respond – in fact, the subject was never brought again.”
I read Thonik’s statement out loud, in which the studio described itself as “a ‘collective of designers’ with strong ties in the community, prepared to actively participate in the dialogue regarding what is just and fair”… The Designer couldn’t help but laugh out loud.
“I wouldn’t mind entering into that dialogue with them – preferably at their office building on Wibautstraat in Amsterdam, which they designed themselves. It’s a very evocative materialisation of the essence of the design studio. Look, this is what it looks like…”
The Designer pointed to an image on the screen. The building was a vertical rectangle bedecked with a pattern of black and white lines. Its most striking feature was a diagonal staircase running across the building’s front facade. More than anything, its jagged ascending line reminded me of a chart displaying movements in the stock or housing market. If this was the vanguard of a profession that purportedly shaped societal change, I wouldn’t get my hopes up. I looked out the window, at the rain that had been falling in a steady drizzle for some time now.