In 1920 the magazine Wendingen, monthly for building and ornamentation of the Society Architectura et Amicitiae, which was found by Richards hero Henderik Wijdeveld, -incidentelly the one who coined the term Typographic Masonry- published a special on the work of the German architect Erich Mendelsohn. The introductory essay was written by J.F. Staal, who gives this body of work its proper context and tries to characterize it. His main point: particularly in the designing of schools, observatories, postal offices, factories, social housing, libraries and hospitals the considerations pertaining to utility and necessity, the calculations of politicians, bureaucrats and engineers, fall short. What is needed is an architect, someone who gives shape to those practical necessities and technical possibilities and in addition to that succeeds in finding a plastic expression to the immaterial values that are at stake in the work, the care for, the education of, the daily living of the people who will use those buildings. That design brings together the knowledge of the engineer, the vision of the thinker, the know how of the craftsmen and the experience of the users. Staal calls this crucial contribution of the architect constructive expression.
Here today I am not interested in the history of the expressionist school of architecture, nor in the influence it had on the development of modernism in architecture. I focus on the word combination and the fact it epitomizes so well the reason Richard Niessen, a contemporary graphic designer, found inspiration in the work of Henderik Wijdeveld, in the magazine Wendingen and in this way of thinking about the relation between design and its social and cultural role.
The first word, constructive, refers to the building proces, to the organization of space with technical proficiency, a sense of proportions and practical use. It is about the creation of a space to live and work in. Building as a metaphor for graphic design is to Richard Niessen’s liking. In his work you encounter the spirit of assemblage, the surprising mingling of heterogenous and sometimes warped elements, fonts and symbols of the most divers provenance. But there is a second reason for his preference for the building metaphor, that gave rise to the inception of the Palace as an imaginary, collective museum and club house for graphic design; and of which this book is just the beginning. That reason is his express intention to tune the production of graphic design to a public wavelength, to aim at the space where we as consumers of images, messages, symbols and signs are addressed as individuals and citizens that take part in a democratic culture. In which there are discussions, debates, arguments, differences of experience, opinion and moral stance about all sorts of questions. As a builder of graphic designs he strives for the production of public spaces, in which people are triggered, provoked, engaged to participate and think for themselves on all those issues the publications address.
The second word, expression is a word that since the romantic period is associated with subjectivity. It would be a logical error to infer that expression automatically is identical with chance, arbitrary emotionality and small minded tunnel vision. It is the world, the circumstances in which we were born, raised, work and live, that shape our subjectivity. A graphic designer who employs the expressive potential of his craft, of the technical and esthetic possibilities, tries to use his subjectivity, his sense of colour, his intuition and understanding of form, line, rhythm and language, yes his world view, as an instrument to complete the commissioned design. This detour is not frivolous, nor superfluous decoration. The conscious and artisanal deployment of expression is necessary. By playing into the register of the purely sensory, the esthetic and the emotional the design can achieve what the client can never formulate in a briefing, but what makes the design succeed. Calculations, formats and menus can not achieve anything similar. The necessary detour of expression, the use of subjectivity, is what makes posters, books, magazines etc more than just efficient communication.
Constructive expression is therefor an adequate characterization of Richards source of inspiration. When looking at his work, and when listening to him speaking about the Palace of Typographic Masonry I am lured by quite another metaphor.
This Palace is at present a book in which he collects the technical, historical, cultural and philosophical elements of the craft, and shares and celebrates them. And in which he has invited artists and fellow designers to jonen him, in order to build, together with him, this eternal work in progress, The Palace. It can lead to an online platform, exhibitions, events such as these tonight, seminars and masterclasses, who knows. And when I look at Richards poster designs they remind me of recordings by a band. Bass, drums, guitars, keyboards, vocals. There is movement, rhythm, drive, outspoken harmonies often grinding dissonance. His poster designs have a distinctive sound. And like music, they seem to try to make you enthusiastic (something starts dancing in your head and then in your muscles a little later) and try to lead you into becoming engaged with something, the story in the lyrics, the emotions or experiences the song tries to convey.
Following this metaphor, the Palace for Typographic Masonry becomes something like the dream of starting a record label, that distributes music from a group of likeminded musicians, all from a small office and a recording studio. Solo albums, jam sessions, live albums, concept albums, ambient and film score albums, all these concepts could in the future get an equivalent in the Palace for Typographic Masonry. One of the nice things about this music metaphor is that is is so generously wide and allows for an enormous diversity. You can easily imagine it could house not only graphic designers. At least that is my hope, that in the future I can join the jam in the studio. Otherwise I can offer the writing of lyrics and liner notes.