Summer 2002

An anti-monument to success

Karel Martens: printed matter / drukwerk (revised)

Ed. Robin Kinross, Karel Martens & Jaap van Triest
Hyphen Press, £27.50

Graphic design, on the evidence of most of the book-publishing activity that records it, is a utopia populated by the genus genius. Printed Matter lies within this tradition, though rather more imaginatively than most. Produced by Robin Kinross’ Hyphen Press on the initiative of the Dr A. H. Heineken Foundation for Art in 1996, the book itself forms part of an award honouring Dutch graphic designer Karel Martens for his work since the 1960s. It contains a visual survey of Martens’ work from his early career as a designer of coldly abstract book covers that shared much with Swiss School asceticism. When in the 1970s he became disenchanted with his role as a design technocrat, he established relations with cultural and political clients such as the Museum Boymans van Beuningen and Socialistiese Uitgeverij Nijmegen (SUN Publishers) and, later, mainstream clients such as PTT Nederland. Without relinquishing his commitment to clarity and economy, Martens – mid-way through his career – began to show signs of a dissenting sensibility. This attitude remains in his work today.

This catalogue of a design career is accompanied by a series of Dutch/English essays by and on Martens, including one by Kinross, a writer, publisher and designer with a longstanding interest in the long durée of Modernism in the Netherlands. First printed in two editions in 1996, the book has been updated by a section which reviews Martens’ work to date. The Heineken Foundation Jury’s report opens the book with a kind of comment on the rights and wrongs of garlanding working designers with laurels. I share instinctively their caution. Monuments to the living are more often associated with dictators and egomaniacs than thoughtful designers. Monuments smooth out the flaws and uncertainties of events as they happen, producing a triumphant and inflated image of achievement in retrospect. As the counter-memorials recording the Holocaust in Central Europe since the 1970s show, mutable, uncertain or incomplete monuments can provoke the kind of thoughtful and critical reflection that history requires. Counter-memorials – whether in the street or on the printed page – treat history as a process with traces and consequences in the present rather than as incidents locked in the past.

Jaap van Triest and Karel Martens’ own design of Printed Matter displays something of this sensibility. The cover, a folded wrapping, is spotted with small, circular motifs overprinted as if to test colour-registration. It has the transient feel of a proof or a mock-up. Moreover, the anti-monumental sensibility runs throughout, with many of Martens’ formal designs for publications and posters reproduced at a Lilliputian scale up close to the page margins, while his experiments with letterpress and rejected designs occupy full double-page spreads.

The book’s anti-monumental character is fitting. Between 1975-1981 Martens designed the output of the Uitgeverij Sun publishing house, a left-wing press responsible for the dissemination of many of major works in the Western Marxist canon by Brecht, Lukács, Adorno, Benjamin and others. Offering a political and sometimes pessimistic critique of modern Western societies, these writers had a lot to say about the ideological effects of the media in general and print in particular. As if to test arguments about a materialist conception of history, Martens’ designs in the 1970s often paid careful attention to the material qualities of print, sometimes in its most entropic forms. As the caption describing the cover for Hanns Eisler’s Music and Politics notes, Martens’ use of ‘messy’ materials – hand-written scrawl across the staves of a ‘blank’ sheet of music and a photostat of an official, typed statement – revealed his ‘commitment to work with the very material of the book’.

Martens’ fascination in the techniques and technologies of reproduction is not that of the print fetishist, disconnecting form from content. Nevertheless, Printed Matter is a well judged book-title: Martens’ work displays a strong interest in all processes that put ink on paper. Organised in phases and periods, this account of Martens’ work follows the metre of chronology, but it does not beat out a story of technical ‘advances’. In fact, Martens’ interest in the material qualities of print (in paper textures and print effects), from what was once called ‘the age of mechanical reproduction’, seems to have become greater in the ‘digital age’. If the historical narrative that runs through the work is not a technological one, it is, as Kinross’s essay suggests, one of the intellectual life of a European designer since the 1960s.