Autumn 2008

The elegant simplicity of torn paper

Jan Bons: a designer’s freedom

y Lex Reitsma and Paul Hefting
De Buitenkant, Euros 24.50

There is an elegant simplicity about this combined book and DVD on the Dutch designer Jan Bons that is immensely satisfying. Not another oversized monograph, but instead a smaller than A5 bi-lingual publication where a short biography by Paul Hefting and a catalogue of poster work is bound into covers that also include a die-cut pulpboard container for a DVD with a 53-minute film by Lex Reitsma. The paper (some coated, some matt with even a gatefold) feels right. The black and white archive images are richly printed. Even before you get to the contents, you know you are in good hands.

Bons, born in 1918, is famous for his posters and stamps, mostly produced with images and typography formed from torn paper and handlettering. Much influenced by Willem Sandberg, designer and director of Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, Bons’ work appears to sit outside the Dutch school of sans serif type, grids and design systems. Hefting puts Bons’s life and work firmly within Dutch history. During the German occupation Bons worked with the printer Frans Duwaer forging ID documents for the Resistance: they would use Duwaer’s factory at weekends unknown to the workforce. Duwaer was arrested and executed. Bons’s older son says in the film that afterwards Bons would ‘judge people by a simple criterion: if there were a war now, would I trust this person to ask him to offer me a safe house.’

Reitsma’s film is as powerful and intimate as the book it goes with: opening credits with the silhouetted hands of Bons tearing and cutting paper inevitably evoke the credit sequences of Saul Bass. The film then shows Bons, in his 80s, still working in his garden studio arranging elements to make posters and flyers for his younger son’s Nieuw Ensemble orchestra or driving into central Amsterdam to present his latest poster for the International Documentary Film Festival for whom he’s produced posters using variations on the same image of a movie camera for fifteen years.

The beautiful thing about working with torn paper is that you don’t need a computer. For 30 years he made posters for Erik Vos’s De Appel theatre company: ‘His style is improvisational,’ says Vos, ‘a bit like our rehearsals.’ Hefting hints at Bons’s wisdom and obstinacy. And if there is a message that comes shining through this film and book, it’s that you’ve got to be really good to be able to make design look this simple.

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