Winter 2004

Werkman and the art of type [EXTRACT]

H. N. Werkman

By Alston W. Purvis. Laurence King, £14.95

In the latest edition of the Monographics book series, Alston Purvis describes H. N. Werkman as a restless, driven designer whose legacy, the author says in his introductory essay, ‘is to teach us that type can function independently without needing to communicate a message, and that graphic design need not be bound to the new technology of its time.’

Taking those dual ideas as his theses, Purvis outlines the short career of Werkman (1882-1945), the Dutch designer and innovator. Werkman was a loner, often sequestered with his letter press and somewhat in thrall to his own creative conscience. A printer by trade, Werkman also gravitated towards drawing and painting, and in 1918 joined the Groningen art group, De Ploeg. He printed and published six issues of a corresponding magazine, and from 1923-1926 produced his masterpiece, a magazine called The Next Call. This hand-printed publication allowed Werkman to cover the burgeoning European avant-garde, as well as to indulge in some experimentation of his own. He often composed his pages while printing, and emphasised the power of typography as potential images, even foreshadowing Kurt Schwitters’ later anthropomorphic type in his second issue.

Unlike his contemporaries such as Schwitters, however, Werkman did not follow dogmas or manifestos. Rather he simply wanted to be free to do whatever he liked. Purvis notes that in his process and thinking, ‘he freely seized upon whatever was needed to achieve a desired result’. Werkman also believed in the essential importance of his work as art, and created a series of 600 monotypes he called druksels, which were composed of typographic materials (later turning more figurative) and made through elaborate manipulations of the printing press. [...]

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