Wednesday, 7:30am
29 October 2008

Missing link

The Netherlands begins to value its design history – with a new society

Though many Dutch designers are world famous, few Dutch design historians are, writes Esther Cleven. In itself, this is not surprising – writing history (apart from the political sort) is hardly the best way to get well known – but what is surprising is how few Dutch researchers and writers address the subject.

The fact that the (Dutch) publishers of the recent Jan van Toorn monograph (reviewed in Eye no. 68 vol. 17) turned to a British author, Rick Poynor, to write it is proof positive.

So why does so little design history writing originate in the Netherlands? Do successful design practices not need it? Do they forbid it, to protect their ‘image’? Or is the country just too small to allow for the professional evaluation of its design history? It is certainly hard to find a publisher able to pay a decent fee.

Most of the research carried out in the Netherlands is associated with heritage institutions – museums, city archives and libraries (see ‘Polyphonic playground’, Eye, no. 68 vol. 17). While designers do initiate many publications themselves, this doesn’t add up to a real design history, though it may be a valuable starting point for one.

Two weeks ago a group of researchers came together to celebrate the publication of two indispensable books on the subject – Frederike Huygen’s Visies op Vormgeving II and Mienke Simon Thomas’s Dutch Design – and, perhaps more importantly, to found the first Dutch design history society (more on this later, once the website is up and running). Perhaps this shows the time has finally come for a more critical, distanced and contextual reflection on Dutch design. And a design history society offers the prospect of outsiders getting involved into that venture. Which is another essential element for a full-grown design history.

Frederike Huygen’s Visies op Vormgeving II, 1944-2000 (Architectura & Natura, Euros 35, ISBN: 9789076863429)
Mienke Simon Thomas’s Dutch Design: A History (Reaktion Books, £19.95, ISBN: 9781861893802)

Esther Cleven is curator of graphic design at the Graphic Design Museum, Breda, The Netherlands.

Top and bottom: Milestones of Dutch design history on display at the Graphic Design Museum, Breda. Photographs by Peter Cuypers, 2008.

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.