Summer 1999

Reputations: Piet Schreuders

‘I don’t want to know the canon, because it is completely irrelevant and transient. If you fight the canon you become a product of its system’

‘The profession of “graphic design” is criminal and really ought not to exist.’ With these words the 26-year-old ingénu ‘lay-outer’. Piet Schreuders addressed the Dutch design community in May 1977, in Lay In – Lay Out, a pamphlet (reprinted in 1997) which had the effect of a red rag to a bull. This was the third in a series published by Gerrit Jan Thiemefonds, champions of graphic design excellence who, before Schreuders, commissioned Dick Elffers and Wim Crouwel – two legends of Dutch design, to shed light on the profession. Of Crouwel, the Swiss-inspired founder of Total Design and a figure who loomed large over Dutch design discourse in the 1970s, Schreuders wrote: ‘Where Wim Crouwel proposes “objective norms” in place of “beautiful” and “ugly”, this book sticks to those two words and regards Crouwel’s work as personal, original, of its time – and, yes, ugly.’ To stress his point, Schreuders, during the launching debate of Lay In – Lay Out, metaphorically – and physically – tore apart one of Crouwel’s posters before the eyes of its stunned designer and an outraged audience. Piet Schreuders has been considered an enfant terrible ever since.

But this provocative stance easily detracts from the serious undertone of Schreuders’ argument, that ‘design is like directing a film or mixing a sound recording, to make a whole out of diverse elements.’ From his first attempts, as a student, at hand-drawn, machine-typed and photocopied ’zines in the mid 1970s, Schreuders has been fascinated by the individual qualities of these elements and the ‘music’ that results from carefully selecting them and pasting them together. His love for obscure display and headline typefaces, mostly from prewar American sources, makes him a precursor of both the historical interest in type outside the ‘International Style’ of graphic design in the pre-computer era – taken up by a younger generation in the late 1980s – and of what, ten years after Lay In – Lay Out, became known as ‘vernacular design’.

The primary outlets for Schreuders’ typographical and historical fascinations have always been self-published magazines, starting with De Poezenkrant [The Kitty Paper] from 1974 and, a year later, Furore, self-described as ‘irregularly brilliant’ and ‘a magazine about things, persons and occurrences that may be interesting to the Furore world view’. In these and other projects Schreuders practised and developed his ‘gangster method’ of making multiple photocopies of a type specimen (or, if a specimen was unavailable, assembling one himself from letters cut from old newspaper headlines) and using these for cutting out letters and pasting them into the layout ‘like a ransom note’. In this way Schreuders not only greatly extended his choice of typefaces, but could at the same time indulge his personal perfectionism in spacing and evade the ‘bastardised forms of familiar metal typefaces’ that abounded on rub-down letter sheets. After seven years of silence, the nineteenth issue of Furore was published last March with a ‘re-visit’ to one of Schreuders’ favourite places in the US, the junction of Hubbard Street and Foothill Boulevard in Sylmar, California, and a meticulous reconstruction of ‘the shortest Main Street in the world’, the stretch of houses and shops in Culver City, California, used as a backdrop for street shots in Laurel and Hardy movies.

An assiduous researcher, Schreuders has published exhaustive books on seemingly marginal (or, to some, obscure) details of film, music and design history: Paperbacks U.S.A.: a graphical history, 1939-1959, which diligently charted two decades of cover designs for popular editions of American literature and the Dell Mapbacks (see Eye no. 26 vol. 7). In The Beatles’ London (with Mark Lewisohn and Adam Smith) he mapped no less than 400 sites in and around London which had been the scenes for film and photo shoots of the Fab Four. And his fascination with the music of Leroy (Roy) Shield led to a painstaking reconstruction of Shield’s lost scores for several Laurel and Hardy and Little Rascals comedies, transcribed from the original 1930s Hal Roach film soundtracks and recorded in ‘Authentic Low Fidelity’ with the dedicated Amsterdam orchestra The Beau Hunks on two double CDs (1995), for which Schreuders designed ‘period’ jackets. Piet Schreuders further communicates his love for ‘applied’ and ‘light’ music in his programmes for VPRO radio, the Dutch station, as well as producing documentary films on his favourite subjects.

Meanwhile, Piet Schreuders has become a respected graphic designer / radio programmer / documentary maker / researcher, who still adheres to the two ‘essential rules for making a good design’ he formulated in Lay In – Lay Out: ‘1. Take a piece of paper. 2. Start laying out.’

Max Bruinsma: In the 1970s you went through typographic history like a vacuum cleaner.

Piet Schreuders: I was searching for a particular atmosphere and couldn’t find it. So I persevered, and when you do that, you do find it. Of course, it’s odd: why should you have to resort to cutting out letters simply to get a particular typographic feel? It’s quite laborious. Why does something that is good fade into oblivion? It is the capriciousness of history that is always playing tricks on us! Oz [Oswald] Cooper is a case in point. Vanished. His letters were everywhere, in Europe, as well as in the States, whenever there was a use for the more eye-catching poster jobs. And all of a sudden they became third-rate chip-shop letters, and nobody noticed their beauty any more! Cooper’s Cooper Black, for instance, fitted perfectly into the Chicago billboard culture, where a lot of hand-painting was done on walls and trams, and on the broadsheets that announced newspapers on the streets.

I like to reinstate these letters into the public’s consciousness. For instance, typefaces like Pastel, a titling font used for silent films that is all but forgotten. I found out that Pastel had been issued in the 1890s by the Chicago-based Barnhart Brothers type foundry. I hadn’t heard of them and decided to make up for that by buying a big book about them: a bible-like type specimen book from 1924. Barnhart Brothers are the same people who later picked up Cooper and other young type designers in this Chicago tradition of billboard design, and hired them to design typefaces exclusively for their company.

MB: What is so appealing about those letters?

PS: Primarily, for me, it’s not a matter of beauty, but of usefulness in certain circumstances. They just work well. But it’s true that the Cooper has an intrinsic beauty, just as Gill Sans has an intrinsic beauty, but with a different feel. I often wonder if typefaces influence the choice of words expressed in them, or if certain words require certain typefaces. A newspaper headline in a condensed Cheltenham has a chirpy sound which can work quite well, but you can’t use that same type for a Shakespeare sonnet. Perhaps this is why I used to be so frustrated with Swiss typography: it flatly negates all these associations and ‘overtones’ generated by all typefaces, including Univers and Helvetica. I have a sensitivity for letters, for what you might call their ‘sound’, their atmosphere. You have to develop that sensitivity, by observation, by leafing through stacks of font books. I usually sample a ‘posy’ of letters that work well together in a project. I enjoy that very much. There are letters with, say, a Spanish and a Chicago feel – I’d say you have to be conscious of that. You can joke about with it and think ‘let’s put a French-speaking letter next to one with a New York accent’, but you have to do that consciously.

MB: You cherish a quite specific kind of attention to typographical details.

PS: Well, details ... I wouldn’t call it that. It’s the material you work with; it’s the bread and butter of a designer. Incidentally, I’m not sure if it is always an advantage to know a lot. You can know too much – intuition is important too. There are monomaniacs who have drowned themselves in the tiniest details – these people are highly useful if one needs information. I know quite a few of them. My role is more that of combining all these things. I don’t know that much myself, but I can put it together, as an editor. You try out combinations and detailing until it fits together, just like rehearsing music. That is the good thing about computers – before, you sat there pasting up layouts which you brought to the printers, even if it wasn’t exactly what you wanted. In the end, you had to let it go, because you couldn’t really tear those paste-ups apart just to correct a tiny detail. Now you can make fifteen, twenty versions until you decide it’s okay.

MB: What about the ‘handwriting’, the personal touch of the typographer – doesn’t the computer tend to flatten that out?

PS: The computer is not a musical instrument – it’s a mailbox, a tool. Listening to a piece of music, you hear the composition as played on an instrument. Reading a book or a magazine you don’t see the typewriter or the computer or the printing press or any other instrument, you see what the writers and designers had in mind, as they were writing and designing. When it’s good, you shouldn’t see the computer when you open up a magazine. It is first and foremost a practical instrument because it relieves you of the dependency on bunglers. I don’t have to talk to a typesetter who misinterprets me and makes something different – all that static has gone! You decide for yourself how you want to use a typeface – you’re the boss. The Cooper Roman font that I used in Lay In – Lay Out, for instance, was originally a Berthold font, with faulty f-i ligatures. They look good on screen or as a printout, but as soon as you turn out a film, the f and the i become mashed together. It is not a real ligature, just two letters pasted together, which is even uglier than when you type them separately. So I asked someone who is clever with Fontographer to help me out and we made some very beautiful ligatures, seven in all, for that Berthold Cooper, which consequently is now Piet’s Cooper – only available in this booklet.

MB: You don’t feel nostalgic for the rough-edged quality of the ‘gangster method’?

PS: No, because the ‘gangster method’ was a practice based on desperation. That ‘rough-edged’ quality was a side effect which was sometimes functional and desirable, but more often was not. I am not primarily interested in rough edges. Accidents happen, and then people think: ‘how charmingly off balance this Schreuders typesets his letters’. Nowadays I can be more flexible in my choice of methods, and of course ‘rough edges’ are always available for scanning whenever the need arises.

MB: The accidental mishap is a kind of personal signature in your work: you seem to revel in the faulty, in the couleur locale of the typographical mistake.

PS: Yes. When I first started to lay out type, I noticed that there is a certain charm to clumsy printing – that one was not obliged to keep to the rules and regulations of typography. Typographic errors happen, and they can be quite moving. You just have to look at what is actually being printed, in ordinary print jobs, the things people use on a daily basis, the bags from your local grocery. You don’t ask whether the packaging is well designed, you just use it.

MB: You are seen as a precursor of vernacular design.

PS:Well, it was kind of nice, ten years ago, to see that others, too, were interested in ‘sloppy typography’ or ‘found typography’. But then it became a pigeonhole and I don’t like to be pigeonholed. What relevance does it have, when some art historian thinks up a name for it? For me it is more a matter of taste, of sensitivity: you see something and you think ‘yes!’ Only after that first feeling of recognition do you start to look at it with the eyes of a professional, in order to find out what is so nice about it, what it is that makes it so catchy, so moving. Then you think about whether you can mimic that quality. Obviously, when you copy it, it becomes something different, a pastiche or a quotation. I have made a lot of pastiches and learnt a lot from doing them. And I have done things in which that element is present in the background. I have tried to keep some of the artlessness of ordinary things – that’s what interests me most. Meanwhile, one obviously – and consciously – develops all kinds of useful and useless typographic skills.

MB: Still, it seems that you keep resisting the profession.

PS: I definitely wanted to a learn a craft, though. When studying Dutch I mostly made mags. This necessitated a minimum of design knowledge, or rather, some minimal paste-up skills, with scissors and glue and things. I acquired that without exerting myself by doing all kinds of underground ’zines, like Willem de Ridder’s Aloha. He had a sort of arrogance in making those magazines born of a practical disposition: if a letter doesn’t fit, you cut off part of it, and then it does fit. Who cares whether it’s right or wrong when it works well on a page, when it gives it the right expression? It was all about just doing it, about cutting and pasting, with lots of humming and music playing in the background.

MB: Is that what design is about, basically – cutting and pasting?

PS: I always feel more of a ‘layouter’ than a designer – there is an important difference between designing and ‘layouting’! [In the Netherlands, the English expression ‘to lay out’ has become the Dutch verb layouten.] I believe it is relatively simple to design a good basic grid for a book or magazine, but making the actual text and illustrations fit the page is much more interesting to me – it is an ever-challenging puzzle. As much as I try, for instance, to make a strong, eye-catching CD cover, I feel much more challenged by the problem posed by the inner pages of the booklet and the inlay card. People tell me that my back covers are more interesting to look at than my front covers, and they are right! That holds true for Furore as well.

MB: You wrote Lay In – Lay Out very early in your career- how did that happen?

PS: Lay In – Lay Out was an assignment. I knew it would be read by a lot of stringent prigs who would scrutinise my every word. The assignment was to write as personally and emotionally as possible about what appealed to me in design, so I did exactly that.

MB: Was it not an occasion for you to develop your own criteria of what good design is about? If only to counter-balance the graphic design canon?

PS: No, I just answered a request. I do hold criteria, but more as personal arguments, which I wrote down as best as I could at the time. I don’t think in historical terms or design terms. I don’t want to know the canon, because it is completely irrelevant and transient. If you fight the canon you become a product of the system, you become subordinated.

MB: Still, you are considered as someone who continually opposes ‘good design’, if only to direct attention to things outside.

PS: If that’s the case, I resist it, not just because I don’t want any part of it, but also to stay fresh. I would never have been ‘troubled’ by the likes of Wim Crouwel had I not been prompted to write a book about them, and thereby pay attention to them. This whole debate about graphic design is purely an academic one. But design only functions within a context, and that context lies outside academia.

MB: You stated that design is a ‘secret craft’, that designers should do their jobs in concealment.

PS: Yes, that is the essence of Lay In – Lay Out! It’s just one big misunderstanding when people now focus on this guy Piet Schreuders who does such funny things with letters! But like any fame that is only a thing of the moment. Attention merely distracts. Designers do their jobs much better when they are thinking about things that are completely different to design or fame.

MB: In your introduction to the re-issue of Lay In – Lay Out, you state it is still topical: ‘change phototypesetting to digitalisation, and you have topical publication’.

PS: Abuses similar to those of two decades ago still abound, albeit by different perpetrators and in a changed profession.

MB: Do you still think of designers as criminals, or has your prophecy that they will vanish been fulfilled?

PS: No, not yet. There is still a lot of hollow gibberish and vanity among designers today, and preoccupation with things which are in my view irrelevant. I can’t say much more about it than what I said back in 1977 – it sounded all right then. When I wrote statements like ‘designers are criminals’, I paid particular attention to the rhythm of the sentence, as a kind of music. I think that is one of the reasons people still like to quote from the book. With Lay In – Lay Out I just wanted to stir things up a little, and to point to the fact that there were plenty of other things worthy of attention beyond what was at the time considered Good Design. What does amaze me, is that it appears to be still popular twenty years later, that I was given the H. N. Werkman Award for the re-issue and that it was selected as one of the best produced books in the Netherlands in 1997!

MB: Doesn’t that make you part of the canon?

PS: No, it indicates the unpredictability of public appreciation, and it shows how arbitrary all those enraged reactions were twenty years ago.

MB: What is the appeal of re-issuing it?

PS: We’re living in an age of re-issues. It’s the ebb and flow of history. Lay In – Lay Out was re-issued because there was continued demand for it, even though it had been out of print for twenty years. Design students were reading it in the form of rough photocopies. I wanted to prove two things: that it did not deserve the legendary status it had acquired by being unavailable for so long, but also that it was not such scandalous rubbish as the critics of two decades ago had claimed.

MB: Publishing a new issue of Furore, seven years after the last one, almost feels like a re-issue as well.

PS: No, it’s clearly not. Furore 19 reflects the things that interest me at the moment. The good thing about Furore is that, while you can say that old issues are typical of the 1970s, there is still something, even in those early issues, that is timeless, that is intensely individual – not necessarily characteristic of me personally, but of the magazine. You shouldn’t identify the magazine with what I think, although it’s entirely mine. It appears quite irregularly, so in a sense it is completely timeless.

MB: I would doubt that – it has the flavour of a kind of Anglo-Saxon culture that had already passed, even in the 1970s.

PS: It has always verged on the Anglo-American – 90 per cent of its content is from America or England. But the latest issue has more to do with Internet culture, with disappearing boundaries and communicating by email. Everybody is typing little notes in English and posting them hither and thither at breakneck speed and all kinds of pictures appear on your screen – I think Furore 19 has quite a touch of that. And the funny thing is, it fits perfectly in the magazine, because it has the same directness that it had in the 1970s, with its ’zine culture, its photocopy culture! But it’s hard to explain what makes Furore what it is. What drives me crazy is when I show the magazine to people and then they ask: ‘What kind of magazine is it?’ It is what it is. You might say it’s filled with Nice Things. I have now issued a press release that states that Furore is an alliance of people who like Nice Things. That has nothing to do with age or nationality. You either get it or you don’t.

MB: What fascinates you so much about America?

PS: Amsterdam is nice too. The next issue of Furore will have the added line: ‘Edited in Amsterdam’, not that that means anything much, But I like to visit the intersection of Hubbard Street and Foothill Boulevard, in Sylmar, California 91342, because there is nothing there to see. It is completely empty, a desert really, of which you can think whatever you want. Actually, America is a jumble in general. You can see that quite well when you travel by train or car. Just a mile outside San Francisco, and it’s a shambles, cardboard boxes, rusted kiddie bikes or just plain nothing. I don’t have to archive those kiddie bikes - it’s a liberating feeling, all this emptiness that you can fill with whatever thoughts you fancy. I have always found it really liberating. It is, of course, a deceptive mood that lingers on for a week, and after that you’re just there. For me, it’s an ideal environment to write about, to photograph, to approach from a certain distance maybe, but at the same time to absorb – America lends itself very well to that, as material. Plus, it is a paradise for researchers!

MB: Does all this indicate a certain tendency in your interests towards the obscure?

PS: This obscurity is a pure concurrence of circumstances. As an amateur historian I like to imagine what happens if you rid something of all those layers, all the opinions and misinterpretations, all that history, and consider it on its own merits. Then, at least in the case of Leroy Shield’s compositions for Little Rascals movies, you inevitably conclude: this is great music! That is a discovery, because now you have fantastic music, and everybody knows it, and there’s a job to do, because as an archivist and historian you can joyfully brush it all together and reconstruct it, you can arrange for scores to be made, you can have it performed and recorded, so you can design a nice CD box – all of which I have done; all of which is useful work! So it’s not obscurity as such that attracts me. Everybody knows the Little Rascals and Laurel and Hardy and The Beatles. But you can give those well-known phenomena a fresh look when you manage to find out things about them that no-one knows, that have been forgotten or buried beneath layers of dust. You succeed in doing that by investing quite a lot of hard work in research, and you end up with a fresh look on things. That can be communicated to an audience very well.

MB: But what does it tell you, or the public?

PS: The world is not fathomable in its entirety. But take a tiny part of something and study it, and it starts to live. When that happens, you have thought in a new way about the entire world! It does say something about the whole thing – you look at small aspects to illustrate connections on a higher level.

Also, I find it important to be able to share my research with people; that it should take on a certain form. Research is fun, but if I don’t have this idea at the back of my head that it will result in a book or something within two years or twenty years, then I lose interest. Sometimes you don’t know what it will be, you just think: there’s something in it, and if I start to pull it will come out. And it can become anything, a book, a film or six lines in Furore … the material will indicate what it will result in. The publications are my archive: the books, the documentaries, the radio programmes, the magazine, the records. Beyond that I have only leftovers, such as the 4,000 paperbacks I collected for my book about paperback covers. I can’t throw those away, so they fill a wall in the hallway of my house.

MB: You often refer to music, and you make radio programmes. Do you see similarities between the cutting and pasting you apply in your graphic work and the way editing, splicing tape, is used in radio and recording?

PS: That is a different form of cutting altogether. Sound editing can be done on a computer, but for the editing of that old film music, a job I undertook for The Beau Hunks, I preferred the old method of splicing tape and making edits that way. Because I was working with sound material from 60 years ago I had the feeling it brought me closer to the sound editors of those days. Moving the tape along the tape heads, I developed a feel for the points where they must have made their edits, so I made mine at the same points. I like the physical feel of a magnetic tape running from left to right, the length of the tape corresponding directly to what you hear. In graphic work there are always more dimensions at play. For example, you can never predict at what points in page the reader will start and stop.

MB: You spend a lot of time researching?

PS: It’s a struggle, really – weeks pass by when I think: if I just finish this couple of chores then I have next Tuesday afternoon to work on this personal project. But then something goes wrong with one of those chores, and it ends up being Tuesday night and I realise I’ll have to wait yet another week before another hole appears in my schedule to allow another shot at that personal project. I really hate that. It’s like that with all these research things; they can drag on for years. So I’m not this dreadful monomaniac who’s just passionately indulging in his obsessions – the reality is that these things can be put on hold for a year and then you continue where you left off. I started doing that when I became a father. I used to cut pictures from The New Yorker every morning between 8 and 8:15, because you can do that with a child on your lap. So at a certain point in time I did have 300 pictures from The New Yorker, which I could then start to catalogue. That was time well spent!

MB: You look to the past a lot; you’re no futurologist.

PS: I wouldn’t say I’m stuck in the past, though – I am looking for traditions. Often these are hidden traditions, but ones that are alive. I don’t want to break with the past, I want to see what threads there are which I can pick up and work with.

MB: There are quite a few lying about, and you pick up a lot of them.

PS: Sometimes I go a bit crazy too, with all the different things I do and they can get in the way of each other. But mostly it all connects very well. I often do designs for music-related projects, like CD covers and booklets, so people send me tapes which I can use for my radio programme, in which I can tell the listener about a record cover. You can find a useful channel for just about anything. If it’s good, one thing inspires another. But sometimes I wish I could do one thing well and nothing else. As a child, I never knew what to choose as a profession, and I still regularly think: ‘what shall I do when I’m a grown-up?’ And I’m almost 50! That question has had a life of its own.

Translation by Max Bruinsma

The quotations from Lay In – Lay Out are from the English summary by Robin Kinross in the re-issue, 1997, De Buitenkant, Amsterdam.

Works available in English language versions:
Paperbacks U.S.A.: a graphical history, 1939-1959. London, Virgin Books / San Diego, Blue Dolphin, 1981.
The Beatles’ London; [with Mark Lewisohn and Adam Smith] London, Hamlyn, 1994. New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1995.
The Complete Little Rascals Music. Two CD box set, music performed by The Beau Hunks (KOCH Screen, 1995).

First published in Eye no. 32 vol. 8 1999

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, back issues and single copies of the latest issue.