Summer 2005

The many sides of Willem Sandberg


By Ad Petersen, design Jan van Toorn. 010 Publishers, €37.50 <br>

No graphic design history is complete without the inclusion of Jonkheer Willem Jacob Henri Berend Sandberg (1897-1984). With a career that started in prewar Holland, Will Sandberg provides a link between Piet Zwart and H. N. Werkman before him and Wim Crouwel, Jan Bons, Otto Treumann and Benno Wissing who followed. His most renowned work, more than 270 posters and 250 catalogues, was produced in his spare time after 1945, when at the age of 48 he was appointed director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. It was in this role that he introduced contemporary art to postwar Holland and helped to build up one of the best collections of modern art in Europe. (See ‘Warm printing’, Eye no. 25 vol. 7.)

As a designer, he produced work that is characterised by bold type (described by Jan Bons in terms of their ‘cheerful simplicity’) and vivid colours; and his use of recycled and kraft paper, and signature torn paper forms was innovative and influential. Then there is his museum directorship and his promotion of and friendship with artists. Plus his time-consuming work as a member of countless organisations, advisory bodies, juries and editorial boards all to do with art or art policy. These roles allowed him the freedom he needed for his design work. Writing in Experimenta Typografica, the series of manuscripts started in 1943, he stated, ‘since 1940 I have always been my own client and worked for my own pleasure … perhaps I ended up in the museum profession to escape clients.’

His involvement during World War II in the resistance was to be a turning point in his career. Many people in the art world needed false papers to avoid arrest. With the help of a printer, Frans Duwaer, Sandberg produced these to such a high standard that even experts could not identify the fakes. He later described this as ‘the greatest praise I have ever had for typographical work.’ They could only be checked through the Central Civil Registry Office in Amsterdam, which Sandberg and four others attempted to burn down in 1943. Sandberg was the only one to escape arrest and spent the rest of the war in hiding where he began work on Experimenta Typografica. The other four were shot by the Gestapo.

Focusing on Sandberg’s directorship of the Stedelijk, the book also includes an account of his previous life and his post-retirement work on the development of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The author, who worked with Sandberg at the Stedelijk and remained friends until his death in 1984, maintains a personal yet distanced view of the man. However, maybe there is another Sandberg not shown in the text. The biography reveals that he was married twice and had ‘a lifelong secret relationship with Geneviève Delloye.’