Sandberg, Willem: NU – IN THE MIDDLE OF THE X X CENTURY [Quadrat-Print]. Hilversum: Steendrukkerij De Jong & Co, 1959.

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Quadrat-Print series edited by Pieter Brattinga

Willem Sandberg [Designer/Author]

Willem Sandberg [Designer/Author], Pieter Brattinga [Editor]: NU - IN THE MIDDLE OF THE X X CENTURY  [QUADRAT-PRINT]. Hilversum: Steendrukkerij De Jong & Co, 1959. First edition. Poems in Dutch, English, French, German. Square quarto. Perfect-bound stiff printed French folded wrappers. 40 pp. Lithography and Offset printed on a variety of paper stocks. Trivial  sunning to edges, otherwise a fine copy.

9.75 x 9.75 perfect-bound edition from the Quadrat-Prints series edited by Pieter Brattinga. 40 pages of varicolored lithographic pages with short sheet overlays of poetry in French, German, English and Dutch. “The Quadrat-Prints are a series of experiments on graphic art and design, fine arts, literature and architecture. [They are edited by Pieter Brattinga and are not for sale.]”

Steendrukkerij De Jong & Co. published 34 Quadrat-Prints between 1955 and 1974, with Brattinga serving as general editor and individual designers given free reign with their chosen subjects in the visual arts, literature, music, architecture, typography, etc. None of these publications were for sale -- they were distributed to friends and business associates by De Jong as elaborate self-promotions.

Willem Sandberg lived a long life, from 1897 to 1984, and he was prolific to the end. He was a graphic designer, a pioneering museum curator and director at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, a champion of modern art and artists, and an original thinker. He rejected the formal and reverential in favour of the playful, daring and disruptive. With little formal training, he learned almost everything he knew from experience and experiment.

Sandberg composed his own manifesto in verse form: “i believe / in warm printing… / … I don’t like / luxury in typography / the use of gold / or brilliant paper / i prefer the rough/ in contour and surface / torn forms / and wrapping paper”

The wrapping paper ethic arose through circumstance. As a child of two world wars, Sandberg’s best work emerged through a culture of austerity and need; he recycled material and images whenever he could, and his influences, not least Dada and Bauhaus, infused his mischievous and modernist outlook. His catalogues resembled punk fanzines 30 years before punk, and, if his work sometimes appeared roughshod and haphazard, one should remember that it took immense devotion to get it to look as accidental as it did. His letters were highly sculptural, revealing negative space; at first glance a torn “T” becomes a sideways “E”. They speak of his obsession not only with making intricate objects by hand, but also with solid branding: his graphics for the Stedelijk created a look and mood for a museum that today would require a huge budget and corporate pitching.

Astonishingly, most of Sandberg’s catalogues and posters were a sideline, designed in the evenings and at weekends. Sandberg was the director of the museum from 1945 to 1962, and his close relationship with the local state printer produced an identity that transformed the Stedelijk into one of Europe’s first truly modern galleries. He created what he liked to refer to as an “Anti-Museum”, rejecting the traditional dark and hushed rooms and creating something bright and accessible, a place of social interaction. He championed young artists, and he succeeded in attracting people who had barely set foot in a museum before. There was a shop, a learning centre and a cafe, all brave innovations in the middle of the century. As was Sandberg’s scheme to get the Stedelijk a little more noticed in the city: he painted the entire building white. It was Tate Modern before Tate Modern, but even Nick Serota doesn’t design most of the empire’s promotional material.

Sandberg oversaw the first exhibitions of several American and European artists, and bought stars of the future at bargain prices: he promoted Picasso and Pollock, and spent just a few hundred guilder on early work by Kandinsky, Mondrian and Schwitters. He spoke of how he was primarily interested in an artist’s character; only through character could he determine whether they would make great things in the future or retreat into repetition. His directorial skills were recognised internationally. After retirement from the Stedelijk, Sandberg spent several years in the mid-60s establishing the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, and he was on the design committee for the Pompidou Centre in Paris when it appointed architects Richard Rodgers, Renzo Piano and Gianfranco Franchini in 1971. The “inside-out” exhilaration of the building may have echoed in Sandberg’s head: some years earlier he had commissioned a long, high external ramp to run along the glass windows of the Stedelijk, so that those who believed they had no interest in the exhibition inside could take a peak nonetheless, and without paying.

During the Nazi occupation his talents were put to use as a forger. With a group of others in the resistance he made fake ID cards, and the fact that the Germans found them difficult to detect was to Sandberg “the greatest praise I have ever had for typographical work.”But there was one place where the false papers could be exposed, and so in 1943 Sandberg’s group attempted to burn down the Central Civil Registry Office. The plot was only partially successful, and many conspirators were rounded up and shot. Sandberg escaped, spending more than a year in rural hiding in the guise of a painter.

Sandberg was fortunate that he operated in a liberal postwar atmosphere where his wilder enthusiasms were tolerated by civic authorities. He rarely sought permission to put up his advertising signs in the city, and he encouraged the same freedoms in the artists he displayed. Show him a barrier and he would try to slip past it. His questioning of the status quo extended to the smallest detail. Why, he asked his students on a course he gave at Harvard in 1969, should one not address an envelope the way the postal system reads it: country first, then the town and street, and then the number and the name of the recipient?

Predictably, young people loved him more than the establishment, and he railed against the conservative critic. “In general a review arises like this,” he once told an interviewer. “The critic begins to write in the vein of, ‘On such and such a date we had a previous exhibition by this man and this new exhibition is much poorer than the former one’, and that’s about it. They can then construct all sorts of literary stories around it and refer to just about anything, but it’s actually more about their judgments than providing background against which you can understand the artist.”

Sandberg died in the same year the Apple Macintosh was born, and one can only surmise what he would have made of one. I imagine he would have extended its possibilities while rejecting its uniformity. “Creativity is / the capacity to shape life / as it grows underneath the surface,” he wrote in one of his verse notes in 1967. He liked the roots of things, and a bit of raggedness, and he wanted people to look at things with wide eyes. His approach to the visual arts was matched by his embrace of the arts in general – warm and tactile, a bit of a challenge, something for the soul. He wasn’t a Helvetica man, and he probably wouldn’t have been much of an app man, though he always sought newness. And he achieved his most explicit goal, “to stimulate the communication between artist and public”. If this seems modest and commonplace today, we should remember that Sandberg was among the earliest to make it so. [Simon Garfield, from The Guardian]