Why I’m currently a nobody

Or: how I sold my soul to fill a page

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Someone has to make them.

Looking at textbooks while I was still at school, even as I got older and started to study design and develop a creative eye, I never even thought about the people that had to design them. It never occurred to me that some poor soul had to put together textbooks for school kids day in and day out; that that was an actual job – it seemed a little perverse, and still does.

But that’s what I do.

Book design is a fairly glamorous, if anonymous, career. Some book designers, the likes of Chip Kidd, become pretty big in the industry. But most people never know who puts together those thousands of covers you can see when you enter a bookshop.

It’s a special kind of anonymity. Not at all negative, just peaceful and satisfying.

But even more anonymous, at the very bottom of the book design ladder, are those that design for the education sector.  

That sentence deserves clarification because no one actually designs textbooks anymore. All of the “design” aspects of the job are derivative. Textbooks were put together years ago and since then every edition is more or less the same. It is a job of templates and monotony.

This is neither a defence nor a criticism of the sector I am in, but rather a note on how you end up being a bad designer by accident.

At university I was a book designer: every project I completed involved a book in its outcome. Different formats, different layouts, all interesting due to content (I excelled in the editorial and conceptual departments, rather than being a rock and roll designer – not that anyone on my course was particularly rock and roll). I would spend hours tinkering, styling, moving things around until the book was perfect. I would put them through rigorous edits and then edit them again anyway. Space was always the most important thing: giving the text enough room to breathe and arranging it so it read beautifully. That was my favourite part, the minute alterations to layout to get a sentence to run correctly. I loved it, because I am uncool.

Three months on and it all seems a very long time ago.  

My working day consists of cycling five miles during early morning rush hour traffic and getting into the office half an hour early. The work I do varies between corrections and layout, sometimes I work on seven jobs a-day, sometimes none. Work is given out accented with the phrase “because he has nothing better to do” (I do, by the way). I work on what seems like the same book over and over until five-thirty. Then it’s another five mile home in the evening rush hour traffic, usually in the rain. Energy and will to live suitably sapped, I then wait for the whole thing to start over.

There is no room for ingenuity or flair, just follow the template and use the right styles. Never deviate, because the non-designers in the room can’t handle it.

I still design books, but to say I do it professionally would be erroneous on account of the fact that it is more of a hobby; something I do on the side to stop myself losing my edge – practice, more than anything. More than that, I work hard on my writing, both fiction and articles, I am the Marketing Director of a successful theatre company. But it counts for nought against the vacuum of having to be a bad designer after years of hard work.

It’s difficult to see that it could be a respected sector, and could produce good work if someone just made a change: throw out the templates, get rid of the horrible childish illustrations, and trust that students can handle looking at good design. It could be so much better. But it won’t happen, because no one has the power to change it.

Those that work in the sector are not bad people, nor are they to be criticized for what they do – someone has to do it. It’s just that no one wants to because the work is repetitive, the pay is bad, and nobody knows who the hell we are. 

Henry van de Velde

From his house to the Bauhaus to yours

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Henry van de Velde at his desk.

Looking out at the Brussels skyline, there is barely a modern building that doesn’t resonate with the echo of Modernism, those grand twenty-plus storied Bauhaus monolithic symphonies of glass and girders. From the Charlemagne building to the Berlayment to the Brussels Events Building, you can see reflected the influence of one man. But you wouldn’t know it. He was one of the last great polymaths and a man that played a large part in changing the look of the world around us, and a man that can be – and has been – credited as the inventor of Modernism as we know it.

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The Charlemagne Building in Brussels.

It sounds a bold claim but it’s not without foundation. It would be debated, of course, we each have our own idea of where Modernism came from, and when. I wouldn’t even begin to argue that this one man was responsible for the whole thing. But there is certainty in one thing, he served as a vital cog in the unstoppable machine of pre-Bauhaus Modernism, functioning as a very real stepping stone between Ruskin and Morris’ Arts and Crafts, in which one can see the beginnings of Modernist typographic thinking, and Walter Gropius’ Bauhaus; two movements that are often seen as separated by some impassable gulf but are in fact two carriages on the same inexorable train: destination Modernism.

But that gap needs filling, noticeable as it is. So, how does one get from a movement steeped in traditionalism that railed so heftily against the machine to the reactionary clean slate of post-war Bauhaus that tried to wipe away that bitter taste of conventionality? With one looking back and another looking to the future, how are these two schools reconciled? The answer lies in the figure of Henry van de Velde.

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Last year saw the 150th anniversary of van de Velde’s birth. To mark this a retrospective was opened in Brussels, welcoming home one of Belgium’s lost sons with an exhibition of his work from its beginnings to his final work. It demonstrated his truly impressive range: he was a painter, an architect, a furniture designer; he worked with metal and glass, and as an illustrator. Henry van de Velde dipped toes in many pools, in many countries, and yet most of us scarcely know his name.

In a demonstration of his dedication and his, sometimes startling, energy, after Van Gogh began exhibiting, van de Velde threw himself into adopting the Van Gogh style, to the point that some of his paintings could easily be mistaken for the real thing, others could be mistaken for Seurat. Had he not abandoned painting he could have made an excellent career as a forger.

Yet abandon painting he did in favour of the applied arts, influenced by the utopian ideals set down by William Morris and his band of socialists. Like Morris, van de Velde wanted to make objects that were both beautiful and functional and, like Morris, most were only affordable to the upper class. But in those beginnings it was the ingenuity with which he approached his work that stood out. In the early 1890s he finished a design for a dining table for his first marital home (which he built himself in Brussels), which came complete with its own hotplate.

Such was his work in Belgium, but it was once he moved to Germany that he began to make his name, and it is in Germany that the narrative that concerns us most – that of Morris, van de Velde, and Gropius – begins. Upon his move to Germany in 1900 van de Velde set about creating a new aesthetic, branching out into ceramics and textiles, even leatherwork and wickerwork.

Yet, while he was associated with Art Nouveau he found an inspiration from the machine. Van de Velde recognised a potential in its social value and had a great respect for the idea that the machine, properly used, could bring about a revolution in design. Seeing that, by rejecting the machine, the English Arts and Crafts had produced work that only the rich elite could afford (and in following that accord that he was doing the same) he recognised that the machine was capable of producing work of a high quality that could be affordable for the working man. He said: “Beauty is the result of clarity and system and not of optical illusion.” – advocating the system, now a cornerstone of Modernism ninety years later.

In 1905 he established the Grand-Ducal School of Arts and Crafts in Weimar with the Grand Duke of Weimar, where students were encouraged to develop a new approach in order to create new forms, rather than relying on traditional solutions. It is here that van de Velde moved away from the traditional Arts and Crafts and began to set the stage for the Bauhaus to appear.

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An example of van de Velde’s work, a writing desk.

His influence on Bauhaus should not be underestimated, for the debt to van de Velde was huge. First and foremost, it was van de Velde that recommended Gropius to the Grand Duke as his successor at the Grand-Ducal School of Arts and Crafts. After all, in the beginning, the Bauhaus was little more than a continuation of the school of van de Velde, an attempt to keep his ideas alive. More than this, he described his Arts & Crafts school as “a kind of laboratory where every craftsman or industrialist could be given free advice, have his products analysed and improved” – van de Velde had realised an idea of co-operation between artist, craftsman, and industrialist six years before the Werkbund, and a full twenty before the founding of the Bauhaus.

Van de Velde’s ideas were notions that Morris may have dismissed, given his social and artistic hatred of the machine, yet he surely would have found some respect for Bauhaus’ founding ideals, laid down by van de Velde, as a social unification of creators. Morris sought to unite all facets of art and design, and while he may not have factored the machine into these ideals, it might have pleased him that van de Velde still sought to bring together the artist and craftsman, even if they did sit together at a machine-produced table.

Henry van de Velde’s legacy is not simply a litany of influence, though. He was a fine designer in his own right, with a staggering range. His chairs and desks came with sweeping curves that flow like water, often elaborately supported with legs of several struts and curves, his ceramics are infused with swirling patterns as if he dropped ink into the mix and let it spin out its own natural texture. In his products, especially his many kettles, there is a significant touch of modernism, but in the handles and the shapes you see the artistic shades of art nouveau: flowering motifs and sumptuous curves. His buildings can range from the strictly modern, such as the Boekentoren in Ghent, all geometry and glass and edges, to the sublimely innovative, like the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo in the Netherlands, a glass and brick monument to open space and the outdoors that looks more like a beautiful landscape than a museum. Then there are those buildings that owe more than a little to the influence of William Morris’ Red House, even van de Velde’s own homes were designed with an artistic edge, wood panelling, gables rounding almost impossibly to a point. His energy, his diversity, and his artistic individuality make you giddy.

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The Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo in the Netherlands.

It’s that individuality that set van de Velde apart as a designer of real functional products that didn’t lose anything in the way of ingenuity or identity. There is a balanced unity between construction and ornamentation in his work, in which structuring form takes precedence over decorative effect. Yet, van de Velde recognised that flair did not have to be sacrificed for the sake of functionality; individuality did not have to be sacrificed to the machine. So he reconciled the two.

Legs and handles were van de Velde’s specialty; his signature. Beyond the functionality, as long as a leg was stable and a handle fundamentally retained its use as a handle, they were fair game for ornamentation. A kettle handle may feature a decorative motif that otherwise does not appear on the rest of the product. On a table you may see an unbroken, flat functional surface un-tampered with and yet some decoration in the legs. Neither seems out of place.

Maybe it was that style that was the problem. Once the Bauhaus had adopted the style, albeit without the flair or individuality of van de Velde, his work became lost amidst the sea of anonymity that was Modernism. Only little identifiers, a handle, a leg, the curve of a gable, remained for those who knew where to look.

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The Boekentoren in Ghent.

It was the idea of individuality, however, that would cause the first conflicts in early Modernism, and ultimately cost van de Velde his place in the Deutscher Werkbund. Van de Velde, despite his support for industrialisation, was intent on a commitment to preserve artistic individuality; somewhat echoing Morris’ idea of the satisfied craftsman, in saying that freedom of expression and artistic creativity were paramount in retaining aesthetic quality in manufacture. This view, however, was openly criticised by Muthesius, another Werkbund member heavily influenced by Morris, who supported standardisation instead, feeling artistic individuality would restrain the progress of German industry. This came to a head in an open debate at the 1914 Werkbund Congress. It was a conflict that would reappear many times in the Bauhaus, Morris’ artist clashing with the new industrial worker, and in the end, Muthesius won out.

That was really the end of van de Velde’s active contribution to the Bauhaus, and to the timeline of Modernist development. After the outbreak of the First World War he moved to Switzerland and then took up a teaching post at Ghent University in 1920 – much to the umbrage of Horta, his founding rival of Art Nouveau. Then, in the Thirties he re-emerged, becoming Belgium’s pre-eminent architect, his creative mind remaining undimmed, and permanently made his mark upon the Brussels cityscape.

However, after the outbreak of the Second World War, working in Nazi occupied Brussels, van de Velde was compelled – like many of his countrymen – to help the Germans which led some to brand him as a collaborator. It was a wounding accusation, and after the war he retired to Switzerland once more, before his death in 1957.

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Noting van de Velde’s influence, one can see that far from a reaction against the established Arts and Crafts, the Bauhaus was merely a continuation; an evolution on the inexorable march towards Modernism. During his time in Germany van de Velde left a huge mark, as a leading member of the Deutsche Werkbund which directly influenced the Bauhaus, the look and feel of which he played a large hand in creating. It was van de Velde that developed the unique style so adopted and copied by the Bauhaus after him, Gropius owed his very position to the man, and all of us owe him, at the very least, the courtesy of remembering his name. And not just as an important figure, but as a designer and an artist in his own right.

But there is perhaps the rub. Whereas other designers and artists are remembered for their stylistic signatures that are easily recognisable, van de Velde somehow is so influential; his style so replicated that, in a sense, he has become invisible. His functional aesthetic is now part of the modern landscape, and that his sparse designs of the period are so familiar to the eye is a testament to his lasting influence. It is ironic that a man that regarded the individuality of the artist so highly, is so little known.

And perhaps there needs to be a reconciliation, a forgiveness for his alleged sins in the Second World War. For this is a man that has influenced anyone that has come into contact with Graphic Design, and anyone who reveres the Modernist style and implements it has been touched by him in one way or another. Perhaps without him Modernism still would have happened, it may have come later, and it may look a lot different, but it was inexorable. But without van de Velde this Modernist would look very very different.