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no.32 vol.8 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.”* Thus the twenty-six year old ingénue ‘lay-outer’ Piet Schreuders addressed the Dutch design community in May 1977, in his booklet Lay In – Lay Out. The pamphlet (reprinted in 1997) had the effect of a red rag to a bull, not in the least because it was the third in a series published by the venerable Gerrit Jan Thiemefonds, champions of graphic design excellence who, before Schreuders, commissioned two icons of Dutch design – Dick Elffers and Wim Crouwel – to shed their light on the profession. Schreuders especially took on Crouwel, the Swiss-inspired founder of Total Design and a figure who loomed large over Dutch design discourse in the 1970s: “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, publicly – 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 trait easily distracts from the serious undertone of his argument: that “design is like film-direction or mixing tracks of a sound-recording, to make a whole out of diverse elements.” From his first attempts, as a Dutch language student, at ‘laying-out’ in 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 all but forgotten display and headline typefaces, mostly from pre-war American sources, makes him a precursor of both the historic interest in type outside the ‘International Style’ of graphic design in the pre-computer era, that was taken up by a younger generation of ‘fontographers’ 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 Kittypaper’), from 1974, and a year later Furore, self-described as “Irregularly brilliant”, and as “a magazine about things, persons and occurrences that may be interesting to the Furore worldview”. 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 lay-out: “just as kidnappers make their demands…” This way Schreuders not only greatly extended his choice of typefaces, but could at the same time indulge in his personal perfectionism in spacing and evade the “bastardized forms of familiar metal typefaces” that were abundant on rub-down letter sheets. Recently, after seven years of silence, the 19th issue of Furore was published, with a ‘re-visit’ to one of Schreuders’ favourite places in the United States – Hubbard and Foothill junction in Sylmar, California – and a meticulous 3-D reconstruction of “the shortest Main Street”, a stretch of houses and shops in Culver City, California, used extensively as a backdrop for street shots in Laurel & Hardy movies.
An assiduous researcher, Schreuders published exhaustive books on such seemingly marginal, or to some, obscure, details of film, music and design history: Paperbacks U.S.A.: a graphical history, 1939-1959 (1980), which diligently charted two decades of cover designs for popular editions of American literature, or the Dell Mapbacks (1989, see Eye, #26, p.82). In The Beatles London (1994), with Mark Lewisohn and Adam Smith, he mapped no less than 400 sites in and around London that had been the scenes for photoshoots of the Fab Four. And his fascination with the music of Leroy Shields led to a painstaking reconstruction of his lost scores for Little Rascals and Laurel & Hardy comedies, transcribed from the original 1930s Hall Roach film soundtracks and recorded (“In Authentic Low Fidelity”) with the dedicated Amsterdam The Beau Hunks orchestra on two double-CDs, for which Schreuders designed ‘period’ jackets (1995). Piet Schreuders further communicates his love for ‘applied’ and ‘light’ music in his programmes for VPRO radio, a Dutch broadcaster, 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 & Chris Vermaas:
In the 1970s you went through typographic history like a vacuum cleaner…

Piet Schreuders:
I was searching for a certain atmosphere and couldn’t find it. So I searched on, and when you do that, you do find it. That, of course, is odd: why do you have to resort to cutting out letters simply to get a certain typographic image? 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 Cooper is a case in point. Vanished. His letters were everywhere, in Europe too, whenever there was use for the more eye-catching poster jobs. And all of a sudden they become third-rate chip shop letters, and nobody notices their beauty anymore! 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 such letters into public consciousness. For instance typefaces like Pastel, a titling letter used for silent films that is all but forgotten. Pastel, I found out, had been issued in the 1890s by the Chicago-based Barnhart Brothers Typefoundry. I hadn’t heard of them before and decided to make up for that by buying a big book about them: a bible-like type specimen from 1924. Barnhart Brothers are the same people who’ve later picked up Cooper and other young type designers in this Chicago tradition of billboard design, and hired them to design typefaces exclusively for them.

- What is so appealing to you in those letters?

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, like the 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 Shakespearean 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 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 ‘now let’s put a French-speaking letter next to one with a New York accent’, but you have to do that consciously.

- You cherish a quite specific kind of attention to typographical details…

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 that 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 of 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 lay-outs 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 15, 20 versions until you decide it's okay.

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

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 print out, but as soon as you turn out a film, the f and the i become mashed together. It is not a real ligature, at that, just two letters pasted together, which is even uglier than when you just 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.

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

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 it 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.

- 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…

Yes… When I first started to lay-out, I noticed that there is a certain charm to clumsy printing – that one is 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 wrapping of your neighbourhood’s grocery… You don’t ask whether those printings are well designed, you just use them.

- You are seen as a precursor of Vernacular design…

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 becomes a pigeonhole and I don’t like to be pigeonholed. Whatever relevance does that have, when some arthistorian thinks up a name for it? For me it’s rather a matter of taste, of sensitivity: you see something and you think “yes!” Only after that first feeling of 'recognition' you start to look at it with the eyes of a professional, in order to find out whatever is so nice about it, what it is that makes it so catchy, so moving. Then you think about whether you can copy that quality. Obviously, when you copy it, it becomes something different, a pastiche or a citation. I have made a lot of pastiches – I have learned a lot doing that. And I have made 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…

- Still, it seems that you keep resisting the profession…

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

- So that’s what design is about, basically, cutting and pasting?

I always felt more of a layouter than a designer – there is an important difference between designing and ‘layouting’! [in The Netherlands the English verb ‘to lay-out’ has become the Dutch verb ‘layouten’ - mb]. 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 actual 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 problems posed by the inner pages of the booklet and the inlaycard. 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.

- You wrote Lay In – Lay Out very early on in your career – why?

Lay In – Lay Out was an assignment. I knew it would be read by a lot of stringent prigs that 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.

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

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 its system, you become subordinated…

- Still, you are considered as someone who continually opposes the canon, if only to direct attention to things outside of it…

If that is 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 a mere academic matter. But design only functions within a context, and that context lies outside academia.

- You stated that design is a ‘secret craft’, that designers should do their jobs in concealment…

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 can do such funny things with letters! But that is, like any fame, only a thing of the moment. Attention merely distracts. Designers can do their jobs much better when they are thinking about completely different things than design or fame.

- 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 a topical publication”.

Similar abuses as those of two decades ago still abound, albeit by different perpetrators and in a changed profession…

- Do you still think designers are criminals, or has your prophecy that they will vanish been fulfilled?

No, not yet. There still is a lot of hollow gibberish and vanity amongst designers today, and preoccupation with things that 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 such statements as “designers are criminals”, I paid special consideration to the rhythm of the sentences, as a kind of music. I think that is one of the reasons people still like to quote from that book. With Lay In – Lay Out I just wanted to stir things a little, and to point to the fact that there were a lot of other things worthy of attention than what was at the time considered to be Good Design… What did amaze me, was that it appears to be still popular twenty years after, that I was given the N.H.Werkman Award for the re-issue and that it was selected as one of the best produced books in the Netherlands in 1997!

- Doesn’t that make you part of the canon?

No, it indicates the contingency of public appreciation, and it shows how contingent all those enraged reactions were twenty years ago…

- What is the appeal of re-issuing it?

We’re living in an age of re-issues. It’s the tidal waves of history… Lay In – Lay Out was reissued 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.

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

Obviously it is not. Furore 19 reflects the things that occupy me at the moment. The good thing about Furore is that, while you can say that old issues are typical of the 1970’s, there still is something, even in those, that escapes time, 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…

- I would doubt that – it tastes after a kind of Anglo-Saxon culture that was already past, even in the 1970s…

It has always verged on the Anglo-American – ninety percent of its contents is from America or England… But the last issue has more to do with Internet culture, with disappearing boundaries and communicating through e-mails. 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 the last Furore has got 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 into 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?’ Whatabout it? It is what it is. You might say it’s filled with Nice Things. I have now issued a press message 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 not.

- What fascinates you so much about America?

Amsterdam is nice too. The next issue of Furore will have the added line: “Edited in Amsterdam”, not that that means anything though… But I like to visit the intersection of Hubbard Street and Foothill Boulevard, in Sylmar, California, zipcode: 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 in general is a jumble. 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. For me, from the first time I visited the country, it has been a liberation! 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 take in like a sponge – America lends itself very well to that, as material… Plus, it is a paradise for researchers!

- Does all this indicate a certain tendency in your interests towards the obscure, towards things that everybody has seen and knows, but of which few are conscious? Like the Little Rascals music you reconstructed – everybody has heard it, but hardly anyone has ever listened to it, before you made it available outside the movies…

This obscurity is a pure concurrence of circumstances. As an amateur-historian I like to imagine: what if you rid it of all those layers, all the opinions and misinterpretations, all that history, and consider it just on its own merits? Then, at least in the case of Leroy Shields’ compositions for Little Rascals movies, you inevitably conclude: this is great music! That is a very fine 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 & 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 very well be communicated to an audience.

- But what does it tell you, or the public?

The world is not fathomable in its entirety. But take a tiny part of something and study that, and consequently it starts to live. If 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 takes 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 loose 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. That is my archive, the publications; the books, the documentaries, the radio programmes, the magazine, the records. Beyond that I have only left-overs – the 4000 paperbacks I collected for my book about paperback covers; I can’t throw those away, so they fill a wall in the hall-way of my house…

- You often refer to music, and you make radio programmes - do you see similarities between the kind of cutting and pasting you apply in your graphic work and the way montage, slicing tape, is used in radio and recording?

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 slicing tape and making edits that way. Because I was working with sound material of 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 spots where they must have made their edits, so I made mine at the same spots. I like the physical experience 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 and you can never predict, for instance, when a reader reads a page, where he start and where he stops…

- You spend a lot of time researching?

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 in my schedule will appear 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 ‘turned off’ for a year and then you continue where you left off. I started doing that when I got kids. Then I would cut pictures from The New Yorker every morning between 8 and 8.15, because you can do that with a daughter on your lap. So at a certain point in time I did have three hundred pictures from The New Yorker, which I could then start to catalogue. That was time well spent!

- You look to the past a lot; you’re no futurologist…

I wouldn’t say I’m stuck in the past, though… I am looking for traditions. Hidden traditions, often, but well alive… I don’t want to break with the past, I want to see what threads there are, which you can pick up and work with…

- There’s quite a few laying about, and you pick up a lot of them…

Sometimes I get a bit crazy too, with all the different things I do and that can get in the way of each other. But mostly it 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… thus 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: now what shall I become, later, when I’ve grown up? And I’m almost fifty! That question has had a life of its own.
 
 

Max Bruinsma
Chris Vermaas
 
 

* note:
The quotations from ‘Lay In – Lay Out’ are from the English summary by Robin Kinross in the re-issue, 1997, De Buitenkant, Amsterdam
Publications available in English translation:
Paperbacks U.S.A, a graphical history, 1939-1959; 1981, Virgin Books, London / Blue Dolphin, San Diego; 1992, Shobunsha, Tokyo
The Beatles’ London; 1994, Hamlyn, London / St. Martin’s Press, New York; 1995, Produce centre Co., Tokyo
The Complete Little Rascals Music; (2-cd box set, with The Beau Hunks), 1995, Koch Screen, Port Washington, New York

 
 
 
eye
no.32 vol.8 summer 1999
© max bruinsma / chris vermaas