Jan van Toorn

November 9, 1972. Museum Fodor’s large hall was full of people. At the occasion of the exhibition of Jan van Toorn’s designs, this museum on Amsterdam’s Keizersgracht had organized a debate between him and his colleague Wim Crouwel. Their contrasting opinions about graphic design had attracted the public’s attention. While Crouwel expressed his belief in a functional, neutral or objective design process, Van Toorn centered on his rather opinionating, subjective approach. Meanwhile, the audience became aroused; they were thinking in simple contrasts and erroneously viewed the work of both designers as diametrically opposed. For Van Toorn this November evening marked a search that has not reached the end yet.

Jan van Toorn and collegue-teacher Tom de Heus in Remouchamps during a workshop of the graphic design department of Gerrit Rietveld Academie, early 1970s

The beginning
In 1935, three years after Jan was born, the Van Toorn family moves from Tiel to Amsterdam to find work. These are the times of the economic depression and Jan’s father, a tailor by profession, has to switch to selling vegetables. Jan helps his dad and he and his two brothers and a sister grow up in the world of self-employed tradespeople. After WWII’s final year (ending with a winter of famine that caused the failure of the store), his father takes up tailoring again; he continues in this profession until the end of his life. Jan becomes thirteen during the summer of Holland’s liberation and enters the four-year MULO (junior high); he will not finish this education.

Craftsmanship gets high marks in the Van Toorn home and his father is at his side as Jan applies for a job at Mulder & Sons offset printers of Wibautstraat. He is recognized for his talent and enthusiasm and hired as a ‘draftsman’. He remains at Mulder’s studio until 1952, creating illustrations for children’s books and ceramic transfers—an in-house developed technique of applying stickers to crockery. He grows as a craftsman during the years the Dutch are still suffering the aftereffects of WWII. In his first year at Mulder’s he is paid five guilders, a week, for drawing whatever comes to task. Meanwhile colleagues introduce Van Toorn to Marxism and other socialist ideas—social and political thoughts far left of center. In those days, printers are still the bulwarks of the trade unions.

Calendar 1972-1973 – Mart. Spruijt, Amsterdam

Educations and plays
He is sixteen when his immediate boss advises him to follow the evening winter-class at Amsterdamse Grafische School. He also enlists for the evening classes at the Instituut voor Kunstnijverheidsonderwijs, IVKNO (school for applied arts), later to become the Gerrit Rietveld Academie. His world changes as he gets involved with more creativity, idealism and critical approaches; he learns how to do etchings and woodprints from Ab Sok and sits with teachers such as Lex Metz and Charles Jongejans who introduce him to their thoughts of and beliefs in an independent form of ‘socialism’. They ventilate utopian expectations of how art and design will contribute to a better world. These evening classes have been described as not just a professional education but also a ‘form of social emancipation’. Van Toorn learns to understand that his own professionalism has to be fired by form as well as meaningful content and should not be proscribing solutions. On the contrary, the reader or viewer must be invited to join his experiments and experience their pleasures. This philosophy follows Van Toorn for the rest of his career, even if in 1953 the draft prohibits him from finishing his education. It is at this time that Van Toorn meets his future wife.

After two years of army service he again picks up his job at Mulder’s. A new job opportunity places him at Van Dam’s, where he designs prints for plastic products such as table covers, aprons, pillows, diapers and more until the firm’s demise in 1956, after which he is on the dole for a short period. But soon Van Toorn is able to establish himself as an independent illustrator; his mailed-in application receives a favorable response from Jumbo, Hausemann & Hotte’s game branch. For them he designs board games such as Script, the Dutch variation of Scrabble. Later, Hausemann & Hotte commission him to establish a ‘laboratory’ for the design of new games—and for better designs of their games. In 1960, the first-born product immediately receives de Gouden Noot package design award. Commissions for illustrations come and go; they include set pieces for airlines’ window displays and a small exhibition (his first) for the Nutrition Institute, a department of TNO Toegepast Natuurwetenschappelijk Onderzoek (applied scientific research). With this project come the graphic design and typography of a brochure (also a first), which is printed by Mart. Spruijt.

The move to graphic design
Frans Spruijt, the printer’s managing-director, immediately understands that Van Toorn’s typography excels and he advises him to continue in the field; he is so impressed that he also commissions Van Toorn to design a calendar to promote his business. After Spruijt has demonstrated how to space leaden small caps it is up to Van Toorn himself to find his way around typography: because ‘to learn is to watch’. The yearly Spruijt calendars become a seventeen-year tradition; each year, clients and colleagues cannot wait to receive their copy of the next spectacularly beautiful edition.

Calendar 1973-1974 – Mart. Spruijt Amsterdam
Calendar 1976-1977 – Mart. Spruijt, Amsterdam
Calendar 1977-1978 – Mart. Spruijt, Amsterdam

The calendars do not attract just print orders for Spruijt, they get Van Toorn design commissions. At age thirty he is able to say farewell to commercial illustrations; he is offered the honor of a membership of the Gebonden Kunsten federatie, GKf (association for applied arts). Van Toorn becomes the designer and art editor of all publications for paint producer Sikkens and of Range magazine for Philips Telecommunication Industries. These industrial clients appreciate the cultural importance of design and purposely engage graphic design in their publicity. Their budgets allow Van Toorn to employ the best equipment available at the best printers. His collaboration with Range’s editor-in-chief Niels Douwes Dekker provides him with experience at imaging the mostly hidden functions of electronic communication tools.

When asked in 1965 who might be the right designer for Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, then Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum’s director Willem Sandberg suggests his Eindhoven colleague Jean Leering to give Van Toorn a try. The two enjoy nine years of collaboration and deliver most remarkable publications for many exhibitions. As Leering once said: ‘… not by using the same graphic tools in different variations, but by using these tools as a technique and saying: the exhibition’s subject will provide the associative elements that set the technique at work. Doing so, the results speak of one and the same mentality even if there are differences of form in all media.’ Van Abbemuseum also offers Van Toorn the opportunity to further develop as an exhibition designer; he even is part of the editorial team for the important exhibition De Straat (The Street, A form of coexistence).

Anarchist thoughts
In the recovering economy, the business world shows a growing awareness of the importance of good design, yet Van Toorn receives most commissions from the cultural sector. This is where he finds his ideas really appreciated and where he is allowed to experiment. Starting in 1971, during 25 consecutive years he designs stamps, annual reports and more for the national postal service PTT (later privatized and renamed KPN). As Jean Leering leaves Van Abbemuseum in 1974 to become the director of Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum and restyle this colonial museum into a center of cultural exchange, Van Toorn is already one of the museum’s designers. The staff’s recalcitrancy stands in the way of Leering’s—and Van Toorn’s—proposals so they both decide to leave in 1978. Two years earlier Van Toorn had designed the Dutch entry Beyond Shelter for the 1976 Venice Biennale with which he created a discussion about the quality of the public space. This year also sees the end of Van Toorn’s collaboration with Mart. Spruijt; their managing director ‘can no longer agree with the designer’s anarchist and Marxist thoughts’.

Posters Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven – Robert Indiana, 1968 – Chagall etc, 1971

The commissions keep coming, though. He designs the small and smart magazine Dutch Art + Architecture (DA+AT) published by Gijs van Tuyl, who works at the Art Desk Foreign Countries of the Netherlands’ Ministry of Culture (WVC). The magazine is distributed through the embassies of the Netherlands and can be obtained in the home country as well. In 1978, Van Toorn designs a magnificent portrait of the era, which includes a dialogue between Leering and himself: Design as a function of the museum’s communication. It is published by the Eindhoven printer Lecturis in a series of ‘documentaries’. Between 1978 and 1980, he designs eye-catching covers for the bimonthly art magazine Museumjournaal. From 1980 on he is Breda’s cultural center De Beyerd’s graphic designer, a collaboration that results in a series of magnificent posters and ends in 1987 with an exhibition of Van Toorn’s work designed by Karel Kruijsen. Van Toorn recognizes the valuable contributions by his many talented assistents.

1981. Van Toorn becomes the leading designer of a team editing and designing a permanent exhibition of the Deltaworks land-sea protection project on the island Neeltje Jans, the original site of the barrier construction. The exhibition opens in 1986, the year Van Toorn is asked to join the competition-by-invitation for the design of the new Dutch banknotes. His designs (not used) concentrate on depicting a different aspect of money’s role in society. In 1989 his is one of the designs printed to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of the Right of Man and Citizen.

Dutch Art + Architecture Today – Magazine, Art Desk Foreign Countries, WVC, The Hague 1977-1989
La lutte continue – Poster in remembrance of the Declaration of the Right of Man, 1789 – Paris, 1989
Je ne cherche pas, je trouve – Poster Cultureel centrum De Beyerd, Breda 1984

The late 1980s are the years during which teaching becomes more important: first in Amsterdam, and followed by Providence, Rhode Island and later Maastricht. Before he taught graphic design in Den Bosch (1963-1968), after which followed teaching evening classes at Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. Together with Jurriaan Schrofer he develops a program based on an editorial approach to design; the study of theory and working in practice is elementary, but the focus is also on imaging and typography, the techniques to use, and the organization of the whole process. Alas, the program is never executed. Two years later he is teaching day classes and his program is described as: Editing and Planning. After seventeen long years of teaching a growing number of students, the heavy weight of the task combined with suffering from budget cuts make Van Toorn decide to say farewell. But when two years later, in 1987, Jan Willem Schrofer, then director of the national academy in Amsterdam, Rijksacademie, invites him to build an Artmedia Studies department, to form a team of teachers, and to teach three days a week himself, Van Toorn cannot refuse. In 1989 he leaves the school after ‘unmanageable problems with the board’.

Stamps – 100th anniversary Dr Willem Drees, 1986 – February General Strike 1941, 1991

He accepts the offer coming from the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence on America’s East Coast to become a visiting professor at their Masters of Graphic Design department and will never leave; their educational program fits him better than any Dutch equivalent so far. Theory and practice meet in a coherent structure, which results in a productive collaboration of teachers and students and also gives a fair chance to reflection. The American experience proves valuable when, in 1991, Van Toorn is invited to become the director of the Jan van Eyck Akademie in Maastricht, a post-academic study center and workshop. He is asked to develop a research institute for exploration of two fields: the visual culture of ‘autonomous art’, and of ‘design by commission’. A third discipline has to center on ‘thoughts on visual structures’. This is a task close to his heart. He and his wife move to Maastricht. The institute becomes a successful international platform for the exchange of experiences and the discussion of theories thanks to the never-weakening efforts by Van Toorn and others to promote the interaction of the three departments. In good Willem Sandberg tradition, during his directorship he himself designs all sorts of printed matter for the academy.

Observatoire internationale des prisons – Poster, Lyon 1993

Van Toorn’s lay-out
Seven years later he finds himself back in Amsterdam. It is 1998 and although Van Toorn has retired from teaching in the Netherlands, he continues his visiting professorship in Providence ‘because I learn so much from colleagues and students.’ Also, he now has plenty of time to write and be active in editorial boards such as of Visual Language and Design Issues. And of course he cannot stay away from actual design work, see for instance the 2004 monograph Sandberg. Designer of the Stedelijk.

This elegant book, about one of his ‘fathers’ in the profession, clearly presents the design decisions Van Toorn has so often made by then. It shows his dedication, which he describes as: ‘I keep messing about until it really has to go into production.’ Most times he selects a popular sanserif and uses this to create a readable but uniform grey; different texts get their own typography, bringing out structures and rhythms. His headline choices are most times less popular fonts and sometimes even ‘tasteless’ fonts that Van Toorn magically enlivens. In the end, the type is like a bouquet of flowers with each individual piece performing a specific role. The positions of images are not directed by the sizes and rhythms of the typography; it is their meaning and form that decide how they must be treated and over the years Van Toorn has increased the space he grants a picture. Van Toorn often allows the different graphic elements to ‘disturb’ each other and by doing so to break down the carefully built-up graphic structures; his approach differs from page to page, each page getting its own identity. All the time he remains in command of the layout, yet the visual arrangements appear to be uncoordinated or off-track and become rather casual. These informal layouts are very organic and present the viewer with a most comfortable ‘perfect imperfection’.

Symposium Design beyond design – Brochure, Jan van Eyck Akademie Maastricht, 1995
Le nouveaux salon des cents – 100th anniversary of Henri Toulouse Lautrec’s birthday – 2001

Exhibitions and the Sixties
For Van Toorn the storyteller the exhibition is the perfect medium because the subject can easily be presented in such a way that the viewer feels he or she is becoming an active participant amidst the displays. They are free to select what to see and in which sequence and pace. In 1986, Van Toorn says: ‘Our experience of reality would be poorer if everything was arranged and verifiable. Chaos is essential; it reminds us of an irrational, emotional reality that is tough to explain verbally. I see it as my task to use visual tools to improve the visibility of this tension.’ He is convinced that an effective transfer of meaning can only be brought about if both client and designer openly take a stand and do not shy away from vulnerability. If this is the case, what only matters is to find the right visual tools and to bring them together in such a way that the viewer gets the right associations; from then on it is the viewer’s own responsibility to establish an individual viewpoint. ‘Whatever that will be.’

Back to that memorable evening of November 9, 1972. Van Toorn is speaking in Museum Fodor, Amsterdam, about the graphic designer’s relationship with his audience, the importance of independence from clients and, since these two aspects may impact the meaning of the message, how to deal with them—because how the message is handled influences the image editing and the graphic design and ‘remember: classical rules and norms must be discarded.’ These are the days of ‘l’imagination au pouvoir!’ These are the times of controversy and the debate about everything is fired up everywhere. This evening, Van Toorn’s work is put under scrutiny opposite Crouwel’s—the artist opposite the engineer. Crouwel is the esthetician who applies a modernistic ‘Swiss’ design approach and describes its results as functional and neutral, and creating objectivity in communication. His results are admired but his explanation creates confusion.

Noorderbreedte – Magazine cover nr 2/2003
Re. Jan van Toorn – Exhibition, Kunsthal Rotterdam – Curator Els Kuijpers, 2004

Van Toorn is the one who cannot detect any objectivity in communication and who does not believe in the authoritarian viewpoints that so often play a role. He prefers to offer the individual viewer the opportunity to make his or her own decisions. He quotes the philosophy of historian and theoretician Jan Romijn (1893–1962), who pleads in favor of an ‘integrated historiography’, an approach based on facts and their backgrounds that lays bare the unescapable choices the historian is confronted with. Fact and fiction go together magnificently and, if presented in a subjective narrative, the objective historic fact survives well. This approach provides Van Toorn with an effective guideline how to deal with his designs; it confronts him with the question how to give a graphic form to a ‘subjective reality’.

His research and position
Back in the Sixties. Graphic elements and their applications are still too formal, too neat to employ them in an integrally subjective way. Van Toorn looks across borders and into the depth of history in his search of visual forms of expression. In English-language newspapers (from both the US and the UK) Van Toorn discovers the effectiveness of their long-standing tradition of involving editorial staff with photo editing and the creation of other imaging. These newspapers’ ‘loose’ use of typography allows for a great flexibility. Other influences on Van Toorn are the informal cultures of the Situationists, Fluxus and the era’s student movements worldwide. He finds different typographical approaches and solutions as well as a variety of fonts at the dawn of the 20th century with the Futurists, Dada, and the Constructivists. His boundless curiosity pushes his research to discover ever more informal, subjective and integral approaches of his subjects and their meaning. Which is how, contrary to all traditional norms and rules, the ‘Van Toorn handwriting’ comes to life.

Van Toorn has never been immune to the voices of his time and environment. Remember how the printers’ trade unions, the Sixties, the world of the museums and the philosophy-ing at the art academies influenced his thought… Yet the man Van Toorn remains an outsider while the craftsman Van Toorn through his work, his own writings and in interviews keeps reminding his colleagues that what is important is not the surface—that what counts is what differences hide inside. This is what Van Toorn still sees as his prime role: reminding his colleagues and students of the profession of the social and symbolical importance of their work. Too few designers, even today, appear to be fully aware of the opportunities they have to show their engagement through the media of their profession. Mightier and mightier media conglomerates approach their audiences with ever more shallow messages only aimed at the sales of services and goods. This does not make Van Toorn happy, the man who as a boy moved with his parents to search for work in the big city and for a better world.

Author of the original text: Chris Vermaas, January 2006
English translation and editing: Ton Haak

Final editing: Sybrand Zijlstra
Portrait photo: Aatjan Renders