Lex Reitsma

Lex Reitsma (1958) is both a graphic designer and a filmmaker. Although many would think these disciplinesare worlds apart, Reitsma experiences them as similar rather than different. Starting in 2018, his contemplative documentaries about subjects including graphic designer Wim Crouwel, book designer Irma Boom and portrait photographer Koos Breukel have been outstanding. In an earlier stage of his career, he designed posters for the Dutch National Opera that were invariably eye-catching for over two decades. 

Photo: Pram Pramudji

All of Reitsma’s activities, whether they involve the design of books, posters or other printed matter, film production or designs for spatial exhibitions, are rooted in the same attitude. It is an open-minded, almost journalistic approach, driven by content and an imaginative visual language. Reitsma also has a sophisticated feel for typography. He is able to combine elements in intriguing ways and to make them resonate with each other. On top of this, he likes to organise and execute everything himself. Although he has moved his focus around various disciplines, his sense of responsibility and his principles remain unchanged. In this respect, he modestly models himself after designer Piet Zwart, who said about himself that he did ‘all sorts of things side by side simultaneously’.

At the age of fourteen, Reitsma started assembling film sets in his parents’ garage to shoot short films with his father’s Super 8 camera, based on self-penned scripts. He was always busy drawing at the dining table. At school, he receives top marks for his art classes, which sparks disbelief from his class mentor: “Are you friendly with the art teacher or what’s going on?” All the while, his mother was critically ill. This puts great strain on the home situation and also affects his secondary school years. Reitsma does not feel heard or understood. In the fourth year of secondary school and his parents make him take a career choice test. The results show that he is suited for a study at either the Film Academy or the Rietveld Academy.

At the time, his father worked as PR manager of the Wessanen multinational. Reitsma observes a team of over twenty people working on a ten-minute company video. He considers that wildly overcomplicated and cumbersome and opts for design instead. ‘As a graphic designer you arrive at a final product more quickly and you are not quite as dependent on other people’, he argues.

Final exam project
He experiences the Gerrit Rietveld Academy as a warm bath. He meets like-minded people, feels at home and has a great time. His drive and assertiveness come into their own. At the end of the introductory year, teacher Jos Houweling tries to persuade him to opt for audio-visual studies, but Reitsma sticks to his preference for graphic design. He had good memories of courses taught by teachers including Tom de Heus, Charles Jongejans, Karel Kruijssen and Jan Boterman, who influenced him as a graphic designer. At times, he has heated debates with his very committed typography teacher Jan Boterman, something that Boterman highly appreciates.

Cover and spreads Ontwerpen en/of vormgeven? 1983

His graduation thesis is called Ontwerpen en/of vormgeven (‘To design and/or to design’; of these Dutch synonyms, the first has artistic overtones, while the second is more industry-oriented). In this publication, he examines the divergent approaches of study programmes at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy and the Industrial Design Department of the Technical Polytechnic (now Technical University) Delft. The questions he raises are: does the Amsterdam institute train students to become one-sided ‘artist-designers’ who call themselves designers, while the Delft institute brings forth rational ‘engineer-designers’ who are also designers? Is there a contradiction between emotional design and rational design?

On the basis of subjects such as admission procedures, study programme, business operations and the difficult transition from study to professional practice, he interviews teachers Jan van Toorn, Jan Boterman, Karel Kruijssen, Jelle van der Toorn Vrijthoff of the Rietveld Academy and Ootje Oxenaar, Wim Crouwel and Paul Mijksenaar of the TH Delft. He juxtaposes their replies in text columns on a spread, so that they can be directly compared, leaving the reader to draw his own conclusions. For his thesis, Reitsma is awarded the ‘Frans Duwaer Assignment 1982’, a financial contribution from the Amsterdam Fund for the Arts Foundation. The thesis is published by Rietveld Projects Publishing and is distributed among all members of the GVN, the then professional organisation of Dutch Graphic Designers. This publication provides him with a flying start and yields valuable contacts in the graphic design industry. After his final exams, he receives various subsidies that enable him to set himself up as an independent graphic designer.

Spreads Annual Report Amsterdams Fonds voor de Kunst 1984

First assignments
He received one of his first jobs from printing house director Frans Spruijt: to design an annual report for the Amsterdamse Fonds voor de Kunst (Amsterdam Art Fund). Spruijt always gives this job to young designers, saying ‘It doesn’t hurt to fail every now and then’. Reitsma takes this quite literally and designs an annual report that gives off the impression that everything has actually gone amiss: the cover is turned inside out, the title page has a dog-ear, and due to a pretend binding error everything is at sixes and sevens. The publication leads to questions being asked in the Amsterdam city council, which concludes that this should never be allowed tot happen again. Ootje Oxenaar, manager of the Aesthetic Design Department of the Dutch Postal Service PTT, is charmed by the entire affair and in Vrij Nederland magazine he describes Reitsma as ‘a hysterical reincarnation of Piet Zwart’. This is the prelude to jobs from the PTT: diaries, annual reports, telephone cards, a yearbook and stamps.

Shortly after his final exams, Reitsma was asked to design a visual identity and a magazine for the Stichting Industrieel Ontwerpen Nederland (ioN, Industrial Design Netherlands foundation). In this period, he also designed various publications for the Art and Business Foundation, where Titus Yocarini serves as director. At the intercession of this client, Staatsbosbeheer asks him to update the visitor centre in the dunes of Schoorl and to set up a permanent exhibition there. In 1988 he designed the exhibition, publication and poster for the Rietveld Schröder Archive for the Central Museum in Utrecht.

Exhibition design, publication and poster Rietveld Schröder Archief 1988

PTT Verzelfstandigings postage stamp 1989

Rode Kruis postage stamp 1997

Postage stamp sheet Jan Wolkers 2007

Euro postage stamp 2001

Postage stamp sheet 100 Jaar KVGO 2001

Museum Overholland
In 1987, businessman Christian Braun founded the private Museum Overholland, specialising in works on paper. The building is situated on the Amsterdam Museumplein, between the Stedelijk Museum and the Van Gogh Museum. In the three years of its existence, the museum organised sixteen exhibitions by prominent artists, predominantly from outside the Netherlands, such as Thomas Schütte, Frank Stella, Paul Cézanne and Arnulf Rainer. Reitsma is responsible for the graphic design of seven exhibitions in a row and develops a different identity for each of these. The Martin Disler exhibition is accompanied by a box of cards, the Arnulf Rainer catalogue is a children’s book with the title Clara, and the Thomas Schütte show is documented in a facsimile sketchbook with a metal spiral binding. The series shows little consistency; it is a playful unity in diversity. Braun is not an easy client. When Wim Crouwel, who had been director of Museum Boijmans van Beuningen for some time, inquired whether Reitsma would like to start designing for his museum, he stopped working for Overholland.

Poster Hollands landschap 1987

Poster Kleur en architectuur 1986

Poster Thomas Schütte and Sketchbook Thomas Schütte Aquarellen 1987

Following the publications of several Reitsma designs, Crouwel expressed his wish for him to exclusively use the Futura font in the future – more or less as Crouwel himself used the Univers font in all of his Stedelijk Museum designs for twenty years. For the catalogue accompanying the Rob Scholte exhibition How to Star, Reitsma opted for the form of an blown-up, cheap-looking Prisma pocket with as many as 24 different fonts. Only Crouwel’s foreword is set in Futura and is located on four pages in the centre of the first section, so that it can be easily ripped out of the book. Crouwel can appreciate the joke.

Catalog Rob Scholte, How to Star 1988

The Dutch National Opera
In 1989, Pierre Audi, recently appointed as artistic director of the Dutch National Opera, is on the lookout for a graphic designer. Reitsma’s Museum Overholland designs draw his attention. In their first-ever conversation, Reitsma and his contemporary Audi get along really well, but Audi worries about the size of the job. Does Reitsma fully realise how much work it takes to design a poster, a programme booklet and, in the long term, a website and other publications such as annual reports and a monthly magazine? Reitsma believes he can handle it with the support of a few assistants. 

For starters, he creates a new logo for the Dutch National Opera, which will be used unchanged for the next 24 years. For the first production that Audi has programmed, Wagner’s Parsifal, he designs a graphically striking poster, with a wholly individual signature. It sets the tone for a long series. Eventually, his handwriting will define the opera house’s entire visual identity. The posters are characterised by layering. Almost invariably there is an underlying structure such as a dichotomy, a circular shape or a rigid framework. The fascinating images and the expressive, often vertically placed typography interact in intriguing ways and are full of contrast. While the first posters often originated from a constructed typography to which images were then added, on later posters the photographic images become more important.

Poster Parsifal 1990

Poster Wozzeck 1994

Program Booklets: Punch & Judy 1993, Tosca 1998, Pelléas et Mélisande 1993, De Neus 1996, Pique dame 1998

The ever-present time pressure sometimes leads to unexpected twists and results. A Dog’s Heart from 2010 is a production featuring a dog in the guise of a puppet. Director Simon McBurney arrives just one day before the poster deadline. Until that moment, consultation with him was impossible due to circumstances. Using a borrowed camera, Reitsma and McBurney take improvised photographs of the marionette and the actor who performs as the dog. The pictures are edited and the poster is assembled the same afternoon. All parties involved approve it and the digital file is sent to the printer the very same day.

Poster A Dog’s Heart 2010

Poster Castor et Pollux 2008

Poster Der fliegende Holländer 2010

Poster L’elisir d’amore 2001

Posters: Rosa, a Horse Drama 1994, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg 1995, Cappriccio 2000

The Dutch National Opera gave Reitsma space to develop and reinvent himself. The long duration of this collaboration is partly due to his good relations with business manager Truze Lodder and dramaturgist Klaus Bertisch. He survives more than five internal and external communication managers. 
His designs for the Dutch National Opera are nominated for the Dutch Theatre Poster Award fifteen times, and in 1994 he finally wins with his poster for Orpheus and Eurydice. His own thoughts about this: ‘It’s not my best poster, but I suppose it was my turn that year because of the series that has accumulated by now.’ In 2004, he received the audience award for the La Bohème poster. 

Poster Die Entführung aus dem Serail 2008

Poster La Bohème 2003

In 2014, the merger of the Dutch National Ballet and the Dutch National Opera put an end to this collaboration. Reitsma doesn’t regret his departure. In recent years, Audi has increasingly disappeared from the picture as a directly approachable client and his contacts in the opera’s communication department are getting younger and younger. Reitsma did not always appreciate their controlling and sometimes patronising instructions. In 2014, curator Carolien Glazenburg organised a double exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum of Reitsma’s posters and small printed matter and Eiko Ishioka’s costume designs for Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. To commemorate it, nai010 publishers issue 196 posters for the Dutch Opera, written by Frederike Huygen. She describes the collaboration and discusses the content of the posters. A making-of photograph of the Meistersinger poster shows how Reitsma creates his images. As he himself says: ‘I am often fiddling with every square centimetre. I can see the similarities with how I used to make films in my parents’ garage as a teenager.’ His work for the Dutch National Opera occupies a central place in his oeuvre. The visual dominance of the posters is also unsurprising if you consider their sheer number: 196 posters in 24 years. It’s an incredible output that was impossible to miss in the Amsterdam streets during all of that time.

Exhibition Opera in het Stedelijk, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam 2014 Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij

In his book designs, form follows content, without Reitsma abandoning his style. These designs also showcase his gift for systematic precision. Reitsma supervises the entire production process and monitors it down to the smallest detail. Nothing is left to chance in terms of layout, typography, lithography and finishing by the bookbinder. 

Books: 66 zelfportretten van Nederlandse fotografen 1989, Aarsman’s Amsterdam 1993

Books: Van Loghem  1995, Asger Jorn 1914-1973  1994, Wijnanda Deroo Photographs  2002, Constant, ruimte + kleur  2016, GKf 50, fotografie 1945-1995  1995, Harry Boom, Als alles kan kan niets 2000

Books: De grachten van Amsterdam, 400 jaar bouwen, wonen, werken en leven  2013, Mart van Schijndel, kleurrijk architect  2003, Design is geen vrijblijvende zaak, organisatie, imago en context van de PTT-vormgeving tussen 1906 en 2002  2006, Toneelschuur, Joost Swarte / Mecanoo Architects  2003, De Amstel  2002, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam 100 Foto’s uit de collectie 100xFoto 1996, Robert van ’t Hoff, Architect van een nieuwe samenleving  2010

He is interested in books about graphic design, photography, art and architecture. Reitsma designed over twenty photography books for Fred Schmidt’s De Verbeelding publishers, of which Aarsman’s Amsterdam by Hans Aarsman and Hollandse Velden by Hans van der Meer are the best known. He also designs books for De Verbeelding dedicated to photographers like Frits Weeda, Kees Schrerer, Aart Klein, Ata Kando, Daniël Koning, Pieter Boersma, Jacob Olie and Bernard Eilers. He designs books such as De Amstel and De Grachten van Amsterdam (‘Amsterdam’s canals’) for Rob van Zoest of D’Arts; voluminous books in which image editing plays a major role. The 840-page Theo van Doesburg oeuvre catalogue occupies a special place. Reitsma was faced with the very complex task of combining over a thousand images with an extensive range of textual information. Finally, over twenty of his book designs were awarded a prize by the Stichting Best Verzorgde Boeken (‘Best Designed Books Foundation’).

Oeuvrecatalog Theo van Doesburg  2000

Monograph Wim Crouwel Modernist  2015, program booklet Happy Days  2008

Spreads Theo van Doesburg  2000

In 2002 Reitsma received the prestigious H.N. Werkman Prize for his Dutch National Opera designs. He used the prize money to buy expensive film equipment. After mastering digital editing software and experimenting with a few short films, he gets increasingly serious about filmmaking. A short film about graphic designer Jan Bons serves as the prelude to his first long documentary: Jan Bons – ontwerpen in vrijheid (‘designing in freedom’), which he produces with a modest budget in 2008. To celebrate Jan Bons’s ninetieth birthday, Reitsma took the initiative for the exhibition Jan Bons – 90 posters in the Kunsthal in Rotterdam. Excerpts from the film are shown in the exhibition space. The documentary is released on DVD, with a booklet the size of a DVD case. This will become the template for a whole series of ‘book+DVD’ editions of his subsequent films. 

DVD+BOOK editions: Jan Bons – ontwerpen in vrijheid  2008, De stoel van Rietveld  2011, De stijl van het Stedelijk  2012, DVD uitgave Wim Crouwel Modernist  2016 

Except for Het oog dat voelt (‘The feeling eye that’) about the work of photographer Koos Breukel and In de greep van de kunst (‘Gripped by art’) about museum director Pierre Janssen, Reitsma’s films are almost invariably portraits of designers or artists. Because Reitsma serves as both cinematographer and interviewer and is familiar with the profession, the subjects occasionally drop their guard in front of the camera. In Wim Crouwel Modernist (2018), for example, he elicits Crouwel’s remark that he is someone who ‘likes to put things straight’. Following Crouwel’s death, this remark was often quoted in the media.

Poster Het oog dat voelt – De portretten van
Koos Breukel  2021

Film stills: De stijl van het Stedelijk  2012 en Boom maakt boek  2018

In the 2012 documentary De Stijl van het Stedelijk (‘The Style of the Stedelijk Museum’), Reitsma observed the search for a new visual identity for this museum, a prestigious affair in the cultural sector. Director Gijs van Tuyl and designer Gerard Hadders organised this competition in response to the impending construction of a new museum wing. The project reaches an unexpected apotheosis when the new director Ann Goldstein ruthlessly dismisses Pierre de Sciullo, the French winner of the competition, and teams up with Dutch designers Mevis and Van Deursen instead. Reitsma relentlessly registered this peculiar course of events.

Exhibition design J.B. Van Loghem, architect van een optimistische generatie , ABC Architectuurcentrum Haarlem, 2022 Photo: Hans Peter Föllmi

Lex Reitsma
Born on 8 november 1958 in Delden (Overijssel)

Author: Jeroen van Erp, June 2023
English translation: Jan Willem Reitsma
Portrait photo: Aatjan Renders