It was dubbed a scandal when the graphic designer appointed by the former director Gijs van Tuyl for the Stedelijk Museum was removed . A new documentary follows the trail.
Back in 2008 when Lex Reitsma started his documentary, “Style of the Stedelijk” he no doubt imagined a fairly standard and predictable celebratory take on the museum’s graphic identity.
Instead, he and his camera were witness to a dramatic turning of events where a graphic designer was hired and then fired. In the world of Dutch graphic design it was a big scandal.
During the “Style of the Stedelijk’s” opening, vintage footage of Willem Sandberg shows the famous former director talking about how every museum director has to make his own decisions. “I believe that every museum director who takes his job seriously, and who is of the opinion that his museum should have a leading role, should more or less try to leave the stamp of his personality on what he is doing.”
A large chunk of the film is dedicated to Wim Crouwel’s extraordinary twenty-year stint as graphic designer for the museum. In one rather touching scene Crouwel gets emotional over his method: “I always had the urge to work systematically and to work according to rules that were visible,” he says. “I didn’t want to stray from this path, so I blinkered myself. But at the same time it is a profession that involves aesthetics and [for me] these aesthetics were sometimes an obstruction. I felt myself to be a functionalist who worked systematically. And that is also what I wanted to be, but at the same time I was the aesthete that wanted to make it beautiful. These two things were always at war.”
But the film’s main narrative involves Gijs van Tuyl – director from 2005 to 2009 – and his search for a new graphic designer for the museum.
Van Tuyl invited five designers to pitch.
“I have always had my doubts about pitches,” says Crouwel in the film. “I can imagine a pitch with maybe five designers taking part. Who have been carefully selected in view of what you want for the museum. But here you have five designers with completely different frames of mind. And totally different cultural backgrounds. It makes me wonder what are you looking for? Are you only looking for originality? Does graphic identity play a role at all? Or is it something else?”
The jury seemed to agree that Irma Boom and Frenchman Pierre Di Sciullo were the front runners.
Van Tuyl was most excited by Di Sciullo’s pitch, but mentions on camera that he was yet to see what he really wanted. “Too tame, too low key, not distinctive enough,” he says.
“I like it that there is something that you remember it by,” says Mels Crouwel in the jury deliberation, “It’s a sort of style.” But Crouwel also mentions that his concern was that the work all looked too much Di Sciullo and not enough Stedelijk. He even went so far as to say that the work was the wrong direction for the museum.
Still, given all the arguments on the table, including concerns over Di Sciullo’s hesitant English and non-existent Dutch, the job was given to the Frenchman.
Di Sciullo continued to perfect and broaden his ideas on the graphic identity for the Stedelijk ready for the opening. But the museum never re-opened during Van Tuyl’s term. He left the museum at the end of 2009 and Ann Goldstein was appointed the new director.
That is when the trouble started. Goldstein was very quick to dismiss Di Sciullo.
“It was a very clean and hard decisions,” says Lex Reitsma writer and director of the “Style of the Stedelijk” documentary. “A lot of people were starting to say that his work would not fit.”
“We always said that a graphic identity should be able to last ten years, says Crouwel in the documentary. “And after such a period maybe it should be refreshed, adjusted. Nowadays graphic identities have a much shorter lifespan. I think they have become much more ephemeral. I think this will become a major problem with the new Stedelijk Museum.”
“Pierre was in my eyes the only one who took responsibility as an author and lived up to the SM's great tradition,” says Dingeman Kuilman who also appeared in the documentary as part of the jury deciding which pitch to accept. “He proposed a wonderful system of signing for the new facade, that gave a lively contrast with its dominant appeal of hygiene. Mels might have taken that as an ironic comment on his modernist beliefs. And also Ann and other staff maybe didn't feel that they were taken seriously by Pierre's designs. So, the shift by Anne was more than a change of designers, it was a change of direction.”
Goldstein refused to be interviewed for the documentary on why she took the decision. In the closing minutes she is seated with Armand Mevis and Linda van Deursen, the designers she appointed to take charge of the museum’s new graphic identity, explaining their logo.
“I agree that she probably didn’t believe in his attitude, in his way of working,” says Reitsma. “She has a different taste. I think she didn’t think his vision was good for the museum, and you have to respect that no matter how unprofessional you might feel the action was.”
Whether the so-far very plain work by Armand Mevis and Linda van Deursen has the guts to turn into something truly great that can sit alongside the brilliant graphic design the Stedelijk is world renowned for, remains anyone’s guess. It will be a fascinating road to follow.
“Style of the Stedelijk” will be broadcast this Sunday 30th September at 5.05 pm (in Dutch) in AVRO Close Up on Nederland 2.
The film (with English subtitles) is available in the shop of the Stedelijk Museum with a book written (in Dutch) by Frederike Huygen.
The “Style of the Stedelijk” is part of the Premsela Design Stories series.
Images from top to bottom:
Wim Crouwel, posters with SM logo, ca. 1971.
Anthon Beeke, posters: ‘UABC’, 1989; and ‘Jeff Koons’, 1992.
Mevis & Van Deursen, New Visual Identity Stedelijk Museum, 2012.
Mevis & Van Deursen, New Logo Stedelijk Museum, 2012.
Video Still Armand Mevis, Linda van Deursen, Ann Goldstein, 2012.
De stijl van het Stedelijk / The Style of the Stedelijk, by Frederike Huygen and Lex Reitsma. (book cover)
Courtesy Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.
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