Willem Sandberg: from type to image

Category: Exhibition


Sandberg at his desk at the Stedelijk, c1960, image: Pieter Brattinga

Patrick Myles MISTD reviews Willem Sandberg: From type to Image

At a time when a limited print run (and of course budget) are part and parcel of many a design brief, this retrospective of Willem Sandberg’s work is both pertinent and inspirational. Willem Sandberg (1897-1984) was a prolific graphic designer throughout his lifetime, but what is outstanding is that his most renowned work of more than 270 posters and 250 catalogues were produced only in his spare time, following his appointment as director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam at the age of 48.

As museum director, he introduced contemporary art to the post-war Netherlands and laid the foundations for one of the best collections of modern art in Europe. But his multi-faceted approach brought inspired curator and seminal graphic designer together to create a distinctive and unique body of work.


Not surprisingly, it was the outbreak of the Second World War and the German occupation that marked a turning point in Sandberg’s life. The activities of the museum where he was already working were compromised, and there is a fascinating documentary film in the exhibition that describes how many significant works from the collection had been deposited for safe keeping in a vault hidden in sand dunes by the sea.

Also to help those in need of false papers to be able to work and avoid arrest, a group of designers and printers, including Sandberg, successfully produced identity cards, complete with watermarks and signatures that went undetected. Sandberg later said: ‘This for me is the greatest praise I have ever had for my typographic work.’ However there was also a plan to attack the Central Civil Registry Office that held records of the city’s Jewish Residents. The attack was only partly successful, and almost all of Sandberg’s co-conspirators were betrayed and executed. He escaped and went into hiding.


During this period Sandberg managed to continue with his own private work, and on display are a selection of exquisite handmade booklets that he produced between 1943 and 1945. Each booklet had between 20 and 60 pages using various kinds of paper and typefaces presented through drawing, collage and photography, and in doing so building foundations for later work. He appropriately gave them the collective name experimenta typografica.

3.WS.Poster, 1949.jpg

Poster, 1949

But it is the later catalogue and poster work for the Stedelijk that dominates the show, with Sandberg’s characteristic use of simple and bold use of colour and typography. Experimental and Avant-garde for its time, his off-centred combinations of sans-serif type dance across the page with bold Egyptian slab serif letterforms. The use of paper is so essential to his work, not only as a canvas for print, but he further explored layout and type through the rough contours of torn paper that became a hallmark of his design work.

3a.WS.Poster, 1949.jpg

Poster, 1949

Sandberg’s playful and artistic approach to promoting the museum’s exhibitions really feels like it comes from a complete understanding and involvement with the subject matter that he clearly had. He made fascinating decisions about how to promote art through his design. For example, there are posters advertising the likes of Picasso, Van Gogh and Miro using only typography to announce heavyweight artists as if they were boxers. It would be a challenging task to convince a client today to agree with this unconventional but by no means effective approach. In doing so, Sandberg paved the way at the Stedelijk for his successor, the equally ground breaking icon of Dutch graphic design, Wim Crouwel.


Sandberg’s New Year's Eve Card 1957

Sandberg originally developed his methods through a culture of austerity. His use of recycled materials and printing methods almost appear contemporary considering the current rise in popularity of screen-printing and letterpress. However, he was a pioneer of design and as a result introduced a graphic approach that is still in use today.

Patrick Myles MISTD

(extract from review first published in Crafts magazine July/August 2016}

Willem Sandberg: from type to image

The first UK survey of an internationally renowned icon of graphic design, Willem Sandberg, Dutch graphic designer and director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam from 1945–63, showcasing his entire body of work from the 1930s to the 1980s.

Moving from text to image, this exhibition tells the story of Sandberg’s unique graphic language, use of 'warm printing' experimental typography, torn paper shapes and the use of ordinary material.

Unmissable exhibition – the most inspiring range of posters, catalogues and stationery – the essence of what typography is about.

De La Warr Pavilion
Bexhill on sea
East Sussex TN40 1DP

Showing until 4 September
Free entry

Curated by Carolien Glazenburg, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, in collaboration with Fraser Muggeridge and De La Warr Pavilion

Images Courtesy Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

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