April 26, 2017
Anniek Brattinga is central to both the function and ethos of the Werkplaats Typografie (WT) program in Arnhem, NL. When I had asked to explain her title at the school she’d replied, “Considering the WT is active in various fields, my responsibilities are therefore also quite broad, asking for a variety of responses depending on the specifics of each situation. In short, next to being a master program with the degree as the defined outcome, it operates as well as a publishing house (including a shop), a design studio, it produces big one-off projects (foremost presented during Art Book Fairs), owns an extensive archive, a library (and broadcasting facility): all relevant to the community, or entity, for research and design we became. In all of these I am involved.”
During the WT’s residency at the HMCT I had the chance to talk with Anniek about the program, giving me extensive insight into the WT’s history, alternative education models, and into the inner-workings of a radio broadcast facility turned school building we now know as the Werkplaats Typografie.
Austin Redman: So to begin, how did you start working at the Werkplaats Typografie?
Anniek Brattinga: I was living sort of here and the Werkplaats Typografie happened to be over there (points at the other side of the street) in a building that I always overlooked. So in January 2000 I applied for a vacant position and Karel Martens opened the door and said oh! it’s nice to meet you and I said, “well, let’s wait and see” and he said “well, I’m not disappointed so far!”. There was a director from ArtEZ, which wasn’t called ArtEZ at the time, who was giving completely different signals about the job than Karel Martens and Wigger Bierma did, who were the instigators of the Werkplaats. So after ten minutes I realized oh, there is something interesting going on here between the people that were responsible for the Werkplaats which wasn’t a masters course at the time. They were having different opinions about what needed to happen from the bigger structure, the institute and that challenge or struggle was there the whole time, you know, the difference between what the bigger structure was or what was needed there and what would we, inside of the Werkplaats Typografie think is better.
AR: They had different ideas for what Werkplaats should be?
AB: Well yea, because they saw it a bit as a strange bunch of people that are very independent and also quite anarchistic. ArtEZ felt that they didn’t have control over it, and we felt, well why would you want to have control over something that could work in its own way as well? But their point was that yeah, you know this is a public school and so there are necessities that do need to be achieved.
The school was started because Karel Martens was asked by the former director of ArtEZ Willem Hillenius to start the perfect school, or rather, his ideal school. So obviously, the Bauhaus was some kind of example. Sometimes I wish it (the Bauhaus) never happened you know because it is oh so modernistic. The hegemony of that modernism brought a lot, but other ideas and esthetics are interesting sources as well.
AR: So is the Bauhaus still central to the Werkplaats Typografie Program?
AB: Well, what I think is still central here and what was central there and still relevant is… and this may sound strange… but, is what a holistic view on what education should be. Educating people to become independent graphic designers with their own studios because they are there to define the terms and conditions of their own practice. What kind of work they want to be making, and for some people who already have a practice they are there to have time and space, both physical space and mental space, to really explore or do the research they think should be done that they hadn’t yet found the time to do so. Of course, it is also an officially accredited masters program which is as well worth something because people need that in order to teach, and so basically you get a lot of interesting things in two years doing whatever it is you think you should be doing.
AR: So in a way the Werkplaats is the Bauhaus just stripped of its modernist beliefs
AB: Well yes but you can also think of other schools such as the Black Mountain School and F+F Schule für experimentelle Gestaltung in Switzerland there is currently a very interesting show in Utrecht happening about this sort of alternative way of schooling or radical pedagogies that were introduced in the 70’s. But it’s basically always the same thing that the influence of the institute as such is reduced, which is really the most important thing. And of course no matter how we look at it, it is an institute and we sometimes have to communicate like the way an institute does but we try to keep it out as much as possible, the Bureaucracy. We also, everyone who is involved is focused on the same thing, which is mainly the development of each individual that is there and that helps because at least everyone has the same priorities. We of course are trying to keep the ego’s out as much as possible.
AR: So the organization of the institution is that it is there only when it needs to be?
AB: Yeah. Well basically, of course we are part of a bigger structure and there is a department of quality or education and control that give us the conditions that we need to address, but we address them in the way that we consider they need to be addressed. So that might sometimes mean doing the minimum that is needed and sometimes saying no we do need to be strict here. Like having assessment forms, because we do need to have them because it communicates easier with committees but we try and do it in our own way.
AR: Your own way of how to assess the accomplishment of the program?
AB: Yes and then documenting that, because really assessing people happens on a daily basis. You know every time you have tutors coming in you have individual conversations so people are criticized or questions are asked about why they are doing what they are doing, what the next step will be… and by offering them so many different voices it is necessary that they come up with their own thoughts and their own opinions.
In the past we only had two main tutors and it was like oh, either you agree with this path or with that person. And I remember some person being like “Oh, well, it needs to be this” and another says the opposite and you start to think well, what is my position here in this?
AR: And did the curriculum become too polarizing during this time?
AB: Well, we had some rough years, haha. But of course there is another argument for that which is of course, our experience of the faculty members let’s say, our experiences accumulate and so we are in an experience and say “oh, hey wait a minute, something is happening” and then you take your review or your analysis of your previous experience and you shouldn’t do that.
AR: Yeah, it’s a totally new circumstance.
AB: With new people. So you can’t say, hey it didn’t work then so it probably won’t work now. But eventually you think, yeah indeed it again didn’t work but still, as I mentioned, we are educating people who will be the designers of tomorrow and they need to find their own vocabulary and visual language.
AR: And give them as many resources as possible such as with the available tutors and visiting guests…
AB: Yeah, indeed. That’s always a fine balance between enough and not too many. Also to keep things interesting for ourselves, we only do things once.
AR: In what way?
AB: Well, say there is this structure of the year, and there are of course components described and defined outcomes obviously because we need to justify for this master level. This next part is all technical but it’s relevant… So in all schools in Europe, they had to go through a bachelor and masters structure, so in order to find out if this set of conditions was applicable to art education we were part of a pilot, because it’s the same set if you study economics or law. So it was then about what the specifics are in an art education, which is obviously individual development but still keeping some kind of average level that is of course defined by the one with the least quality let’s say, but something like quality indeed in general you can’t say something like, someone doesn’t have that much quality, because, well it happened, we had someone and we were like, we have no idea what this person’s doing, and then later on this person became quite big so it always has to do with the ambition that someone else has.
AR: And you really can’t predict that or know exactly how it will come about.
AB: No and that is a good thing. Indeed. But of course with the admission interviews we always have, after a person sends in their portfolio, it is very important to see if there is room for development for the individual. We had people that were very advanced already and it’s still relevant even if they only have a little step in their progress that’s also allowed – obviously. Because it is based on how someone comes in or what they want to be doing but of course you need to have common ground because if you don’t understand each other, or understand each other after some time then nothing can happen. But we have also had people around and it didn’t seem to work during but yeah people are still doing fine later on and that is also good. Because it is so small… everyone gets a key, yeah? Someone wrote an article about us and the title was “Key and Kitchen” and that was a good observation because it became obvious that these were the essential elements. Everyone has a key and has access 24/7 and there is a kitchen where we have lunch everyday (which is really something because people make whole meals and it’s still 2 euro per person). And people come to the Netherlands or to Arnhem to study there and people say it’s a bubble and of course it’s a bubble, but it’s not more of a bubble than somewhere else.
AR: Everything can kind of become this bubble in a way. Like this self–defined space, but it is one that they choose to take part in and know that with Arnhem being so remote, what it will possibly be like when they get there.
AB: Yeah but still it takes most people half a year just to sense what it really means. In the first weeks it always happens like, oh what is going on Thursday morning? Well we have a schedule of people coming in and you can have a conversation with someone. There are some participants that really also look at it like a residency program which is then something they need you know? Not to be in a school situation, like there is this allergy to be treated like a student or that this is a school. But yeah that is actually what we are.
AR: But in a way Werkplaats seems to be creating a context or an environment rather than maybe acting solely as a school where you get an education and that is it. The social interaction is also very important, next to the work.
AB: There were two people who did a presentation at the Centre Pompidou and then they pretended they were anthropologists where they were looking at this microcosmos which of course was the Werkplaats Typografie (laughs). Indeed you have people there that don’t know each other, that come as individuals, they spend 16 hours a day together. That is really something, you know. But thats what I mean with this sort of complete.. this makes us sound as if it is perfect but its absolutely not. You know, by addressing more than only the development of the graphic design, but by the fact that we also reserve the time to interact with clients… and this is going to sound quite lame but… in every situation there is an opportunity to learn and to develop yourself. Although sometimes we could keep the focus more on the graphic design development as such. Because you can talk about a project or everything, the conditions for ages but in the end you need to make a work. That’s what you do as a graphic designer, you need to make something. And it doesn’t need to be physical necessarily or printed matter but you want to bring something into the world.
AR: Showing how the discussion or the discourse or whatever is taking place is translated or transformed and where it arrives at as a result of this activity.
AB: Yeah and that the result really needs to be visual and that by being aware of that, you are making decisions, you know this editorial process, you know that not everything that was part of the process should be included, or what seemed relevant at that time but is later not anymore should be removed. Like what is now happening with the LA Art Book Fair project, you have discussions and you come to an agreement, and then you develop something and you test it on others because they need to be contributing and then they focus on the things that are still unresolved. And of course you don’t want to hear that but it is necessary that you always test these inconsistencies in your thinking and you have to do that by showing something. You can’t just only describe like oh, it’s going to be this and this and this, but by materializing something it works or it doesn’t. And this situation, when being a student, you can discuss forever because you have more time than when you’re not a participant to a graduate program.
…I’m wondering if there is something that I haven’t yet mentioned that is terribly important.. Ah, yeah when I heard an accent from one of the participants earlier today, I thought like, oh yeah wait a minute the fact that it is so small scale–internationally oriented, that’s what I tend to forget to express, which is also part of the success I would say, that you don’t only have people coming from one country or one specific school.
AR: And now you are confronted with multiple cultures and learn to engage and interact in a sort of new culture.
AB: And a funny thing is, that is sort of the quintessence of being there. It’s not something that you are usually so conscious of. You’re not always like, oh, I’m the French person, of course we have these stereotypical ways of expressing something, like the typology of this is Swiss design, or this looks a bit too much like too American… no we don’t really say that. So it’s not like that is so consciously brought in but it’s just what happens to be. AND, we have a tendency for strange people.
AR: You’re attracted to strange people for the program?
AB: Well attracted, that happens you know, well, it has happened a few times where we were like ‘hey but if we don’t accept this person, where else can this person go?’ And that is a good thing. Yeah, sometimes it’s difficult, and we think, oh no what have we done here. Once we had a Japanese student and it was a bit of a risk accepting him, but he was so interesting, his English was terrible in the beginning, but in the end he was the one who made this information brochure, PLAY PLAY PLAY, I don’t know if you saw it?
But this participant was there for two years and then he went back to Japan and he couldn’t do anything with the freedom, design–wise, he felt in the Netherlands. So then I think, well, is it worth it? But I spoke with him afterwards and he was very happy he did it and so yeah I thought that was good, but isn’t it also causing frustration that you’re going back to your country and all of a sudden you go back to this situation where people tell you what you need to do? So of course I can’t decide that for him, and he was happy for those two years, which was good.
AR: And it’s hard to have that much foresight when running a program to say, well what are you actually going to do with it?
AB: Indeed, because we don’t really do promotion, where they say well these are where the best people come from. Sometimes I think we are really inactive concerning promoting our program.
AR: It may be inactive but people still know or at least assume there is a lot going on in that building in Arnhem.
AB: Yes, but it may sound a bit arrogant to say yeah well, people just know. We had a year where I thought is this the group that will start here? But then of course you make it work. Like in any real situation. Just like if you want to do a project, you’re ambitious and you make it happen.
AR: I think also, Werkplaats has a large presence in American graphic design culture because every year you are doing at least two shows, this year three with the one upcoming at the HMCT, but typically the LA Art Book Fair and the NY Art Book Fair.
AB: And what do you think is the influence? What kind of influence does the Werkplaats have that you see?
AR: I can’t say that I necessarily know the influence, but I know there is for sure an interest. What is it that leads the Werkplaats program to interact with the United States twice a year?
AB: Well, for us it is obviously because what we bring is sort–of completely different. It is very important because it is such a huge opportunity to be on such a big stage. Like, 25,000 people visit the NYABF, ninety-eight percent of them don’t know a thing about us, although everyone inside always thinks that everyone knows us, but that is not really the situation. So being invited to do a project on such a large scale… and also for our participants, they meet the people and networks they want to be part of. The people there are all oriented towards printed matter and of course this is also really intimidating, and they think as a graphic designer what is something new that they can bring. And for that perspective it is also good. It allows us to say to the students here this the stage you can do with it what you want and you need to address something that is relevant for you nowadays. Although they almost always come up with the archive of the Werkplaats but they share the concerns and then immediately they think of something else. But it’s very doable, you know, the archive is close and accessible, you can take from it…some of the former students became big and their WT work is in the school’s archive And on the other hand, the reason that we are invited is that we are a strange school in the Netherlands and that we always bring our student body.
AR: The Werkplaats seems to be as much about being off–site as it is on–site. Obviously the building and its size that the school is located within is integral to this community that we’ve been speaking of, and this sort of anarchistic approach to education. But what is also important is that you are spending six weeks from the year here at this residency and at others, so it seems so that as much as it is about being in that building back in Arnhem, it’s also quite a bit about being away from it and finding ways to work in these drastically different environments.
AB: Well, this international orientation wasn’t necessarily something that was designed or implemented from like, oh yeah, let’s go international but it also of course has to do with the interest in Dutch graphic design, and graphic design also as a mentality. But that’s also relevant for Swiss design I would say, a similar approach or gesture or the necessity in a whole cultural or social setting that then of course there were quite a few big institutes or businesses that really focused on design as such. As citizens of the Netherlands, they might not know but there is something designed for them, a public space so that they have that kind of interest to what design can do without clarifying something. So it wasn’t a wish to do those international projects, but it had the attraction and the teachers that were there, they always had these contacts. Like Karel Martens he was (and still is) at Yale every year and Linda Van Deursen, Armand’s partner and Armand as well. And someone like Paul Elliman from London, one of the regular tutors, he brings that in, and it happened that the first year (with people like Stuart Bailey and Batia Suter amongst others) was a good group and they all did their own thing. Later other participants did well and several of them went back to their own country so it would happen quite often, when asked where they studied they referred to the Werkplaats. Besides quite a few started teaching and of course if you teach then the influence becomes bigger. Yeah there always have been a good mix of interesting people with ambition and with potential that wanted to find their own way and that did that within the walls of the school. And as I’d mentioned, allow, or basically giving people the freedom and also the responsibility to make it their own. That is also in the building. Every thing, every corner can give space or be a space for a project. That’s a trust but it is also a burden that you basically can do anything. That can be hard because as a graphic designer, you want to have structure.
AR: Yeah you’d think so.
AB: Well because then you have something to respond to. If it’s like yeah, you can do whatever you like or what is it that you are interested in, then also I think it is one of the special characteristics that we don’t exclude a topic. So it’s not only about a political message designed for that, but really design is an instrument to address any topic. So what you see is the variety of pure visual, or more topic based, or more research based, but still there is an orientation on what the design part is or the visual language that comes with that, and that is sometimes hard because everything is worth to be looked at and to be done something with. And that’s what you need to do.
AR: And that becomes a decision of the students to what then is appropriate to their practice.
AB: Yes, yeah. But of course it also needs to be questioned and we ask this question all the time like well why this and how do you continue and la la la. Of course the criticality that comes with it is necessary, but the fact is that it’s not assignment-based or that you are given briefs that you need to follow. But I think there are more master courses in the world and in the Netherlands, that have this kind of attitude I would say. And we all need to describe what it is that makes us us (lets say compared to what the Sandberg instituut does or Piet Zwart institute but of course it depends on the tutors that are there and the people that you get).
AR: But also just that the structure at the Werkplaats Typografie is open, where at the Sandberg they have something that they are trying to have people look at specifically.
AB: Yeah well that is because the tutors that are there, they also bring in their own practice because that way someone can learn. If someone is two steps ahead or twenty–five steps ahead, then you want to learn from that person because we have the most critical body of students that we can think of and so it needs to be worth their while. So with the Sandberg Instituut, yeah, you have the head of the department, she has a different approach herself to design and so that design is an instrument to address a social topic and that’s the difference. So then the process is different and the outcome. In our case, the materialization of something is very important in the end.
AR: The last question I want to ask relates back to this notion of graphic designers needing a certain type of structure to respond to. I find it a bit strange that client work, or “real” work, that is, work that isn’t self-initialed or driven by a thesis that you would typically go to a grad school to figure out, is sort of a basis for the Werkplaats curriculum.
AB: And why do you find it strange?
AR: Typically I would think that going to grad school, you’re taking a topic that you feel you need to make work about, a thesis, and working it out in this 2-year time period. But getting to know the students at the Werkplaats it seems that there are a variety of other projects that are coming in and out and there is a sort of undercurrent of reality even in a very theoretical program.
AB: Well, ideally we don’t think it’s good if it would be separated. That you have client-based work and self-initiated work. It’s basically one of the same body but for some it might work better to make a strict division between the two but the ideal is that you can bring in your own agenda in the client-based works as well. And of course that is the condition when clients come to us…of course it is not easy working with us because you get participants who first test the brief any possible way and re-describe it, because it also needs to be their work and by doing it that way then it is also good to be aware of how far you can get with that. For instance when making a publication with a client you’re making a book together with a photographer, an author, an artist, and you don’t want to necessarily make something for someone, or just look at it as a service-based profession where someone tells you what to do, but it’s really about coming to the best end result after a thorough process. Thinking from out of the interest and the necessity of creating something that is not there yet. It is also important that you find possibilities and learn how to deal with that in a real situation, because of course in your own project one could in fact be preaching to one’s own church, which it’s very interesting, but you can’t distribute that. You know, you have something, you spent all that time and thinking on having something published there on the table and you haven’t thought of how you distribute that. So basically there is a given reason when a client comes in with some kind of set parameters and conditions that you can address, there is a sort of urgency to do something like that. And you need to make it relevant, just as much as you want to make relevant something that you bring into the world. So also for all the practicalities in the design and production process and dealing with a client, who usually says something else than what you want to hear, and to find out that the budget is too limited to what you have in mind. Dealing with the printers or coders, or learning how to be kind and friendly and forceful and stubborn. To learn all these things that are very relevant to know is then the connection that we also want to offer that someone is an accomplished graphic designer ready to have their own practice and that you can’t just say no no no, I only do things in light pink, its fine but if you want something in blue go somewhere else. So ideally as I said that’s also why we are as picky as we are with these clients. Armand and I discuss when an assignment comes in if there is enough freedom to do something interesting, because as I said it’s also their work. It basically shouldn’t matter that much, but it does because there are always people who don’t always agree with you, but there are different interests, which are very relevant. So that’s how it started.
It started more as a studio where there was a re-design of a Dutch newspaper which took a whole year, the discussions with the client were tough but that’s the occasion that the typeface Arnhem by Fred Smeijers was designed. But eventually the newspaper didn’t happen. And so a whole year was spent on that newspaper and when it was cancelled of course it was terrible. That’s why we need to find a balance between doing jobs for people that could bring in something interesting and research-based work. Sometimes a person who has no experience at all comes in with only a bachelor and one year of free-wheeling and a black hole experience so then everything could be interesting, even making a phone call with a client to discuss matters. And yes, having that frustration is experience, that’s also relevant. And of course we want our participants to have that experience trying things out under the roof of the Werkplaats, because if you’re doing something for a client and money is involved you tend to be a bit more flexible, which is of course also good, but also not good.
AR: Flexible in your design position?
AB: Yeah, the content of it, you always need to think of your position as a designer. Not too soon obviously, some participants can be a bit too rigid with their variety in their design vocabulary when they leave school.
Thanks to Line–Gry Hørup for the images