We hear time and again that the design “canon” needs a big shakeup—in design education, exhibitions, or simply in the “aspirational” names or movements that we hear repeatedly. Sara De Bondt is a designer who’s long been preoccupied with telling the untold histories of design, be that through her studio work, her teaching, or the non-profit publishers Occasional Papers that she runs with her partner.
The last time we chatted with De Bondt was back in 2016, and three years later, she’s just finished putting together the final touches of an ambitious exhibition, “Off the Grid Belgian Graphic Design from the 1960s and 1970s as Seen by Sara De Bondt,” now on show at the Design Museum Gent in Belgium. As well as curating the show, De Bondt has designed the exhibition graphics, layout, and catalog, which she also wrote. “The exhibition became a research method to focus on and frame what I’m looking at for my PhD, and sharpen and articulate why certain things [are well-known in design history], and why others aren’t.”
Where her process differs from traditional curation, however, is in the personal nature of the way materials are selected and displayed, which combines her design methodology with her passion for showcasing little-known design talent. “It’s very much my own view—it’s very personal, not an objective design history,” says De Bondt. “The terms [that define each section in the exhibition] are those I use in my design practice today—things like why typography or seriality are important. Someone else would do it very differently.”
“As an independent female graphic designer and a teacher, I am heartened by the fact that the position of women in the profession has improved—though graphic design is far from having rid itself of sexism.”
We chat as she’s busy in the museum helping install the show, and it’s a treat to be offered a Facetime insight into the machinations of putting it all together—a genuine, behind-the-scenes sneak peek—something that’s rare (despite all the headlines and tweets that spew those way overused phrases) as a journalist and indeed, for De Bondt as a designer. “I now have a lot more patience for curators,” she says. “I’ve realized what a nightmare it can be organizing exhibitions—there are so many different factors I had no clue about,” though she audibly relishes the experience of taking her already research-heavy practice into a physical space.
As the show’s title, Off the Grid, suggests, the history of graphic design in Belgium is largely uncharted territory. It’s also, as with most design histories, male dominated—not least because many women designers went under the radar as they were making work that went under their husband’s name (something we’ve seen outside of Belgium as well, with Elaine Lustig Cohen or Marie Neurath). “Unfortunately, Jeanine Behaeghel and Sophie Alouf are among the few female designers whose work is shown here, although the exhibition honors the invaluable yet less visible contributions to the field by such pioneers as Josine des Cressonnières, Liliane-Emma Staal, and Jenny Van Driessche,” says De Bondt. “As an independent female graphic designer and a teacher, I am heartened by the fact that the position of women in the profession has improved—though graphic design, like so many other areas, is far from having rid itself of sexism.”
In the end, De Bondt had too much work to include, rather than too little. Among the other names featured are Fernand Baudin, Rob Buytaert, Boudewijn Delaere, Corneille Hannoset, Herman Lampaert, Luk Mestdagh, and Paul Ibou—probably the best known of the bunch, and whose work was recently presented in the book Letters as Symbols, a visual survey of his alphabetically driven logo designs.
The objects and artefacts on display in the show are organized into sections according to ten key principles De Bondt uses in her own work: economy of means, format, color, education, pattern, surface, collaboration, seriality, social relevance, and typography.
This organizing structure for the exhibition inherently had its own challenges—obviously, a number of pieces could fall into several of these categories—and it also highlighted a couple of political concerns. Yellow and black, the colors of the Flemish flag, for instance, are “particularly loaded,” she says. Some designers looked to “circumvent this thorny issue:” Herman Lampaert, for example, took the unusual step of using the full color spectrum for his exhibition poster Facetten van de Jonge Vlaamse Kunst (Facets of Young Flemish Art, 1969).
“In the context of Belgian colonialism, color quickly gained a political charge. At first glance, one could admire Corneille Hannoset’s exhibition poster Art africain / Art moderne for its bold use of color,” says De Bondt. “But when one knows that Hannoset designed the signage and printed matter for the controversial Congo pavilion [which featured Congolese people as well as artefacts] at the 1958 World Expo in Brussels, one can’t help but conclude that, once again, color is equated with the ‘other’ and is presented as the opposite of so-called rational European design.”
However, the organizing structure also reaffirmed why certain modes of working are so important for De Bondt: “Much of graphic design’s success depends on the people working together—designers, printers, and, not least, clients—and the success of the collaboration can make or break a project. For many graphic designers, good design depends on good conversations, which allow their practice to remain open to new ideas and keep evolving.” This is evident in the presentation of pieces salvaged from Multi-Art, the publishing company, gallery space, and the first art bookshop in Antwerp that ran from 1969 to 1972. It was founded by Liliane-Emma Staal and Paul Ibou “precisely to subvert the traditional economic designer-client model” by inviting artists to collaborate on small artists’ editions—paper objects with low print runs and sold at affordable prices.
“For many graphic designers, good design depends on good conversations, which allow their practice to remain open to new ideas and keep evolving.”
It was also important for De Bondt to show not only the final pieces, but the physical stories behind them, where possible. A poster design for the Royal Ballet of Flanders by Ibou, for instance, is accompanied by a physical structure that replicates the stage prop created for the ballet itself. The sculpture was created by British furniture designer Michael Marriott, who worked on the physical exhibition design with De Bondt. Also included is a gorgeously minimal mobile-type piece that Boudewijn Delaere photographed for his 1970 nieuwjaarskaart [new year card] butterfly poster, as well as a Surrealistic-leaning publication bearing a physical nose made of plaster and designed by Ibou.
Much of the design work during the time of the exhibition’s focus has been lost—“brochures were disposed of, ended up in archives or were shredded. In the case of larger commissions, only the posters were often preserved. Unfortunately, these posters only made up a fraction of the original commission in many cases,” says the museum.
Part of the reason Belgian graphic design is so little preserved isn’t because of its quality or innovative nature, but because of a number of structural issues. For one, the tiny country is linguistically split into the Flemish Community (Flanders) and the French-speaking Community (Wallonia), so it has been tricky to form organizations such as D&AD in the UK or indeed AIGA in the U.S. to help document and preserve graphic design. There was a brief moment in the late ’60s and early ’70s, with the formation of the bilingual Belgian Chamber of Graphic Design [Chambre Belge des Graphistes / Belgische Kamer van Grafische Ontwerpers], which helped distribute and promote its members’ work, provided model contracts, and served as a forum for discussions on pricing, among other things.
What becomes evident in the show is that unlike Swiss or Dutch design, which we associate with certain definitive styles, there’s no “Belgian ‘national style’,” says De Bondt. “Whereas numerous books have been written on Swiss, Dutch, or British graphic design, there is, to date, only a handful of published histories of graphic design in this country.” The design born in Belgium was also very international. “Many successful designers based in Belgium were immigrants: the German Manfred Hürrig, the Lebanese Sami Alouf, the Swiss Léo Marfurt, and the French Jacques Richez and André Pasture,” notes De Bondt.
“Design history is not something objective; but however it’s presented, it’s about people telling stories”
It’s a rare treat to see such large institutions devote shows to graphic design. In the UK (and according to De Bondt, in Belgium, too), few “design” shows relate specifically to graphics—London’s Design Museum, for instance, usually takes a more of a product or furniture-based focus. This is the first graphic design exhibition at Design Museum Gent for about 20 years, and as De Bondt’s curation process indicates, it’s overarchingly a bold framework for how design history ties directly into working designers’ practice today. “In general, history is not something objective; but however it’s presented, it’s about people telling stories,” says De Bondt.