In many ways, we’re living in the golden age of graphic design histories. All over the world, designers, historians, and enthusiasts are uncovering forgotten figures, objects, and movements. There are efforts to decolonize, queer, and expand the canon. The linear, oversimplified design timelines many of us were taught are no longer sufficient.
I found myself thinking about all of this while reading Sara De Bondt’s new book, Off the Grid: Histories of Belgian Graphic Design. De Bondt, a designer and publisher, began work on the book as part of her PhD at KASK — School of Arts Ghent / Ghent University. She had just moved back to Belgium, the country she grew up but had lived away from for over a decade, and began researching the visual landscape that helped shaped her. What quickly emerged, however, was a sweeping set of narratives that extend beyond borders.
On one hand, graphic design in Belgium is yet another under-researched field of design history and I was dazzled to find countless new designers and images that were previously unfamiliar to me. But on the other hand, the histories of Belgian graphic design offer a lens through which we can think about design histories, more generally. De Bondt’s book, which includes essays from a range of designers, writers, and researchers, doesn’t stop at posters, books, and illustrations, but also looks at labor practices, colonization, and nationalism. These are topics applicable to all design histories. After the book was released, I spoke with Sara to learn more about Belgian design culture and new ways of thinking about graphic histories.
In reading your new book, I was immediately struck by how, in all the design histories I’ve read, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything about Belgian graphic design. I wasn’t sure I could name a Belgian graphic designer – beside you, of course! Can you tell me a little bit about the design culture in Belgium and why there hasn’t been a serious historical study before?
That’s so true! It’s pretty shocking in comparison with other European countries like Switzerland, France, or The Netherlands which have had more comprehensive histories written about them.
Belgium is a small, relatively young country — it was only founded in 1830 — with a complex and fractured political structure. There are three communities: the Flemish, French, and German-speaking. I find it hard to believe that we have six parliaments! While the Ministry of Economy is a federal institution, for example, the Ministry of Culture is a regional one, promoting just the region instead of the whole country.
Nevertheless, there is a thriving graphic design culture at the moment, with studios such as Atelier Brenda, Roxanne Maillet, D.E.A.L., Lorraine Furter, Julie Peeters, Inge Meganck, Ines Cox, and many others. Brussels has become a bit of a magnet in the last few years, especially since Brexit. It’s well connected: other major European cities are only a train ride away. Quite a few younger Belgian graphic designers continued their studies at the Werkplaats Typografie in Arnhem and have since returned, so you feel their influence. And our students go on Erasmus exchanges to cities such as Den Haag, Leipzig, Tallinn, or Barcelona.
There was one book called In koeien van letters, for which Herman Lampaert wrote a timeline, which was a great starting point for me. He was immensely helpful and even now keeps mailing me information.
To flip the question a bit, then, why is Belgian graphic design worth a closer look? What were your goals for the project and what did you learn from it?
When I returned to my native Belgium after living in the Netherlands for two years and then London for 13 years, I was curious to find out why I knew so little about this history. I don’t think graphic design in Belgium is better or worse than graphic design from any other country but I wondered why I was trained in a certain way and who had shaped the visual landscape in which I grew up.
It was also for selfish reasons. Since my practice has developed from just graphic designing to also include publishing, researching, and teaching, I have been feeling a bit lost in how to define myself. So I tried to find examples of other hybrid practices. I went to talk to an older generation with similar experiences to learn from them. That this happened to be in Belgium was more of a side-note.
You write in the introduction that while its focus is on graphic design produced in Belgium in the latter half of the 20th century, the book is “not intended to celebrate a national style”. How do you define Belgian graphic design? Is there something, apart from geography, that makes graphic design inherently Belgian?
I’m not sure that there is. The country lies in the middle of such a crossroad of influences. In fact, many ‘Belgian’ designers were not born here or were trained abroad. In 1971, the Brussels-based Hungarian designer Charles Rohonyi already wrote “Belgium is undoubtedly the one European country with the highest number of foreigners per square mile. This has equally made it a country ‘without graphic frontiers’.”
You could say that there isa sensitivity to language since you often have to typeset multi-lingual information. According to one of the designers I interviewed, Sophie Alouf, Belgians are suspicious of authority, which is why she thinks the Belgian Chamber of Graphic Designers didn’t survive.
In many local graphic design schools, you study both illustration and graphic design simultaneously in the first Bachelor year and then choose between the two, which is different from my experience teaching abroad. When you think of the work of Marcel Broodthaers or René Magritte, or Hergé, I guess you could say that the word and the image are interconnected. A drawing can become typography and the other way around. But I would prefer not to generalize too much: maybe that is more generational than regional…just think about, for example, Margaret Calvert in the UK, who was also designing road sign lettering and pictograms at the same time. Or Pushpin studios in the US who also combined lettering and illustration.
You’re a graphic designer from Belgium. Did working on this book change how you thought about your own work? Do you identify something “Belgian” in your practice?
No. I feel just as connected to designers such as Kaisa Lassinaro in Finland or James Goggin in New Zealand. My partner Antony Hudek is Swiss-American, so we speak English at home, and I sometimes feel like a foreigner in my own country.
I may be stretching this a bit but what struck me in spending time with the book — which includes essays about typography, posters, and books as well as colonization, labor practices, and politics — that one could view Belgian graphic design as a lens through which to understand graphic design histories more generally. What do you think graphic designers can learn about their own work through looking at the histories you’ve assembled here?
The material I included comes from what interested me as a practicing graphic designer and things I felt were relevant to my own work. Because of that, there is a lot is missing from the book; topics I felt less familiar with or have less experience with, such as packaging or branding.
Doing this project has made me realize how history is there to be used and (respectfully) sampled and how we are all part of a giant pool. Us designers are always made to compete or pitch against each other when we could be building on each other more. There is an ecological aspect to this as well. We need to stop consuming and stop throwing stuff away; we need to recycle more.
It’s been fun to see how excited non-graphic designers can be about the subject! We are always complaining that nobody cares, but the opposite is true.
There’s work happening all over the world around decolonizing design history, with efforts to expand (or even dismantle) the design canon. You and your collaborators wrestle with these ideas in a specifically Belgian context. Are there takeaways from your research around colonization and race relations in a Belgian design culture that could be more widely applicable?
The text about graphic design’s complicity in the colonization of Congo was the last addition to the book. Researching for it and writing it opened my eyes. I did not realize in which detail the Belgian state orchestrated the Congolese exploitation and how many people were involved. Graphic design is a testimony to that. We see toppled statues of Leopold II in public parks on the news. Still, the institutionalized racism and ongoing colonization run so deep and remain all around us. There is so much more work to be done.
In putting this book together, what was the most interesting discovery you found?
My co-authors who contributed such valuable material to the book and who – I hope – will keep producing graphic design research: Jo De Baerdemaeker, Pia Jacques and Leroy Meyer, Jan Ceuleers, Katrien Van Haute, Richard Hollis, Jean-Michel Meyers, Hilde Pauwels, Hugo Puttaert, and Katarina Serulus.