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Happy Birthday Jurriaan Schrofer, the genius of design you didn’t know


orn on the 15th of April in Hague, Dutch designer, thinker, lecturer, artist and polymath Jurriaan Schrofer is regarded one of the most defining yet least known figures in European graphic design in the 1950s-70s. Schrofer began his career in the postwar years and died in 1990 sliping his typographic brilliance into history almost unnoticed. “Schrofer designed some of the major publications of Dutch intellectual life, such as Forum magazine and Ooievaars’ paperbacks; he designed for PTT (the national post office), the Stedelijk Museum and numerous high-profile clients; he was a partner at Total Design, alongside Wim Crouwel; he laid out a version of the Situationist Constant Nieuwenhuys’ New Babylon, a project for an utopian anti-capitalist city; he sat on numerous official committees, including one tasked to commission a monument for Queen Wilhelmina” writes David Crowley, head of Critical Writing in Art & Design programme at the Royal College of Art, London. “Unlike his near contemporaries, Jan van Toorn, Otto Treumann and Wim Crouwel – Schrofer has not been picked up by historians and curators for serious analysis until now, almost 25 years after his death”.

Change and continuity in Africa [ontwerp]. © Nederlands Archief Grafisch Ontwerpers

It is thanks to Unit Editions which published Jurriaan Schrofer (1926-90) Restless typographer but mostly due to the highly detailed study of him in the book Jurriaan Schrofer: graphic designer, pioneer of photo books, art director, teacher, art manager, environmental artist by Frederike Hyugen (with archival and image research by Jaap van Triest) published by Valiz that we come to realise the immersive genius of Jurriaan Schrofer’s diverse and experimental typographic approach. A realm full geometric multi-dimensional letterforms which were created done painstakingly by hand - with the occasional use of photography. “A computer designer before the computer” Hyugen writes in her essay for the Unit edition’s monograph.

Nederland 15c [ontwerp]. © Nederlands Archief Grafisch Ontwerpers

“Engaged with new thinking about optics, gestalt theory and ornament, cybernetics and computer art, Schrofer created rippling fields of letters and other typographic elements. Some were applied in PTT stamps and the covers of books published by Mouton in the 1970s, while others remained experiments in Modern ornament” writes David Crowley in his review of Huygen’s extensively detailed volume on Schrofer’s life and work.

A graph­ic de­sign­er em­bod­ies the art of storytelling through the im­ple­ment­a­tion of writ­ten com­mu­nic­a­tion between people

“Schrofer made several attempts to create complete typefaces - one of which was wittily called Sans serious - but this was never his goal. “Is it necessary”, he wrote, “to make complete alphabets with upper- and lowercase, figures, diacritics and seriously adorned with a name, when the aim is merely a formal investigation into basic recipes”. Schrofer’s domain was never the design of typographic alphabets, to be used by other designers, but always the creation of letterforms ‘made to measure’ as part of his own designs of - mainly - book covers and postage stamps” Jan Middendorp writes in Dutch Type.

Drs. P.H. Brunsmann, filmstudies, Dr. E. Boekmanstichting [ontwerp]. © Nederlands Archief Grafisch Ontwerpers

“In front of my eyes is life, en­tirely con­sist­ing of mo­ments of hap­pi­ness and loss; to live without ex­per­i­en­cing any prob­lems is a liv­ing death. Solv­ing the ob­vi­ous con­tra­dic­tions, I did not come to the con­clu­sion that there were less good mo­ments. In fact, it is not about ‘yes’ and ‘no’, nor faith or con­sci­en­ce, nor truth or lies, but the ex­per­i­en­ce of the unity of op­pos­ites” he wrote in Zi­en­derogen (In Front of Eyes), a book riddled with bio­graph­ic­al ref­er­en­ces and pub­lished in 1988, two years be­fore Schro­fer’s death.

 An artist, like a sing­er of pure po­etry, is autonom­ous in his art

This is his wisdom as he wrote it down to a letter to his son Gillian:

“You, your grand­fath­er and I are alike: way­ward, we do not want to de­pend on any­one else, and are only happy when we have something to do. However, for your grand­fath­er this ‘something’ is col­our, for you—ob­jects, and for me—char­ac­ters. An artist, like a sing­er of pure po­etry, is autonom­ous in his art. An in­dus­tri­al de­sign­er is the au­thor of tools—a knife and fork, table and chairs, car and sa­tel­lite, and his art is a secret of a craft. A graph­ic de­sign­er em­bod­ies the art of storytelling through the im­ple­ment­a­tion of writ­ten com­mu­nic­a­tion between people. Do what you do best. It is great to have a cer­tain tal­ent, be­cause then you will auto­mat­ic­ally be­come your­self. It is much harder when you do not have one, or when there are sev­er­al at once.”

Etage-aanduiding girokantoren [ontwerp]. | Etage-aanduiding girokantoren. © Nederlands Archief Grafisch Ontwerpers

A New Romantic of typography? An anarchist who “could not restrain himself from adopting a strictly intellectual approach to his students and the information society”? Whatever the case Wim Crouwel or Jan van Toorn are not the only prominent figures of Dutch design.

A computer designer before the computer

The bizarre and extremely experimental Jurriaan Schofer is our latest obsession and his pioneering legacy is contamporary as almost half a century ago.

Photos: Image library the Memory of the Netherlands

PTT Kantooragenda 1965. | Buizengieterij, Hoogovens IJmuiden. © Nederlands Archief Grafisch Ontwerpers

 Forum, 8 1959. | Een integrale aanpak van het vraagstuk kabeltelevisie: Multivisie. © Nederlands Archief Grafisch Ontwerpers

European Journal of Agricultural Economics [ontwerp]. © Nederlands Archief Grafisch Ontwerpers

Jurriaan Schrofer (1926-90) Restless typographer. Unit Editions

                    Jurriaan Schrofer