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Work / Graphic Design

Unit Editions’ re-released sublime Total Design behemoth is gorgeous

Back in the heady days of 2011, Unit Editions released a stunning tome that tells the tale of pioneering Dutch movement Total Design. It’s now back in a new expanded version, written by one of the group’s key members, Ben Bos. Unit Editions kindly allowed us to publish an extract from the beautiful and fascinating book, so here it is.

2013 was the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the Amsterdam design office Total Design, known colloquially as TD. For many observers, “50 years old” sounds prehistoric. To the younger generation of designers it is the age of the dinosaurs… but the amazing thing is that TD’s reputation has endured in design circles the world over. The TD design office is still associated with pioneering efforts, innovation and high-quality design work. The TD philosophy and style still serves as a universal paradigm to a host of colleagues from later generations. Disciples are to be found in all continents: their output is often virtually interchangeable with that of the “historic” Dutch design office. Yet it is hardly surprising that these descendants feel the way they do about TD: there is a great need for clear language, both in content and in design, in the face of the uninterrupted tsunami of information that characterises the present day. TD provided a blueprint for dealing with this onslaught.

At the beginning of the 1960s, western society began to change at high speed. Decolonisation was in full swing. The reconstruction phase after the Second World War was complete, and prosperity was increasing steadily. The resurgence of the Netherlands was in progress, involving a transformation of its economy. The country was no longer an important colonial power. The Netherlands, once a nation of farmers, sailors and fishermen, now faced new challenges focused on industrialisation, services and logistics.

One of the gems of the Dutch transport industry, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, built up a worldwide network and a solid reputation. To the amazement of Dutch designers, the contract for a thorough-going visual presentation of KLM went to the drawing boards of the London-based FHK Henrion and his team. Dutch designers felt short-changed and under appreciated. But the fact that the management of KLM “played away” was perfectly understandable, as visual communication in Britain had entered a new phase, which emerged as far back as the war years.

The war effort in Britain had demanded effective communication and the dissemination of information and propaganda by the Government, and British designers had played their part in this. In 1943 it led to, among other things, the establishment of the multidisciplinary design office DRU (Design Research Unit), followed a year later by the Council of Industrial Design. Major events shortly after the war (Britain Can Make It industrial exhibition and the Festival of Britain) put British designers on the map. FHK Henrion’s first office was set up in 1951.

In the Netherlands, in the first decade after the war, a number of major exhibitions took place within the framework of reconstruction, energy, transport and industrialisation. At the same time, various designers became involved in those complex projects. They consulted each other a great deal, but there was no question at that time of formal collaboration. Dutch designers remained individualists by tradition.

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The interior and industrial designer Kho Liang Ie and the graphic designer Wim Crouwel first took the plunge, and between 1956 and 1959 operated a joint practice, only to go their separate ways later. It was clear that the need for high-quality, integrated design work would increase, requiring a combination of experience and talent, and the formation of a group capable of successfully completing large and complex projects.

In 1962, Benno Premsela, the versatile Amsterdam designer, took the lead in trying to bring individuals together to see if it was possible to arrive at broad, multidisciplinary, formal collaborations. A number of prominent young hot shots from the Dutch profession appeared around the conference table: the industrial designers Friso Kramer, Kho Liang Ie, Wim Crouwel, Benno Wissing, Charles Jongejans (an outstanding teacher and graphic and product designer) and the outsider Paul Schwarz, a friend of Premsela’s. Paul also brought his brother Dick along. Both had a commercial background and a keen interest in art and design.

The meetings were to be the prelude to the setting up of an office that gradually assumed the name of Total Design. Benno Premsela, the catalyst, had no intention of taking part in this; he entertained other plans for himself. Jongejans and Kho Liang dropped out some time later for personal reasons, but the foundations were laid and soon acquired a legal basis. The conviction that such collaborations would lead to considerably more than the sum of their parts inspired optimism and the will to face up to the challenge.

The founding partners – Wim Crouwel (graphic design), Friso Kramer (industrial design), Benno Wissing (graphic and spatial design) and Paul and Dick Schwarz (organization and finance) – were filled with idealism. Such a combination of graphic design talents had never before manifested itself on the continent of Europe: the new grouping presented a unique opportunity to influence the face of the Netherlands and its surroundings.

Everything was done to launch Total Design by the end of 1962 or the beginning of 1963. Candidates were interviewed by the partners and the staffing of the office was completed in late 1962. The Schwarz brothers took on the task of securing studio premises on the prestigious Herengracht in Amsterdam, where they bought two properties. On Wednesday 2 January 1963, eleven original TDers (as they were called) were given keys to Herengracht 567 and embarked on a new life.

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