“Belgium is no doubt the European country with the highest number of foreigners per square mile. This ‘European’ situation has made Belgium a country ‘without graphic frontiers.’ There is nothing like a typical Belgian style,” said Charles Rohonyi, a prominent mid-century designer in Belgium.
This quote is something that Sara De Bondt, creator of Off the Grid (an exhibition charting graphic design in Belgium in the 1960s and 70s) considers a perfect summary of the unique design community.
Belgium is a legally trilingual country, with multiple distinct cultures present which, according to Sara, is an aspect of life that informs design in a way that would not be seen in most places. “Perhaps something a bit Belgian is a suspicion of authority and language. The Walloon, Flemish and German-speaking communities all need to get along, and nobody seems to be in charge. Even right now we have been without a new government since the elections almost a year ago,” she says.
The exhibition at the Design Museum in Gent is the culmination of years of research by Sara, who is a successful freelance designer and teacher, previously working at both Central Saint Martins and the Royal College of Art.
“The objects are organised in categories which are relevant to my own practice as a graphic designer today: typography, format, social relevance, pattern, collaboration, seriality, the economy of means, surface, education,” she explains. “There are posters, flyers, books, logos, and even a three-metre-high sculpture. Most of the objects haven’t been exhibited before, bringing them together was an insane amount of work. Unlike the UK or Netherlands, there is very little information on Belgian graphic design, so just finding the designers and their work took a lot of time.”
The exhibition has also managed to unearth some classic pieces of work, allowing people to appreciate the talents behind them, some of whom were not well known at the time. “Corneille Hannoset is someone I had never heard about before, and his work has been a real discovery. He designed Marcel Broodthaers’ famous invitation card, which is overprinted onto existing magazine pages; it is a highly collectible object in the contemporary art world, but up until now Hannoset was almost forgotten about.”
Despite it being more than 50 years ago, Sara uncovered many ideas and styles of working that were commonplace back then and that are still seen to this day. “I think the work made by Multi Art really stands out. They are small objects made of paper or cardboard and die cutting. Liliane-Emma Staal and Paul Ibou would contact artists and ask if they could collaborate on a paper edition, which they would then try to sell,” says Sara. “With Occasional Papers (Sara’s non-profit press), we have been attending independent book fairs for a few years now, and it was a revelation to discover how already 50 years ago, designers and artists were trying to do the same thing.”
As well as this it also seems that much of the subject matter was ahead of the curve, with Sara noticing work around themes that dominate contemporary thought: “I really love Boudewijn Delaere’s poster about ecology. Already then people were aware we needed to take better care of our planet, and we are still in trouble today.”
One of the major parallels seen was in designers’ attitudes, particularly in their openness to embrace multiple disciplines. “Corneille Hannoset didn’t only design flyers and posters, he also produced furniture and interior designs and was a photographer. Liliane-Emma Staal and Paul Ibou didn’t just run a design company, they also published and had an art book store and a gallery,” she explains.
“Today people often seem to emphasise how ‘multi-disciplinary’ everything has become, when it was such a pleasure to discover that graphic design has always been on the cusp of disciplines.”
GallerySara De Bondt: Off the Grid
Moi aussi, je me suis demandé si je ne pouvais pas vendre quelque chose et réussir dans la vie..., Marcel Broodthaers and Corneille Hannoset, 1964. Courtesy Ceuleers & Van de Velde / Photo: Michael Delausnay
About the Author
Charlie joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in December 2019. He has previously worked at Monocle 24, and The Times following an MA in International Journalism at City University. If you have any ideas for stories and work to be featured then get in touch.