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News — 17 Nov 2020

Graphic designer Jan van Toorn sadly passed away in Amsterdam this Friday the 13th after a short illness. Jan van Toorn was one of the pillars of Dutch graphic design.
Photo: Martijn van Nieuwenhuyzen
Photo: Martijn van Nieuwenhuyzen

A poster for a museum exhibition with the names of the artists listed as a sum, and the total value of their works as an amount of money under the line. A calendar featuring endless collages of cut-outs and clippings of people, faces, famous and unknown, taken from popular media. A magazine about art and architecture of which the perforated cover also serves as the postal packaging to help save shipping costs and the environment. 

These are the works of a graphic designer whose subjective and confrontational approach to social and political engagement has greatly influenced the design community. These are the works of Jan van Toorn, who sadly passed away in Amsterdam this Friday the 13th after a short illness. He was 88.

As one of the pillars of Dutch graphic design, and the polar opposite of Wim Crouwel’s neutral and functional approach to modernism, Van Toorn allowed his works to express emotion and urgency as a comment to the socio-cultural landscape of the day.

Dutch Art + Architecture Today magazine for the Bureau Beeldende Kunst Buitenland. Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
Dutch Art + Architecture Today magazine for the Bureau Beeldende Kunst Buitenland. Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
Calendar for printer Mart. Spruijt Amsterdam. Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.
Calendar for printer Mart. Spruijt Amsterdam. Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.

To Van Toorn, design was too obsessed with “the visual as realistic imitation or decoration” and not enough by “the image as a subjective narrative and interpretive element.”1

Van Toorn embraced the image as his design tool and his fascination with the media and its increasing manipulative power over the image only grew over time. For example, his design for the yearly calendar of Amsterdam printer Mart. Spruijt in 1972, functioned less as a timekeeping device than it was a visual journal of the media's representation of the human condition ranging from politicians of the day, to soldiers of the Vietnam War, to women in lingerie ads, to the faces of the everyday citizen.

In that same year, Museum Fodor, then a dependance of the Stedelijk, featured a show of Van Toorn’s work. And Crouwel, as the house designer for the Stedelijk, designed the catalogue. This exhibition was to serve as the backdrop of the now famous debate of 1972 between Crouwel and Van Toorn—Van Toorn defending his subjective postmodern approach to Crouwel’s objective modernist ideals. Of the aforementioned calendar, Crouwel that evening remarked to Van Toorn: “But a calendar is not a vehicle to sell your story, is it?”2

But for Van Toorn it was not about the designer’s story. For him the main focus “should always be on the receiver, who should always be continuously allowed to be the expert of his own experience, his own history.”3 The designer’s task was no longer primarily situated in aesthetics, but in stimulating engagement and participation in cultural and social processes. For Van Toorn there was no such thing as neutrality because every act is by definition a critical stance. 

Van Toorn was able to pass these ideas down as a teacher at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie, TU Eindhoven, and the Rhode Island School of Design. And when he became the director of the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht from 1991 until 1998, Van Toorn was able to fulfill his vision of a werkplaats where critical theory fused with interdisciplinary discourse. And there under Van Toorn’s rigorous guidance the discipline of design research was born, introducing to us the notion of graphic design as a critical practice.

Designers who emerged from that program became the first generation of design researchers: Daniel van der Velden, Samira Ben Laloua, Jop van Bennekom, Peter Biľak, and Felix Janssens. 

Jan van Toorn and the Stedelijk crossed paths one final time with his participation in the Stedelijk Museum's Municipal Art Acquisitions show Beyond Imagination in 2012 wherein artists were asked to consider the ways in which boundaries blurred between reality and imagination in relation to developments in politics and media. Jan van Toorn was the oldest participating artist at 80 years old.

In 2014, the Amsterdam Fund for the Arts nominated Van Toorn for their Amsterdam Prize for the Arts, calling him, “a socially engaged graphic designer with great visual power”.

Van Toorn's work is well-represented in the design collection of the Stedelijk Museum and fulfills an important role within the history of Dutch design. The Jan van Toorn Archive is being preserved for future generations at the Bijzondere Collecties at the University of Amsterdam.

In honor of his legacy, a small selection of Jan van Toorn’s work will be displayed in the Audi Gallery from November 19th.

Thomas Castro
Conservator of Graphic Design Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

1. Jan Van Toorn: Critical Practice, Rick Poynor, 010 Publishers, 2008. Vertaald vanuit het Engels.
2. Het Debat: Discussies Tussen Wim Crouwel en Jan Van Toorn, 1972–1986, Frederike Huygen and D. van de Vrie, Zoo Producties, 2009
3. Jan Van Toorn: Critical Practice, Rick Poynor, 010 Publishers, 2008. Vertaald vanuit het Engels.

Poster Jan van Toorn 'chagall/duchamp er was eens… de collectie nu’ (1971) Reprint 2015, litho on paper. Collection Van Abbemuseum. Photo: Peter Cox, Eindhoven
Poster Jan van Toorn 'chagall/duchamp er was eens… de collectie nu’ (1971) Reprint 2015, litho on paper. Collection Van Abbemuseum. Photo: Peter Cox, Eindhoven
Poster Jan van Toorn 'chagall/duchamp er was eens… de collectie nu’ (1971) Reprint 2015, litho on paper. Collection Van Abbemuseum. Photo: Peter Cox, Eindhoven
Poster Jan van Toorn 'chagall/duchamp er was eens… de collectie nu’ (1971) Reprint 2015, litho on paper. Collection Van Abbemuseum. Photo: Peter Cox, Eindhoven