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In memory of Gerrit Noordzij (1931–2022)

One year after the passing of Gerrit Noordzij, the great Dutch graphic designer, Alessandro Colizzi pays tribute to him and briefly reviews the highlights of his career.

«Western civilisation was born with the discovery of the word form»

Gerrit Noordzij (1931-2022) died exactly one year ago at the age of 90. He was an authority figure in the world of Dutch graphic design. He is still little known in our country despite the translation of his seminal text, The Stroke: Theory of Writing. Yet Noordzij is considered to be among the most influential Dutch designers. He was typographer, calligrapher, type designer, pedagogue, author, in the course of a long career he collaborated with publishing houses. In particular we mention Van Oorschot, for whom he designed covers and editorial series. He also designed postage stamps, coins, created inscriptions and official acts of the ruling house.

On a material level his presence in Dutch everyday life remained discreet. However it is above all as a pedagogue and theoretician that Noordzij left – literally – an indelible mark on the visual culture of his country. For more than thirty years, he was a lecturer in typography and lettering at the Koninklijke Academie van Beeldende Kunsten in The Hague (KABK). He trained several generations of designers and type designers. Such as Erik van Blokland, Just van Rossum, Peter Verheul, Albert-Jan Pool, Frank Blokland, Rudy VanderLans, Françoise Berserik.

Gerrit Noordzij (Typotheque)

The career

His arrival in 1960 as a lecturer at the Academy in The Hague marked a fundamental turning point in the evolution of graphic design in the Netherlands, and marked a generational change after the Second World War compared to the constructivists of the 1920s, represented by Piet Zwart and Paul Schuitema. The latter, together with designer Gerrit Kilijan, had founded the Advertising Department at the same Academy in the 1930s, setting the programme according to the radical aesthetic criteria of the New Typography.

In the 1950s, with the international advent of Functionalism and in the context of the economic boom, expectations regarding the professional figure of the graphic designer changed. The consequent renewal of the teaching staff at KABK coincided with the transformation of the graphic design courses and saw, alongside Noordzij, the presence of no less important figures such as Ootje Oxenaar, Jan van Keulen and Hermanus Berserik.

An original approach

Compared to the paradigm of the International Style represented in Holland by Wim Crouwel, Noordzij can be considered an unconventional designer, as at ease in the study of a medieval manuscript as in computer programming. An original thinker, often against the tide, and a passionate pedagogue, Noordzij prefers hyperbole, provocation, and tight argumentation – never an end in itself, but aimed at developing a critical attitude in the student (or reader).

That awareness of form, in fact, which has allowed the young Dutch designers to assume, from the very beginning of the digital ‘revolution’, a leadership position at international level, thanks to characters of great originality and elegance, classic in appearance yet subtly innovative – in marked contrast to the lively American grunge experiments.

A calligrapher and scholar of palaeography, Noordzij had many affinities with the Englishman Edward Johnston, whose work he knew well, and with whom he shared the conviction that theory should not be separated from manual practice, and that everything depends on sight: “typography is the foundation of any reflection on form, on the stability of the sign, on the balance and rhythm of letters on paper.

Letters always arise from the interaction between black and white, between the black of the ink and the white space that surrounds it”. In 1970, he came to international prominence with an article on Gothic characters. There he affirmed for the first time the centrality of writing in type design. His reputation as an original and brilliant scholar was further consolidated with the publication of the magazine Letterletter. This magazine was launched in 1984 on behalf of the Association Typographique Internationale. In those pages he was able to express his theories on writing and typography. In 2011, he received the prestigious Laurens Janszoon Costerprijs award.

The books

His publications, in addition to The Stroke (1985), include Letters en studie (1983), Das Kind und die Schrift (Typographische Gesellschaft München, 1985). We have to mention De start van de kat (GHM, 1988), De handen van de zeven zusters (Van Oorschot, 2001) and Letterletter (Hartley & Marks, 2000). Of the numerous typefaces designed by Noordzij, Ruse is available at The Enschedé Font Foundry, run by his son Peter Mathias Noordzij.

Alessandro Colizzi (Rome, 1966) is an historian and associate professor at Politecnico di Milano. Check his Bio here.

Gerritt Noordzij is a milestone of dutch graphic design. Check his bio here.

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