Willem Sandberg - design and liberty

Alice Rawsthorn

Sitting in a vitrine at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam is a series of rather raggedy pamphlets. Known as the Experimenta Typographica, they are made from scraps of wallpaper, tissue, cardboard and wrapping paper with quotations from Proudhon, Goethe or Stendhal on some pages, and hand-drawn letters or collages of paper, imagery and text on others.

Makeshift though they are, the pamphlets are beautiful to look at, being as deftly composed and rich in meaning as anything else in the museum. Even so, their beauty is enhanced by the story of how and why they were made by the designer and curator Willem Sandberg, when he was living in perilous circumstances in the Dutch countryside during World War II while on the run from the Gestapo, and fighting for his liberty.

At a time when human rights and freedoms are under attack by forces old and new, Sandberg’s Experimenta Typographica serve as a heartening example of how a courageous and resourceful individual can assert his or her values in the face of acute danger. Not that this was the only time that Willem Sandberg had deployed his design prowess in defence of liberty.

Sandberg was a radical from an early age. Born into a wealthy family in the Dutch city of Amersfoort in 1897, he was conscripted into the army as a trainee officer only to be transferred to the coast guard after refusing to sign an oath of allegiance to the monarchy. He then studied art in Amsterdam, but left after less than a year to travel around Europe, spending time with avant garde groups in France, Austria and Germany, as well as serving a printing apprenticeship in Switzerland where he became fascinated by typography.

Back in Amsterdam, Sandberg opened a graphic design studio. Among his first commissions was one from the Stedelijk in 1928. Soon he became so useful to the museum, advising on the content of exhibitions as well as designing catalogues and posters, that in 1937 he was appointed as a curator, starting with an ambitious survey of abstract art.

Sandberg’s charmed life among the Amsterdam intelligentsia ended abruptly with the outbreak of World War II and the German invasion of the Netherlands. As the Stedelijk collection was filled with progressive works that the Nazis would have classified as “degenerate art” and impounded, Sandberg and his colleagues removed them from the museum to be hidden in another building, which they took in turns to guard.

Soon he became involved in other aspects of the resistance movement, making the most of his role at the Stedelijk to meet secretly with members of anti-Nazi groups in Germany on museum visits there. He also used his practical skills in design and printing and his knowledge of typography to forge identity papers for fellow dissidents and others living in fear of Nazi persecution. So convincing were Sandberg’s forgeries that they helped hundreds of people to avoid arrest. But there was one foolproof way for the authorities to prove that papers were fake, by checking them against the official records in the Amsterdam Central Civil Registry Office. In 1943, Sandberg and four co-conspirators devised a plot to burn it down thereby destroying its contents, only to be betrayed and forced into hiding.

One by one, his co-conspirators were tracked down by the Gestapo, and sentenced to death. Sandberg survived by changing his name and appearance to live quietly in Gennep, a small town in the eastern Netherlands, for the last fifteen months of the war as “Henri Willem van der Bosch”. Barely subsisting and haunted by the knowledge that many of his friends were dead, he lived in terror of being captured and was desperately worried about his wife, who was in prison, and the fate of their son in a concentration camp.

Having relied on his design prowess to help so many people safeguard their liberty as a member of the Amsterdam resistance, Sandberg turned to it again to give him the hope he needed to survive life as a fugitive. Between December 1943 and April 1945, he designed and made the Experimenta Typographica as nineteen different pamphlets exploring themes such as love, death, education, architecture and typography. Each one was roughly six inches by eight inches in size, and consisted of between twenty and sixty pages of drawings, collages, typography and texts written either by Sandberg or his favourite writers, including Freud, Heine Marx and Le Corbusier. He made several copies of each pamphlet, using whatever materials he could find, from bits of paper found on the street, to swatches of wallpaper and pages torn from magazines.

Sandberg had asked Frans Duwaer, one of his closest friends and a co-conspirator in the Civil Registry Office attack, to print the Experimenta Typographica, but he was arrested by the Gestapo and killed. Instead, the pamphlets were printed first by the Vijponders, or “five pound press”, a publishing house named after the Nazi ban on publications using more than five pounds of paper, and later by an art gallery in Cologne.

Together they paint an eloquent, engaging and deeply moving picture of Sandberg’s inner world. Celebrating the things that impassioned and intrigued him in a form that could be shared with other people gave Sandberg the courage to withstand so desperate a plight, when he had only the feeblest hope of regaining his liberty, by reminding him that life could also be loving, nurturing, exhilarating and optimistic.

Compiling the Experimenta Typographica also enabled him to define the qualities he would instil in the Stedelijk when he became its director after the war, after being reunited with his wife and son. During his directorship from 1945 to 1962, Sandberg established the museum as one of the most dynamic cultural institutions of the post-war era by championing the avant garde, reviving the reputations of unfairly neglected artists and experimenting with ingenious ways of enthusing the public about modern and contemporary art.

As if that was not enough, he also undertook an unofficial and unpaid role as the Stedelijk’s in-house graphic designer. Working late into the night after the museum had closed to the public, Sandberg designed hundreds of posters and exhibition catalogues, as well as the visitors’ tickets, often using the design and typographic techniques he had pioneered and refined in the Experimenta Typographica.

By doing so, he ensured that every time anyone visited the museum, or encountered any visual manifestation of it, from a catalogue in a friend’s home to a poster in a library, they were reminded of the generosity, courage, resourcefulness and optimism he had embedded into the Stedelijk, the same values that had sustained Sandberg himself in his wartime quest for liberty.


Alice Rawsthorn is an international authority on design, whose columns for the International New York Times are syndicated worldwide.  Her latest book, the critically acclaimed "Hello World: Where Design Meets Life", explores design's influence on our lives: past, present and future. Alice is a trustee of the Whitechapel Gallery and Michael Clark Company, and chair of trustees at Chisenhale Gallery.


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