Colorado
By Rob Stefanski | August 5, 2013
My Type Hero

Every designer should have a type hero. Mine hap­pens to be Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman, more com­monly known as H.N. Werkman. He’s not as well-known as other mod­ern typog­ra­phers of his era, but his work was just as inno­v­a­tive, if not more so, than his con­tem­po­raries such as Kurt Schwitters (whom I also love), Theo Van Doesburg and El Lissitsky.

I first learned of Werkman dur­ing my final semes­ter of col­lege while attend­ing a demon­stra­tion at Rick Griffith’s Matter Studio. After Rick named Werkman as a major influ­ence in his life, I began to study his work.  Instantly, I became hooked. This hap­pened at just the right time for me; my work had evolved into a typo­graph­i­cal and exploratory focus, and it was amaz­ing to come across some­one whose vision and phi­los­o­phy aligned with mine.

Hendrik first became inter­ested in art at age four­teen, when he vis­ited a Van Gogh exhi­bi­tion (Van Gogh is my favorite painter as well, so I was pretty stoked to learn that). He worked in var­i­ous print shops and also dab­bled in jour­nal­ism and pho­tog­ra­phy. He started his own press in 1908 and was able to make ends meet, mostly due to the finan­cial assis­tance of his father-in-law. In 1907, Werkman’s wife died. He must’ve got­ten over it quickly, because he remar­ried less than six months later. Ex-Daddy-in-law was not so thrilled, and he cut finan­cial ties which forced Werkman out of the press. Werkman opened a smaller press soon after, where he focused on pro­duc­ing prints and tried his hand at painting.

Needing a cre­ative out­let, Hendrik cre­ated The Next Call, a pub­li­ca­tion on exper­i­men­tal typog­ra­phy and poetry. It was an attempt to cre­ate some­thing new, excit­ing, and inno­v­a­tive, as well as a response to the rigid con­ser­vatism of his De Ploeg peers. The Next Call became an out­let for Werkman’s exper­i­men­tal print­ing tech­niques. Using a hand­press designed by Christian Dingler, he would place paper on the bed and then press the inked type face down upon it. This tech­nique allowed him to vary the color, ink, and pres­sure of his prints, and he could even print two or more shapes simul­ta­ne­ously in dif­fer­ent col­ors, some­thing that couldn’t be achieved with con­ven­tional print­ing. Werkman treated type as an artis­tic ele­ment, sep­a­rate and inde­pen­dent from its func­tion as a com­mu­ni­ca­tion device. This aspect of his work is what I find the most inter­est­ing; in fact, I explore the issue of type as more than a com­mu­ni­ca­tion ele­ment in my web­site Behind the Type. I’d like to think Hendrik would have enjoyed my site.

Always look­ing to push the bound­aries of his work, Werkman cre­ated prints that he dubbed “druk­sels,” which were basi­cally let­ter­press col­lages. He would print with any mate­ri­als he could find, includ­ing type, wood let­ters, the backs of wood let­ters, even scraps of card­board. He manip­u­lated the shape of wood blocks by plac­ing an extra strip of paper between the block and the paper. In addi­tion to his druk­sels, Werkman cre­ated draw­ings on a type­writer and called them “tik­sels.” Members of the De Stijl move­ment were doing sim­i­lar things dur­ing this time; how­ever, those were more like poems. Werkman’s draw­ings were pure abstractions.

In 1940, Germany began its occu­pa­tion of the Netherlands, which deeply affected Werkman. The war severely depleted his print­ing sup­plies, and he grew increas­ingly wary of the print­ing busi­ness. He was arrested by Nazi Security Police in 1945, most likely due to his iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with Jews through pub­li­ca­tions he helped pro­duce. Most of Hendrik’s work, includ­ing prints, impor­tant doc­u­ments, pub­li­ca­tions, druk­sels, and paint­ings were destroyed in an explo­sion dur­ing a battle.

So there is some back­ground of my favorite typog­ra­pher. If I had to choose one thing I most iden­ti­fied with, it would be Hendrik’s search for mean­ing in his work. There was always some­thing more to his designs than just com­mu­ni­ca­tion; there was a sense of spirit that breathed life into his work. When I cre­ate some­thing, I also strive to make some­thing mean­ing­ful, some­thing that speaks to the viewer on dif­fer­ent lev­els beyond what’s on the sur­face. Werkman’s quest for inno­va­tion is very inspir­ing, and his will­ing­ness to take risks gives me courage to push my own bound­aries.  As design­ers, we should always be curi­ous explor­ers, and H.N. Werkman’s designs are reminders of what is pos­si­ble when tech­nique and vision converge.

Sources & fur­ther reading:

Pioneers of Modern Typography by Herbert Spencer

H.N. Werkman by Alston W. Purvis

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