My Type Hero

Written by
Rob Stefanski
August 5, 2013

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

Design Diary no. 79

AIGA encourages thoughtful, responsible discourse. Please add comments judiciously, and refrain from maligning any individual, institution or body of work. Read our policy on commenting.
Your browser is too old to view this site.

Do yourself a favor and upgrade it to the latest version.