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

By AIGA Colorado
Published August 5, 2013
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