Karel Martens & WTF Is Wrong With the U.S.?

AIGA lecture

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to see Karel Martens speak at a lecture hosted by the  New York chapter of the AIGA. It was the most inspired I’ve ever felt after seeing a graphic designer speak.

If you don’t know him, Martens is the godfather of graphic design in the Netherlands and, through his teaching at Yale and founding of the Werkplaats Typografie in Arnhem, the hero of a generation of young designers who are being influenced by his work every day, whether they know it or not.

Martens and other Dutch designers, notably Mevis and van Deursen, represent to me, something terrible that may be happening in American graphic design. Carin Goldberg‘s cover for Fast Company (below) helped me to believe I might not be alone. She attempts to list “The United States of Design” while only listing designers born and possibly educated in other countries.

Fast Company

Martens, in his talk, mentioned that he balances his time between personal work, commercial work and public works. At first I thought he just meant commercial work that was available to the public, like a building facade or something. And then it hit me. He meant work FOR THE PUBLIC! Like, as in, not paid for by a corporate client, but rather, by the people? The government?

My American head is spinning. My socialist heart is racing. My passion for education is worried. So worried! If our students learn design, as I did, with the knowledge that the only design that you can make a living from is the design that sells a product then we may fall well behind our peers in other countries. Peers who are educated in a world were design is appreciated for what it is, not just how much it can sell.

Of course, this is totally up for debate, and I really encourage anyone to talk me down from my worry. It may just be my jealousy of Martens work that is leading me to blame my entire country. But could it be that we are staring down the wrong path, again?  To be continued I hope…

Commissioning Architecture


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5 thoughts on “Karel Martens & WTF Is Wrong With the U.S.?

  1. dash

    Exactly right, Ozymandias!
    I would add that the “socialist hearts” discount anything American-grown. If it comes from the US, it is automatically inferior (in their thinking) to anything European. If you haven’t been paying attention, Europe (and socialism) is collapsing! Look at Greece as a perfect example of this!
    If you want to prove the importance of design, stop demanding handouts, because you’re just driving away people who don’t understand the importance of art. If you want to create something that you don’t believe anyone will pay for, create it anyway, don’t give it away to “the public” (i.e. control it yourself), and stop being a whiner. If you’re good at it, you’ll make money that you can give away to whatever eases your bleeding “socialist heart.” If you really believe your vision has value, do it as long as we still live in a free country. If I said in a capitalist context that I demand to be paid (by a customer or client) for my art, I have a suspicion that the “socialist hearts” would balk at that (or steal it outright.) But this “socialist heart” wants everyone else to pay him via taxpayer’s (public) money? It’s no different than stealing money for art supplies, then justifying the theft because YOU are going to make great art with it, whatever that is. Or worse, it would be the same as stealing the art supplies from another artist because YOU believe yourself to be a better, more deserving artist. If I am a successful commercial artist, you want to take my money from me because YOU can’t figure out how to get it otherwise? I also suspect that these “socialist hearts” want recognition and exclusivity (being in their minds better people than the rest), perhaps more than the money.
    In order to make his point that great design only comes from European-born/-educated designers, he is ignoring many of the big designers, such as Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast, Bradbury Thompson, Paula Scher, Paul Rand, etc. But they’re American, so their work couldn’t possibly be as good as all those others.
    Now you could look at those people and say that they had strong European influences. However, art isn’t created in a vacuum. The visual arts tend to have a stronger European influence altogether. But if you look at other artforms, such as popular music from the last century (especially rock, jazz, hip-hop, and R&B), you’ll find the influences reversed (the US is the place that has a bigger influence.)
    The bottom line is that great art and American identity are not mutually exclusive, nor do you have to get public money to create great art. It’s all up to you, and you alone. But no one wants to hear that.

  2. Ozymandias

    “My socialist heart is racing.”
    Seriously, I find it so amusing that the left in this country imagines some nefarious force keeping them from giving to the public whether it be extra taxes, time or talent.  Lead by example, nobody is stopping you.  What the socialist hearts always mean is that they will contribute if everyone else is made to contribute also.  Sad.

  3. James Chae

    this is such an incomplete thought! please elaborate because i am very curious. in terms of the influence of mevis and ven deursen and martens, their mark is unrefutable. i think it also signals a strong desire for american designers to be taken seriously as conceptual form makers. i think the argument can also be made that en vogue european design thinkers have brought on a new way of trend-thought design (default typefaces, centered type, primary colors, etc). design who’s form is removed in an attempt to elevate the content, or convey a deep content unfiltered. sometimes this is great. but often time it’s just unconsidered. but i digress. 
    please continue this thought. i am curious to get some thoughts together about the current american graphic design scene. i think it’s actually in an interesting retro-revival mode full of naive, idealistic notions of do-goodery.

  4. Tim Belonax

    I’m sure your follow-up post will address the specific cultural climate in which Martens works. I love his design and his practice, but I’m also a bit guilty (as I suspect many who attended the event) of thinking that European design exists under the same context (and history) as American design. This is an apples-to-oranges comparison.

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