The Rediscovery of Boudewijn Ietswaart

News|The FontFeed|Feike de Jong 2010-09-22 01:02:01

Lettering in the Netherlands has had many great exponents from Jan van Krimpen to Gerrit Noordzij. But one of the greatest to this day has been virtually unknown. The improbable revival of Boudewijn Ietswaart's work in Mexico City once again puts this fine designer in the limelight. Inspired by his book covers, the Círculo de Tipógrafos undertook a project to convert his hand lettered alphabets into digital fonts. The Balduina collection was presented for the first time in the exhibition The Wandering Dutchman exhibition, in the Academy of San Carlos, belonging to the National School of Plastic Arts in the Historic Centre of Mexico City, and is now available to the general audience.

Boudewijn Ietswaart in the early sixties on his Mexico City balcony.

On a foggy morning in 1960, just before Christmas, a 24-year-old Dutch designer named Boudewijn Ietswaart took off from Schiphol Airport on a plane to Mexico City. He was not an ordinary young man seeking foreign adventure, as a short article in the Telegraaf newspaper would note. His ascent in the design world had been lightning fast, and he had already won honourable mention in the list of the 50 best-designed books in the Netherlands several times. He had gained a reputation as a prodigal talent during his years as a student of Theo Kurpershoek, himself a famous book designer in the 50s, at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. And he was being sent to Mexico as the assistant of Alexandre Stols, once the protégé of Jan van Krimpen, a lover of the "beautiful book" and one of the five greats of early modern Dutch typography according to type historian Mathieu Lommen. Nonetheless 50 years later Ietswaart was all but forgotten, his best years as a designer from 1958 to 1974 spent in Mexico, Spain and Venezuela with interludes in a Dutch scene where the talent of master craftsmen such as Gerrit Noordzij, Bram de Does and Gerard Unger was taking form. A taste for new experiences, the demands of a sickly constitution, a certain disdain for the machinations of building up a career and the practical need for financial security led him to become a freelance illustrator of educational books in the 70s, effectively ending his lettering work.

The great Dutch type designer and theoretician, Gerrit Noordzij, still remembers the young Ietswaart who he met while working for the Dutch publishing company Querido. "Our contact began with Theo Kurpershoek," writes Noordzij by email. "He told me about an exceptionally talented student who was a favourite of all his teachers, but who also had some strange ideas. If he could send (this student) by. Boudewijn came and brought some panels along which he had done for his final exams. Exceptionally beautiful and mature work." By "strange ideas" he refers to the conservative opinions of the young Ietswaart which were notable in a country where the invasion of Hungary by the Soviet Union generated fierce polemics.

H. Pirenne, Historia económica y social de la edad media, Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Robert Triffin, El Caos Monetario, Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Cover design by Boudewijn J.B. Ietswaart.

Growing up in the 19th century

Berend Modderman, the father of Ietswaart's stepfather, still present in his memories as a man with a grey beard, top hat and spats, played a seminal role in modern Dutch typography by commissioning the Drukkersjaarboek in 1907 designed by Sjoerd de Roos, which is considered the first specimen of modern Dutch book design and a seminal moment in the career of De Roos, whose Dutch Mediaeval font marked the beginning of 20th century Dutch type design. "During the Second World War we moved to the home of the widow of Berend Modderman, a large house with many books, wallpaper by William Morris and Japanese prints and art objects," comments Ietswaart, now 72 and leading the life of a retired collector in Amsterdam. "Rather the books surrounding me had a great impact. I grew up in the 19th century. I especially remember De Aarde en Haar Volkeren (The Earth and its Peoples) which was written by French travellers and had beautiful woodcuts. I think these books also inspired me to travel and see the world later on."

N. Timasheff, La Teoría Sociológica, Fondo de Cultura Económica.

H. Heller, Teoría del estado, Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Cover design by Boudewijn J.B. Ietswaart.

Plagued by ill-health the teenage Ietswaart decided to study graphic design instead of architecture, which seemed more strenuous, and found his calling in the classes of hand lettering taught by Theo Kurpershoek, a painter, illustrator, book designer and calligrapher and passionate teacher who would play in instrumental role in getting Ietswaart his first jobs. According to Jan Middendorp, author of the canonical history Dutch Type, Ietswaart soon surpassed his master. "The only hand letterer of Ietswaart's calibre in Dutch type history has been (the German émigré) Helmut Salden in terms of quality; in terms of quality and variety Ietswaart is unique, perhaps even worldwide," commented Middendorp for this article.

Ietswaart himself mentions Salden, Walter Brudi and Herman Zapf as important influences of his youth, besides of course his teacher and later father-in-law, Theo Kurpershoek, as well as Noordzij. "What I learned from Kurpershoek and Noordzij, is to take handwriting as the basis for any letter," recalls Ietswaart. "If you keep that in mind there is really not much you can do wrong." Never attracted to practising the fine arts, as being irrational and emotive, Ietswaart recalls himself as a collector of shapes. Letters gave his aesthetic sensibility free reign within the rational context of legibility and tradition. Alexandre Stols praised his flawless taste.

Revista de la Universidad de México, UNAM, August 1961. Cover design by Boudewijn J.B. Ietswaart.

For Balduina Real the Círculo de Tipógrafos only had a cover with the words "Virginia Woolf", so they had to interpret the rest of a full character set. Thanks to OpenType many extra contextual glyphs and ligatures were added. The result is a gentle English script with a humorous touch, ideal for extra elegant settings.

In the most transparent region of air

Mexico City at the time of Ietswaart's arrival was a hotbed of literary, cultural and political activity. Years of solid economic growth were to give rise to the legend of the Mexican economic "miracle". Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz was at the height of his powers and another Nobel Prize winner, Colombian Gabriel García Márquez would arrive in 1961. The successful Cuban revolution of 1959 had set the minds of many Mexican intellectuals on the path of armed insurrection.

Mexico City had just changed from a beautiful colonial capital into a full-fledged metropolis. As the writer Carlos Fuentes was to write in his novel La Región Más Transparente del Aire (The most transparent region of air) in 1958: "Incarnation of plumes, dog city, famished city, sumptuous villa, city of leprosy and cholera, sunken city. Incandescent cactus fruit. Eagle without wings. Serpent of stars. This is where our lot fell. What are we to do? In the most transparent region of air." Here Ietswaart would produce much of his best work during 17 extremely productive months.

K. Mannheim, Libertad, poder y planificación democrática, Fondo de Cultura Económica.

J. Frazer, La Rama Dorada, Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Cover design by Boudewijn J.B. Ietswaart.

Balduina Discreta (inspired by the cover on the left) is probably the most eclectic of Ietswaart's designs. It combines tradition with innovation, the vertical position of a roman letter with the vitality of an italic letter, the calligraphic skills that demand freedom with the condensation that loves to restrain. On one hand, the surprising result of this improbable mix is a sober and distinguished font; on the other hand, it knows how to have fun.

Stols had arrived in Mexico in 1956 as a teacher at the School of Graphic Arts of the UNAM and advisor to the vast state-run publishing house, the Fondo de Cultura Económica, under the aegis of a UNESCO mission, escaping the financial difficulties of his own publishing house in the Netherlands, through the graces of famed Mexican writer Alfonso Reyes. "Stols was from another era, in which people spoke their languages fluently and corresponded with important figures, he must have thought I was a silly little goose, though we did share his interest in prehispanic art, so we would generally talk about that" remembers Ingeborg Kurpershoek, the daughter of Theo Kurpershoek, who would marry Ietswaart in 1961 and later become a designer in her own right. The eminence grise of Dutch book design made a great contribution to Mexican typographical history with his book Antonio de Espinosa: el segundo impresor mexicano (Antonio Espinosa: the second Mexican printer) and Pedro Ocharte, el tercer impresor mexicano (Pedro Ocharte, the third Mexican printer) chronicling Mexican printing in the early colonial years. Stols also swiftly became an important collector of pre-Colombian art. Yet his young assistant made an even greater impression on some of his colleagues.

Nameplate for Cuadernos del Viento, August 1961. Cover design by Boudewijn J.B. Ietswaart.

With Balduina Moderna the dominant tradition of International Typographic Design represented by Helvetica and Univers acquires a casual face thanks to this fortunate interpretation made by Ietswaart in 1961, whose shapes anticipate the coming of Eurostile (1962). Its harmonious regularity and tight spacing brings distinction to headings and subheadings.

"We considered Stols old-fashioned in his approach to typography, very 30s," recalls literary critic and essayist Emmanuel Carballo, who was Ietswaart's best man at his wedding and to this day uses Ietswaart's letters on his calling cards." "Boudewijn's work seemed to us much more modern, fresh and attractive." The most important figure in Mexican book design, typography and lettering at the time was Vicente Rojo, who later was to become a pre-eminent figure in the Mexican art scene. Editorial design in Mexico had still not become professionalized during the 60s, and a decade was to pass before one could speak of a Mexican school of book design, largely thanks to Rojo's covers for the publishing house Era in the early 70s. "I had and still have a great deal of respect for Ietswaart's work which I knew at the time," notes Rojo. "It is unfortunate that he was only in Mexico, a country in which he nonetheless integrated himself and did valuable work, for such a short time."

D. Sarmiento, Campaña en el ejército grande, Fondo de Cultura Económica.

J. Tinbergen, Política económica, Princípios y formulación, Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Cover design by Boudewijn J.B. Ietswaart.

Calligraphic-spirited, Balduina Delicada (inspired by the cover on the right) has the features of a "proto-serif" engraved roman. The balance between calligraphic and typographic has been an interesting challenge in this font: the gestures of the original lettering have been preserved, such as the modulation of stems – never straight –, the broken inner counters, and the strong contrast between thick and thin strokes. Accents have a warm horizontal stress.

Intuitive approach

Ietswaart generally woke up early, went to the offices of the Fondo to work by public transport, studying afterwards in the library, before exploring the city and its environs in late afternoon in a Volkswagen Beetle with his young and (according to Carballo) beautiful wife. She remembers it as a simple and delightful period. Ietswaart recalls his choice of lettering for the books as intuitive. "I would be thinking about certain types or shapes and then use them in my next commission," recalls Ietswaart. "These shapes were constantly evolving in my mind. Conceiving letterforms is something one does on paper, it is in the interaction of the brain and the hand from which things arise. This is a phenomenon also known in architecture. That is why creating something on screen often is more difficult."

M. van Doren, La profesión de Don Quijote, Fondo de Cultura Económica.

J. de Acosta, Historia natural y moral de las Indias, Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Cover design by Boudewijn J.B. Ietswaart.

"A light pastiche inspired by old Spanish manuscripts" said Ietswaart of this beautiful lettering that inspired Balduina Candida (cover on the right). Its relaxed atmosphere from the 60s, its generous arcs and gentle stems, and the way letters were linked with a feeling of naivety and shrewdness make it an attractive display font for contemporary use. Several OpenType features help maintain its lettering spirit.

Ietswaart took a keen interest in the pre-Colombian cultures of Mexico and made a point of drawing sketches of monuments and relics. Much of his best work was on archaeologically themed books such as El Universo de Quetzalcoatl (The Universe of Quetzalcoatl) by Laurette Sejourné and Arte Indígena de México y Centroamérica (Indigenous art of Mexico and Central America) by Miguel Covarrubias – his lettering for the iconic Visión de los Vencidos (The vision of the defeated) by Miguel León-Portilla is still used on the cover of reprints and now is part of the cultural sub-conscious of Mexico, being a staple of Mexican secondary school education. Ietswaart also designed the editorial seal of the Joaquín Mortiz publishing house, founded by his superior in the Fondo de Cultura Económica, production manager Joaquín Díez-Cañedo in 1962. Joaquín Mortiz was to become a reference for literary Mexico, publishing the works of icons such Rosario Castellanos, Octavio Paz and Jorge Ibargüengoitea. The seal is still used to this day, though the glory days of Joaquin Mortiz are long past.

Revista de la Universidad de México, UNAM, January 1962.

Cover design by Boudewijn J.B. Ietswaart.

Barcelona – Venezuela – The Netherlands

All in all Ietswaart produced around 50 covers for the Fondo de Cultura Económica and the UNAM before his UNESCO mission ended in the summer of 1962 (supposedly the Mexican government was more interested in having a nuclear physicist sent out to them). Ietswaart would later briefly return to the Netherlands before moving to Barcelona where he worked another six years in book design, before going to Venezuela and later to the Netherlands where he was head of the graphic design department of the NOS. He soon tired of the incessant meetings, qualified by Ietswaart as "meetingitis", the Dutch disease. After two years he became a freelance educational illustrator. "It was a conscious choice on my part, working with publishing houses always caused me a lot of anxiety and what I liked about scientific design is that it had an intellectual component, you have to understand what it is about," remembers Ietswaart. He continued this work into the 90s before retiring.

Librería Bilbliofilia, Calle Donceles 78-1, México DF, one of the bookstores in Donceles Street behind the Catedral Metropolitana from which Ietswaart's works were recovered by members of the Círculo de Tipógrafos. Photo by Adán Gutiérrez

"Boudewijn Ietswaart's unnoticed brilliance"

"Actually Dutch design in 60s, before the flood wave of Swiss functionalism was all about individualism," writes another of Kurpershoek's top students Gerard Unger, who also knew Ietswaart in the 60s and admired his work. One of the greatest exponents of this individualism, albeit an improbable one due to his conservative attitudes toward the role of typography, was Boudewijn Ietswaart, before the straight lines and "modern" directness of Swiss functionalism changed the course of book design. It is not clear whether there would have been a market for Ietswaart's work, even if he had wanted to continue as a book designer, letterer and calligrapher. Fashion had changed.

E. Seler, Comentarios al Códice Borgia, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1962.

Lettering by Boudewijn J.B. Ietswaart. Photo by Adán Gutiérrez

Ietswaart might well have remained forgotten by the general public were it not for the investigations of type critic Jan Middendorp who stumbled over Ietswaart while investigating Theo Kurpershoek for his book Dutch Type. The beauty of the work he encountered led him to title one of the chapters "The unrecognized brilliance of Boudewijn Ietswaart". In the fall of 2008 a newly formed group of young Mexican type designers, the Círculo de Tipógrafos, was negotiating with Middendorp the rights to a Van Krimpen translation that they had done. Middendorp mentioned his interest in an unknown Dutch designer who had worked in Mexico City, Boudewijn Ietswaart. Using a 48-year-old UNESCO report they quickly found an ample sample of his covers in Mexico City's cavernous second-hand bookshops. Inspired by his work they decided to complete in digital form the alphabets Ietswaart used for his book covers.

Paul V. Lemkau, Higiene Mental, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1961.

Robert Triffin, El Caos Monetario, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1962.

J.A. Estey, Tratado sobre los Ciclos Económicos, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1962.

Edmundo Flores, Tratado de Economía Agricola, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1961.

Covers designed by Boudewijn J.B. Ietswaart. Photo by Adán Gutiérrez.

Using the covers as a guide and consulting with Ietswaart this group of type designers recreated seven fonts based on the hand lettering of Ietswaart. The Balduina collection was first presented to the public in an exhibition of Ietswaart's work at the ATypI congress in Mexico City last year. These letters are a mirror of their era before the cultural revolution of the sixties. Wildly varied they bridge half a century of cultural and technological change in typography. Ietswaart's types have now come full circle. Far from home his legacy has been rediscovered.

Boudewijn Ietswaart in his Amsterdam apartment, September 2008.

Snapshot by Jan Middendorp.

Read more about the Balduina collection on the FontShop Blog. Try out the fonts in the FontTester below. If you wish to purchase the Balduina collection clickHERE.

Feike de Jong is a freelance journalist based in Mexico City and a member of the Círculo de Tipógrafos.

This article was originally published in Typo 37 – Autumn 2009, the Czech bilingual magazine (English – Czech) devoted to typography, graphic design, and visual communication. It is aimed at professionals as well as beginning typographers, type designers, graphic designers, educators, and marketing and visual communication specialists.

Typo regularly brings information about major events in the world of graphic design, features articles on information graphics, presents the work of young typographers and designers, and publishes interviews with important figures in the field. There are reviews of new fonts, and news from important typography conferences. The magazine works with authors and theoreticians from several different countries; so far it has published articles written by Rick Poynor, Jan Middendorp, Peter Biľak, Kevin Larson, Albert-Jan Pool, and Adam Twardoch.

Header image:Logotype for the Fondo de Cultura Económica 1962 designed by Boudewijn Ietswaart.



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