Robin Kinross interviews Gerrit Noordzij, 2001


The conversation that follows was recorded on 8 March 2001, at Gerrit Noordzij’s house in Hattem. It followed on from a day of celebration (16 February 2001) at the kabk Den Haag, which saw the opening of an exhibition of Gerrit Noordzij’s work and the work of his students, the publication of a booklet about a teaching-workshop with Gerrit Noordzij (Het primaat van de pen), the presentation of his book De handen van de zeven zusters, and the award of the Gerrit Noordzij Prijs to Fred Smeijers.

Present at this conversation were Gerrit Noordzij, Robin Kinross, Françoise Berserik, and Wilme Noordzij. The discussion was held mainly in English, and we have decided to leave the text in that language. At times Gerrit Noordzij and Françoise Berserik spoke in Dutch. To maintain continuity and coherence we have edited out these passages, and some passages elsewhere. The mood was relaxed, with much laughter.


(rk) Can I ask you about what – I think – was your first published article, “Broken scripts and the classification of typefaces”, in The Journal of Typographic Research. With this you jumped into the public arena, and with all your central ideas expressed, as in a nutshell.

The history of the article is remarkable too. We were meeting with ATypI in Prague (1969) and there in one of the rooms of the Charles University I passed Fernand Baudin and Merald Wrolstad talking with each other. Fernand turned to me and said that Merald Wrolstad was trying to persuade him to write an article for The Journal of Typographic Research – at that time they already had a firm relationship. The question was, ‘do you know the book by Walter Plata, and what do you think about it’ It was all rather new for me, but Fernand said, “I’m sure you will make something different of it.

(rk) My larger question was, how did you develop these theories? what was the process of coming to these ideas?

I do not know. I do not know. I remember that Albert Einstein was asked the same question about his theory of relativity, and he had the same answer. I once invented the answer for Albert Einstein, which was: “I’m sorry, I do not know, because when I got the idea I was asleep.’ That was a mixture of Einstein and Newton. I must have written somewhere about inventing theories. Wasn’t it in Letterletter? In children’s books the story is that Newton got his idea when the apple fell on his nose. But the apple could only hit him because he was lying on his back looking at the sky.

There was a long period, and perhaps it still prevails, in which epistemology tried to keep metaphysics out of science. But I am convinced that the only basis for science is a metaphysical basis. The best thing you can bring to science is a hypothesis, and this is something that comes from very loose and imprecise thinking. Many of my inventions were suggested by what students showed me. They reacted to what I did, and then I tried to escape from the consequences of what I said myself, by inventing something else. For example, there is something in this latest booklet (Het primaat van de pen). A girl looks desperately towards me and says “I can’t”, and then my answer is: “that’s true, but you shouldn’t believe it.” A very wise answer, but I would not been pleased with this were I not forced into it this situation by this despair. The despair of the students is very good!

(rk) But how was it before you started teaching? You started teaching when?

In 1960. And before then I was thinking about teaching and researching, quite a lot. I had contacts with colleagues in Amsterdam: Alexander Verberne, Joost van de Woestijne, Theo Kurpershoek. I was just trying to reduce the fussy stories to a single story.

(rk) I would like to pin you down on this – to ask when you really formulated these ideas?

It is difficult stuff. There is a point at which notions have not yet been formulated.

(fb) When did you start writing down the theories?

Writing is also thought-provoking. Last week, I thought: I will write a final article on the Bible, and start with some statements like ‘de Bijbel gaat over God’. And when you have written that down, you think: oh, it’s even worse – ‘God gaat over de Bijbel’. You can only do such nice things in writing. I could never think out such a nice combination. You just write a sentence and then things start to become funny.

I always thought about letter-making as a child already. When I was about two or three years old I tried to copy the letters of a newspaper, at the edge of the newspaper itself. At that time the margins of newspapers were much bigger than now, and you could really draw on them. I’ve always been fascinated by such simple shapes. Paintings, graphic prints have never been so interesting for me, because they were too complicated. A letter is so simple. That’s all.

(rk) Yes, it’s a familiar story.

A few years later, J.J. Beljon asked me to start teaching at The Hague. Piet van Trigt once said to me that when the Hague Academy had that department of publicity design which was controlled by Kiljan and Schuitema, that they had a kind of sectarian atmosphere. It’s still the problem of much art education. Everyone has to have the same ideas as the teacher: noses all in the same direction. In fact they were already obsolete by this time; they were only just surviving. Those teachers clashed with Beljon, who wanted to make a more open school. So rather roughly he broke up this whole department and replaced it by something that we finally called graphic design. Jan van Keulen was in charge of administering the department; your father [Hermanus Berserik] and Ootje Oxenaar also taught there. Piet van Trigt taught lettering, and my job was typography. At the same time Van Trigt and I were teaching classes for art teachers. There we were teaching handwriting. We did that for three years, swapping classes: so that Van Trigt might take over a class I had been teaching, and the other way around. But the classes in writing and lettering for graphic design Van Trigt kept for himself. When he was ill I tried to fill in for him. Then one day I got a call from the Academy, to say that Van Trigt had had a stroke, and I had to take over from him. Then a few days later Piet van Trigt was dead. Van Trigt asked the students to copy from big sheets the letters of Bembo, Times, and so on. And when you had done this, you had a view of type design. I did not like this very much, simply from a pedagogic point of view. When you ask students to copy the old masters you force them to look away from their own work. I wanted them to keep their eyes on their own work. I wanted them to proceed with the marks that had their origin on their own paper, trying to get their competence under control: to start it themselves and to go on from there, to arrange things harmoniously. What is perhaps now my theory was a way of finding a pretext for my approach.

Writing was difficult. Van Trigt asked the students to write a set of papers. The papers should be filled with writing. You could see that the first sheet was done rather neatly, then as it continued you could see that the students were just trying to get to the end. I turned this upside down: for instance, by asking the students to write four lines. Of course these four lines were not optimal. They tried it again. Then they tried it another time, seeing that it could be improved. I did not care that my students did not become good calligraphers; they wanted to be designers. They did not come to school to become calligraphers. Writing is useful for design, because you can evoke a problem so quickly, and you can so quickly return to it, and look at alternatives. So it’s a way of accelerating yourself. I would say to the students: I don’t care for any calligraphy or for design, but I want to see progress in your study, and your calligraphic exercises are very useful for this purpose. This was rather readily accepted by the students. So when something in your writing was not quite as you wanted it, then take a brush or take a pencil, return to the whole thing, and make a drawing that explains what you really wanted to write. So in this drawing you are ‘objectivating’ your handwriting. You can say that, in a way, apart from some technical conditions, this is what type design is. This is not quite true. As soon as you think that this is a good typeface, go to the reproduction camera, make a reduced picture, and you will see that it is too spiky, so you have to return to your drawing. You could say that the type designer is in the awkward situation of having to draw things differently from what he is drawing: it has to be reduced. I think there was hardly any other course in the world where the scale could be of such importance. In many schools they tell you: make a drawing at a large scale, then reduce it and it will look better. We could prove that this was not true. So then you have to draw at the real size. But the problem of type design is that you are working at a different scale.

I always wanted to take students to the Plantijn Museum in Antwerp, and to take a small binocular microscope with me. Before going I called Mrs Peters, and gave her a few of the inventory numbers. When I came they would say, the punches are on the desk. So I had the punches made by Garamond and Granjon, and could give them to students. I had a preference for the very small sizes. You could give a student such a nail and say ‘now look under the microscope’. ‘Oh, there is a letter on it!’ How do you think that this was designed? You might be satisfied if you can get the shape of a letter on it, at all, without any design. So that was again talking about scale. Then finally we became type designers, but not intentionally.

(rk) The type design came a bit later on in your teaching?

No – type design was also a normal design problem. One important task in graphic design is to bring different things together. Say, the lettering on a goods train, a letterheading in the administration, packaging, and so many different things. When you make them the same, they are too different. A typeface is a model of such a problem: a thing with a part as round as an O and as triangular as a V.

(rk) One of the early type designers on the course would be Petr van Blokland…

Many people before were doing similar things. But for them it seemed that you had to be too fanatical to do something substantial in type design. There were many students who had a good feeling for lettering. Lida Lopez Cardozo was one of them, for example. Others found their place in graphic design. But in the period that Petr van Blokland was a student, there was something else: the change to computers. For me the computer was really a godsend. Suddenly you were independent of the people at Monotype or Linotype, who told you that they were only interested in typefaces for the average job. (I said: that’s fine, but the average job does not exist!) The computer can free you from their restrictions. Before this I had made for myself a photolettering system. I could only use it for book covers and such things. As soon as I got my first Macintosh computer I started to digitize my drawings. Since Adobe published their Type 1 format I only used my own typefaces. When was that? Ten years ago?

(fb) It was all a very short time ago.

For myself, I felt that I needed quite a long time to prepare for this.

(fb) You had the feeling you were preparing for this, without knowing that it was coming?

Yes. At the Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, they were always talking about the ‘phantom under the bed’, and that was the Hague Academie. ‘In The Hague they are doing typography and lettering in a very old-fashioned way; they are still writing and drawing, just like in the Middle Ages.’ When the computer came, and we did the same thing, they said: ‘they have sold their soul to the devil, because now they are doing everything with the computer!’ But at that time we had no computers, and we didn’t really need them then. Around that time also the art school at Utrecht advertised, even in America, that they had so many Macintoshes, but they were just playing with them. We were trying to control the thing.

Then the last of these messages from Amsterdam, I remember, was that ‘in The Hague there was now a great overproduction of type designers’. The funny thing was that at that time I got a call from the school at Bielefeld, asking if I had a student who could teach lettering to them – and I could not help them, because all our students were already busy. But I was surprised to see in the exhibition in The Hague the nice show of work by former students: in fact it was the only part I tried to look at. I was happy to see this. I feel it shows great variety, by people who show that they understand their own business, and have not just copied me.

(fb) I want to ask you about your great ability with ‘broken script’, and whether you have had any students who have shared this interest. I never saw any sign of it.

I do not think that broken letters exist as a practical category. It’s not a very decent way of thinking, if the result is a category such as ‘baroque typefaces’ or ‘baroque letters’. Fraktur, for example, is in my view, very close to italic, while Textura is very close to a roman text typeface. So I would think that it is much more practical and faithful to the character of the characters, to distinguish between cursives and text scripts. The whole category of ‘broken letters’ falls across these two groups: Rotunda is a text typeface, while Batarda, Schwabacher and Civilité are cursives. The characteristic Dutch typeface of the seventeenth century is a text typeface, while the earlier Flemish types, which Caxton also brought to England, are cursives. So I never gave any special attention to ‘broken letter’. There is another aspect to this, which is that I never wanted to teach history.

For me the greatest exercise in history came from the University of Leiden [looks for a book] … 3,000 years ago! Somebody came to my class, said he was from the University of Leiden, a student of theology now specializing in Semitic archaeology. His professor had told him that he should come to me. He showed me a small Polaroid picture and asked if I could say something about it. I said that there were some characters of this size, written on this kind of material, with this kind of ink, probably from the seventh century bc, and that it was probably Moabitic. He said ‘oh thank you’. A week later I heard from him again. He said that in five minutes I had told him more from this Polaroid picture than the Semitic institute at Leiden had found with the original in half a year and with a host of professors. He asked how I did this. I said: “oh that’s easy: I don’t think about a scholarly principle but about a principle of physics”. You can assume that the effects that you can get on your own desk will have happened also in other times. When he showed the picture, I just tried to imagine how I would try to do such a thing. “Oh, yes, thank you”, and again he went away.

The next week he came back. “That was nice”, he said; and now asked me if I could tell him the trick. I said that I couldn’t, because I didn’t know anything about Semitic writing, or about the Moabites, and so on. I said that the only thing I could do was what I was doing then in the class – to give my students a hold on actual things that happen now. Often you have to find a groove to go back into the past, or what you think the past might have been – to get a handle on it. They published a book about this, with friendly remarks about my contribution.2

This book makes me out to be an authority on old Semitic writing. But for me the important thing was that I could claim that if you say something about writing and design that is valid, then it should be valid not only for Monotype typefaces or for handwriting with a broad pen, but it should be valid for all writing, of all times and all civilizations. So this was an opportunity to test this, and these people said that my views about writing a text script and a cursive had some meaning for their archaeological investigations.

Another occasion was with the calligrapher R.K. Joshi. He once asked me, in Hamburg, if I realized that I was the only Western author who did not discriminate against Indian culture. I said, of course I did not realize this – I did not even know there was such a thing as Indian culture! He said, when you look into a book about writing you read about uncials, capitals, monastic writing – and exotica. And exotica is Chinese and Indian and Japanese and Korean and Greek, and so on. But I did not do this, because I had said that any writing of any civilization begins with the stroke, and the stroke is made with the tool, and if you have a stiff tool, then the shape of the tool dominates the character of your writing, and with a soft tool the impulse of your hand dominates the writing. So you get two branches: the Eastern branch is the Chinese hand-civilization; and on the other branch is Semitic writing, with its derivations from the West and the East – the Indian – with the tool dominating. So you can go on, and in fact it’s a kind of binary tree. It’s very easy. This was something I found important for students: to make things easy. With Stanley Morison’s theories, the thing is that you have to know twelve, or is it ten, categories of writing, and then you look at an example and say ‘category six’. And when you are in a good mood, and have something to drink, then you can discuss the possibility of putting it into category seven. But the most important category is category ten or twelve – the category of things that do not fit into any of the other categories. This game, for drunk professionals, is called ‘classification’.

I always found it very nice to ask my students “is it this? or is it that?” You can never be positive about the absence of something. For example, if you do not have an illness, this only means that so far you have not found it. You can only be positive about having some illness. If you have found malicious cells then you can be sure about having it. But you can never be sure that you do not have it. I always try the same nice method in design. It makes the whole thing easy for students. If you have no upstrokes, then you can be sure that the writing has an interrupted construction. If you have upstrokes, you cannot be sure – because you can also imitate the upstrokes. But you cannot keep your pen on the paper when you lift it. It’s a nice method. It’s the binary tree. Is it an Italian cursive of the fifteenth century? Yes or no. And if it is ‘no’, then it can be anything. The distinction between interrupted and running writing reduces the whole question to two groups.

(rk) The advantage of your system is that it is great for designers. It’s active. It helps you to think. If you are a museum director who has a large collection of stuff…

My system is good for finding your way in design. It does not offer much when you have to find your way in a collection; it is not a practical system of classification.

The journalist Margaret Richardson once asked me what my main objective was in teaching. I said, to have a good time. She thought that I was not serious. But I said I was serious. And why did I want to have a good time? As a teacher you can only have a good time when your students are sure that they have a good time. I tried to find things that the students found interesting. Thought-provoking things are always the best; they like that.

I wanted to ask my students to study the book Printing types by Updike. Then after three weeks I would ask them about it. In my classes we didn’t have what is called a ‘discipline’. Imagine that you go to your students, show them these impressive thick volumes, and say that you will ask them about the book in three weeks’ time. What do they say? “Oh, that’s too much! We have so many things to do!” I just took a paragraph from the book and read it aloud. They started laughing. I said: “how do you think that this man could be so famous and yet say such stupid things?” The next day they were crowding around me with quotations and arguments. Just ask a student to find the faults in Updike or in Morison or in me, and they will bring you arguments.

It is just as with a child playing a game. I think that many students have the feeling, often unconsciously, that playing this game could be important for everything else in their lives. It may not really go to the heart of the matter, nevertheless it’s a good problem for a school. It’s a problem that can be a metaphor for your real problems, and because it’s just a metaphor you can play with it. Then the only thing that you have to do as a teacher is watch, and show that you are present. So that when people are doing dangerous things, they can afford the risk, because you are there. When you are at the back of the class, sometimes you see somebody look to see if you are still there. That keeps you alive, or at least it gives you a good time.

(rk) I have one more question, which is: how do you then follow these ideas about writing into the larger field of typography, book design and so on. Sometimes I have the idea that you are not very interested in anything more than a line of letters, a line of words.

I remember a discussion with Wim Crouwel. I said to Wim Crouwel that he is not a typographer. He said, why not? I said, because your instructions for the compositor are without much engagement, your corrections are without much engagement, you only wake up when you get your galley proofs, cut them up and start arranging them. Your design starts with what I would call layout. The beginning of design is not there: that is the care for the text, for legibility. You put them at a distance, and say that there is an even field of grey, and then you are satisfied. I think I could see this so easily because I am more or less at the other extreme. I start with the shape of the word. I find the variations that the word-spaces can have is very important. When I can reduce these variations, I feel better. I’m almost inclined to say that a word-space is a semantic thing. All these word-spaces have exactly the same meaning, so why not make them the same, just as you make all commas the same. These things are not very important for Wim Crouwel. He does not like capitals. Why not? Because they disturb his grey column. I understand that. But I would say that from the point of view of accessing the text, capital letters are important, so how do we get them under control. That’s what I would call typography. It also means that I’m much more interested in a book than in other areas of typography. When you look at typography from this point of view, then you can see that there is still more to say about it, but I do not know how to say it.

Books are also very important occasions to see what typefaces can do. Authors who write more footnotes than text can lead to a book that looks very ugly, unless you make it very beautiful! I like this challenge: to make things in such a way, that people say “oh it’s not difficult to make a beautiful book when you have so many footnotes”. I like separating the footnotes from the text by putting them in three columns under the text, instead of two.

(rk) What was your argument with Tschichold in this area? I have the feeling that you had some disagreement.

Yes, on the same occasion in Prague, 1969. When he gave a lecture, Tschichold – the old Tschichold, as well as the new Tschichold – always said on the invitation card: “no discussion afterwards”. Now in Prague he was telling us how type design should be, and German designers were asking questions. He was quite upset. Type design was now finished. Sabon was now published. The final typeface was Garamond. He did not say which Garamond. The only thing we had to do was to adapt this typeface to present-day techniques: hand composition, slug composition (Linotype), and Monotype. Sabon covered all three fields. It was almost the Bauhaus story: just sanserif, one typeface and no other possibilities, certainly not Fraktur. Then at the end of his speech a German designer pointed out that Mr Tschichold had told us that we cannot use Fraktur any more: “why?” Tschichold said: “because I do not use it”. At the end of the day we visited the Strahof Cloister, and the showcases were open so that we could turn the leaves of the manuscripts in this marvellous collection. I was standing at the same table as Tschichold and I asked him: “how could you say this about Fraktur, that we cannot use it any more?” He said to me: “why not?” I said to him: “because I use Fraktur!” That was the level of our discussion!

In this English-American booklet about Tschichold I took a real example from Tschichold: “A line has eight to twelve words, more is wrong”. Probably I would agree with Tschichold about this, but I would never say it. When you say such a thing you cut off a road. “You cannot have more words than this on a line.” Why not? Because Tschichold says that it is wrong. I would say about this: “a line can have twelve words at most, and if there are more words on the line then you get problems with …” and so on. You could say that I agree with Tschichold, but I put it in an almost opposite way: its not forbidding someone to put more words on a line, but it’s trying to see if this idea is true. Is it possible to put fifteen words on a line and still preserve legibility? Could you do this, for instance, by choosing a very narrow, condensed typeface? Or increasing the leading? Choosing a different paper? And so on. When you look at what Tschichold says you see that he was precisely not what he pretended to be (a teacher of typography). I think he was not a teacher of typography. He was a great designer. When I look at the things he did, in his earlier period and in his later one, it’s always interesting to study. But what he said is just that everybody should try to be a little Tschichold too. That’s the essence of my objection to Tschichold. But you could say this of almost everybody of that generation – Stanley Morison, Jan van Krimpen, Mardersteig too.

(rk) They did it better than they spoke?

Obviously, from their position they found that they had to talk in an apodictic way. I remember that in 1956 I read a report of a lecture by Jan van Krimpen. Just like in the Tschichold speech, someone asked a question and the answer was: ‘you can take it or leave it’. But Van Krimpen did not pretend to be a teacher.

(wn) I have a different question: aren’t you getting tired?

Robin is asking me questions.

(rk) I’ve asked the last one!