How Willem Sandberg left his mark on Stedelijk as director and graphic designer

Willem Sandberg (1897-1984) is still the most famous director of the Stedelijk Museum. He was also responsible for all printing for the museum in his time. The book Sandberg, innovator and designer of the Stedelijk Museum discusses his work as a designer.

Peter van Brummelen

He was definitely photogenic. Big white comb, always tight in his suit, with an artistic bow tie around his neck. Smoking was, of course, just as bad then as it is now, but the cigarette – the old-fashioned fat one – which almost always dangled from the corner of his mouth suited him well. A museum director with the looks of a movie actor.

From 1945 to 1963, Willem Sandberg was director of the Stedelijk Museum. He is still the most famous holder of this position. He is still the most important. Before the war, the Stedelijk had been a fairly diffuse museum. Contemporary art was already purchased, but the museum also had period rooms and rooms filled with military objects.

Home base for Cobra

Sandberg unequivocally chose modern art at the Stedelijk. The museum was more or less the home base of the Cobra movement, and Sandberg organized high-profile exhibitions, literally dozens a year, of works by artists from the Netherlands and abroad. He was also constantly renovating the museum. It was dark and closed, it became light and open.

But he didn’t just leave his mark on the museum as director. Sandberg, who is a trained graphic designer, was also responsible for virtually all printing when he was in charge of the museum. He designed posters and folders, but also invitations, stationery, envelopes, admission tickets and New Year’s cards. It made him one of the most important designers of his time.

Graphical work

Sandberg – Innovator and designer of the Stedelijk Museum the book that Ad Petersen wrote about him is appropriate. Petersen, who died last year, was a curator at the museum for a long time and worked closely with Sandberg. His book on the museum director (originally a publication on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Institut Néerlandais in 2007) examines his graphic work in depth.

The text continues below the illustrations.


Sculpture Sandberg – Innovator and designer of the Stedelijk Museum

null Image Sandberg - Innovator and designer of the Stedelijk Museum

Sculpture Sandberg – Innovator and designer of the Stedelijk Museum

null Image Sandberg - Innovator and designer of the Stedelijk Museum

Sculpture Sandberg – Innovator and designer of the Stedelijk Museum

When Ad Petersen was interviewed in Sandberg in 1960, the director said: “So you are an art historian. Well, that shouldn’t be a problem.” Sandberg was not much of a theorist and felt closer to artists than to scientists. He also enjoyed dealing with artists. But the man, who was an avid smoker and liked a drink, was also ascetic and – unusually for the time – a vegetarian.

Strict Calvinist

Jonkheer Willem Jacob Henri Berend Sandberg did not come from an artistic background in the slightest. Not only was he of nobility, he was also raised strictly Calvinist. However, his choice for the world of art did not meet with major objections at home. A study at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam was not a success, but he found work as a typographer and graphic designer.

In 1936 he joined the Stedelijk Museum as a curator. When he became director there in 1945, he made it a condition that he could also take on tasks as a graphic designer. In practice, this meant that he only signed for the Stedelijk, unpaid. He effortlessly combined management of the museum and design of printed matter: during a meeting he could work on a design without missing a word.

Maximum freedom

Before joining the Stedelijk, he had sometimes been at odds with clients as a designer. As a designer for the museum, he was his own client and had maximum freedom, which he exploited to the full. They look great, the Sandberg designs are collected in Ad Petersen’s book. Fresh and clear, but often also very playful. Typically Sandberg, letters and other shapes were torn out of paper.

After his retirement from the Stedelijk, Sandberg continued to design. No other design from his hand will have been seen by as many people as his contribution to Amsterdam’s Waterlooplein metro station. On both sides of the platform, the name of the station is written in large red and blue letters on a white background. The frayed contours of the letters are reminiscent of the letters that Sandberg previously tore out of the paper.

Ad Petersen: Sandberg – Innovator and Designer of the Stedelijk Museum (published by Samsara/ Ambassade Group, €29.95)

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