The title of this exhibition refers to the fact that Belgium’s graphic design history remains largely uncharted. Whereas numerous books have been written on Swiss, Dutch or British graphic design, there is, to date, only a handful of published histories of graphic design in this country. Interestingly, as I discovered, most of the books on graphic design history in other countries are written by graphic designers themselves. Specialized courses in design history and design criticism have only started to appear in the last few years.
Off the Grid offers a non-systematic survey of graphic design in Belgium, roughly from after the World Expo in Brussels in 1958 to the advent of the personal computer in the early 1980s. Design Museum Gent has previously presented exhibitions on the subject, including In koeien van letters: 50 jaar grafische vormgeving in Vlaanderen (In Capital Letters: 50 years of graphic design in Flanders).
That was, however, more than twenty years ago, in 1998, when I was studying graphic design at Sint Lucas in Brussels. After graduating, I moved to The Netherlands to continue my studies. Then I went to work in the United Kingdom as a graphic designer, first employed and then for myself.
This exhibition is certainly not conceived as a celebration of a Belgian “national style.” In fact, when I returned to Belgium four years ago and started my doctoral research, of which this exhibition is an output, I was happy to discover how international ‘Belgian’ graphic design was and is. Not only did Jeanine Behaeghel, Rob Buytaert and Jean-Jacques Stiefenhofer study abroad, but many successful designers based in Belgium were immigrants: the German Manfred Hürrig, the Lebanese Sami Alouf, the Swiss Léo Marfurt, and the French Jacques Richez and André Pasture. The Brussels-based Hungarian Charles Rohonyi, who collaborated with his partner Alice Dér, is the author of several articles on Belgian graphic design, and in 1971 he celebrated the absence of a Belgian style:
Belgium is no doubt the one European country with the highest number of foreigners per square mile. This ‘European’ situation has equally made Belgium a country ‘without graphic frontiers.’ There is nothing like a typically Belgian style.
Unfortunately, Jeanine Behaeghel and Sophie Alouf are among the few female designers whose work is shown here, although the exhibition honors the invaluable yet less visible contributions to the field by such pioneers as Josine des Cressonnières, Liliane-Emma Staal, and Jenny Van Driessche. At the time, women often worked in the background, supporting their male partners, uncredited and unremunerated. Many turned to illustration, which was less deadline-dependent, less well paid, and considered (absurdly) inferior to graphic design.
As an independent female graphic designer and a teacher, I am heartened by the fact that the position of women in the profession has improved—though graphic design, like so many other areas, is far from having rid itself of sexism.
My own practice has been the viewfinder through which the objects on display have been selected, organized by keywords that I feel are relevant to my work: typography, collaboration, social relevance, seriality, surface, color, economy of means, pattern, format, and education. Chaptering this history in personal terms was a way for me to approach this material as a practitioner—one, moreover, who has spent most of her career outside of Belgium—and to suggest that history, especially lacunary histories like this one, is unfinished business, open to fruitful debate and reinterpretation.