Measured on that basis, Gert Dooreman is one of the most significant graphic designers in the recent history of the Low Countries. This praise may sound over exaggerated, perhaps even somewhat perfunctory in an account befitting such a resounding award as ‘the Henry van de Velde Award for Lifetime Achievement’, but I have yet to meet anyone from the Dutch language book trade or the graphic sector who begged to differ. To the contrary. I meet more and more experts who tend to drop the word ‘recent’ and bestow on Dooreman the title of one of the greatest graphic design talents and workhorses in our language tout court.
They are undoubtedly right, but I have insufficient knowledge of the overall history of graphic design to provide them with substantive support. I am, however, as no other wellgrounded in the particular ‘story within the story’ that Dooreman and I have been experiencing together for more than thirty years. He is the designer of almost all of my books, their interior and exterior, as well as my posters and leaflets, my company logo and my business cards. He even designed the invoices for NV LANOYE, the company which I founded and of which I am Managing Director. That is the doom and the wealth of our times: man and brand converge more and more. It is unavoidable. You can, at the very most, give your fate a beautiful design. Even surrender need not be averse to aesthetics.
Dooreman never seemed to be afflicted by that awkwardness. He made his surname into a hallmark long before others of his generation even dared think of such a thing. Right from the beginning, he considered himself a concept. ‘Dooreman’, without the addition of that superfluous ‘Gert’. That was not overconfidence, nor was it a mission. It was — at least that has always been my experience — a simple conclusion of the young Dooreman. He was born for greatness and perfectionism, full stop.
He was born for greatness and perfectionism, full stop. Subsequently, he sweated over and suffered under the compulsion to meet his self-created expectations. High ambitions and then just old-fashioned plain hard work, exalted aspirations followed by a long period of slaving onward — these apparent contradictions explain both his high-quality and extensive production. It is a stubborn and fruitful short circuit between ambition and labour. Dooreman always raises the bar to the highest level, and it is but seldom that he passes underneath.
I got to know him as one should. First the work, then the man. Just like so many others, I remained in Ghent after finishing my studies, brooding about the greatest artistic plans. I’m talking about the early nineteen-eighties.
Ghent seemed to have had a creative explosion. The ‘Feestlokaal van Vooruit’ (Vooruit Arts Centre), threatened with demolition, was saved to throw open its doors as an arts centre. From day one it was the core and power station of ‘the scene’. It was there that I first saw the work of Alain Platel and Arne Sierens, as well as Kamagurka and his Flemish Primitives. For innovative theatre makers such as Eric De Volder and the men from Radeis, this was their regular place to play; the concert hall booked the best new rock bands of the time. The creative energy was not only limited to the Vooruit. The happenings — as they were called back then — that took place elsewhere were innumerable. One of them, De Verzameling (The Collection), wanted to take off in a multidisciplinary manner; by combining music, word, performance and visual arts. There was even experimentation with something as extravagant as video.
It was, if my memory serves me correctly, thanks to this happening that I consciously saw Dooreman’s work for the first time, in the cardboard folder that was to be sold during the exhibition. All of the participants could present themselves in the folder on one A4 page. I’d made a rather clumsy attempt at a hip layout for one of my poems, with visual paraphernalia I’d nicked from the then popular New Wave music. Going through the folder, I stumbled upon a drawing in which the accurate yet elegant lines really made an impression on me. I recognised the style from a few posters that had already caught my eye around town. Here was someone working with an unmistakable style, who combined the best from the good comic strips (such as Corto Maltese by Hugo Pratt and Inspecteur Canardo by Benoît Sokal) with the best German satirical sketches from the interbellum period, such as those from the weekly magazine Simplicissimus.
History and jest, tradition and satire. This artist knew his classics, but added his own flair to create his own style. I should and would ask him for my first upcoming ‘official’ publication. Up until then I had only self-published and had learned in the process that my talents as a designer were sorely inadequate to fulfil my dreams of how a modern book should look.
Due to my burning love for comics and pop-visuals at that time, I should and would have special illustrations designed specifically for my book, which moreover, together with its cover, would form a complete whole. It was Dooreman’s first official book cover and his very first book job ever. Over the years, we’ve never changed anything in the ritual of our collaboration. We sit down and talk extensively together, or via the telephone, about the contents and the title of the book. From that brainstorming session come the first ideas for the design of the book and Dooreman sets to work. After weighing up the pros and cons, we choose one single perspective from his first series of proposals which he continues to develop in various versions. And then we choose again, and so on. Until we have something in front of us for which we both know: this is it. This is what we want.
That first book was called Rozegeur en maneschijn (A bed of Roses). The subtitle promised Helse kritieken (harsh criticism), the flap text appealed to the satirical content of these critiques. Flaming vitriol towards cosiness, sticky sweetness and virtuosity — in brief, towards the whole of Flanders, and towards its literature in particular.
How do you illustrate that? We decided on an image that, many years later, would also grace the cover of Dimitri Verhulst’s unsurpassed De helaasheid der dingen (The Misfortunates). A Belgian windowsill with at least one pot of ‘Mother-in-law’s tongue’ (Sanseverias).
That one pot of plants was, however, not enough for Dooreman. Every part of the book also had to be given a separate windowsill illustration — a figurine, an ashtray, a vase, a small bust clearly bearing the characteristics of Lord Byron. (The first part was an interpretation of the first ‘Canto’ from Byron’s Don Juan.)
Dooreman headed out with his camera to capture the Windowsill of The Fatherland in dozens of photos. He chose the most unusual ones, but he refused to reproduce them in charcoal, as I had hoped. (If there is one thing I’ve hoped for in vain throughout the years, it is that Dooreman would once again make time for what is possibly his greatest talent, well, next to design and playing the guitar — that of drawing). No, drawings just weren’t enough for his, and my first book. The technique had to aspire to something else, something unexpected, something virtuoso. That was and is Dooreman. He revamps himself, long before he even begins.
He made still lifes out of glue-on laths and transfer letters , which took him four times as long than if he had just drawn them. In a technique I had never seen, and probably will never see again anywhere else — these types of laths and transfer letters have pretty much disappeared since the arrival of the computer.
After Rozegeur en maneschijn, we worked together in Ghent a couple more times, but our paths began to go in different directions for three reasons. To start with, I began to contact other designers. A very conscious decision, although not because I was dissatisfied. I also wanted to continue to learn and evolve in the theatre by collaborating with, in this case, a different producer each time, from whom I hoped to learn some tricks of the trade as well as new insights. From Jo Dua to Gerard-Jan Rijnders, from Walter Tillemans to Luk Perceval, from Ivo van Hove to Guy Cassiers, with my apologies to those I’ve not mentioned here.
In those first few years, I searched for the same diversity in book designs. I was crazy about the designs from the Rotterdam group Hard Werken (Working Hard) (Gerard Hadders), as well as the design from Ron van Roon and Jan-Willem Stas, and not to be forgotten, from the same city as Dooreman, Kris Demey. I have absolutely no regrets about my infidelity; I learned a great deal about design and publishing books — but in the end I would end up back with Dooreman and never again stray artistically.
A second reason for our drifting apart was the arrival of the computer, that suddenly popularized the knowledge of fonts and letter sizes to the extent that every layman thought he could do the entire layout himself. In the beginning, this led to a visual cacophony and a great deal of amateurish ugliness, but even a child could see that the digital evolution was unavoidable. The possibilities of this new technology were just too immense. You could immediately see the results of any of your choices on the screen: what does the text look like in Garamond, in Courrier or in Helvetica? You no longer had to wait for a tangible result — the print-out emerging on some sort of photo paper from a cumbersome typesetting machine that was bigger than three washing machines combined. It slowly and literally spat out a roll one page in width, often several meters long. That roll, even a child could see, was headed for extinction. And the executioner’s name was ‘computer’.
Not everyone shared my vision of the future. To some it sounded like a nightmare. I remember a conversation with Dooreman who — raised among lead typefaces and printing presses and trained in very different, more traditional techniques — swore to me, come hell or high water, he would never convert. Because no computer-generated work could ever attain the heights of the handiwork of the craftsman.
For the first time ever I questioned his judgement. And because I — the third reason — also moved during that time, to Antwerp of all places, we lost touch with each other. Forever, I feared at the time.
It was Ghent and the theatre that brought us back together. Or rather: the real reason was that Dooreman, during the years that had passed, had succumbed to the executioner named ‘computer’. He had learned to design directly on the screen after all. And behold: he’d found his true instrument. His real biotope, his pallet, his mastery. Also probably because, thanks to the computer, he’d gained even more immediate control over the execution of his designs.
The Blauwe Maandagcompagnie, (the Blue Monday Company) led by producer Luk Perceval, was going to perform Ten oorlog (To War), a twelve hour long Shakespeare adaptation that I had been allowed to write. Few are aware of these two facts about that megalomaniacal project. Firstly, the title was not an invention of the two editors — Perceval and myself — but of Stefaan De Ruyck, philosopher and business manager at the time. Secondly, and more important in this context, Ten oorlog would originally have two posters, something that little appealed to me beforehand. My scepticism grew even more when I heard that one of the posters would be a life-size black and white photograph, with just a very small logotype at the bottom. The other would be a poster with nothing but letters, to name the total of three parts and six plays, plus the actors, the crew, the starting times, and so forth. I already knew what the results would be. Or so I thought. The photo would win. Image would defeat words, once again. And I didn’t like that one bit.
Then I entered Dooreman’s new office and saw both posters side by side on his large, professional computer screen. I immediately realised: that the photograph didn’t stand a chance. Dooreman did it again. He transformed words into such a powerful image and letter combinations into such a strong icon that even a very eye-catching photograph paled next to it. His design said everything, both at a glance and under further scrutiny. It was about war, it was about language, it was about an unpublished theatre project, and you should, under no circumstances, miss this event. You were recruited, so to speak, by a poster reminiscent of the big headlines and posters seen in the streets during the real war.
And that is what happened. I mean: the photograph poster faded into oblivion, but the letter design of Ten oorlog became the talk of the town and gathered quite a following. From that moment on I would only work with Dooreman. The project that got the most out of hand was a banner the size of half a football field, on the front of what in Antwerp vernacular is called ‘de Boerentoren’ (the Farmers’ Tower) — once the first sky scraper in the European hemisphere, designed in Art Deco style, and together with the cathedral, dominating the Antwerp skyline.
As part of a literary event — Antwerp was the World Book Capital for one year — I had our Boerentoren declare its love to our cathedral. A Tale of two Towers, not long after Al Qaida terrorists had destroyed the Twin Towers in New York. The poem in which our Boerentoren sung out its love was four stanzas long when I emailed it to Dooreman. He countered immediately: do I have to put all that on one single banner? No one is going to read that. His suggestion as a designer directed toward the author was quite radical: do you want impact, Lanoye? Then scrap three quarters of your poem. Yeah, be content with just the last strophe. People can read the rest of it in the papers or on the city’s website. I didn’t question Dooreman’s advice for a second. And to this day I’m glad I didn’t. Because he was right, of course. Even with those proportions, words can only create an impact if they are not just words, but images as well. An icon made of letters, a sign made of language.
It was only when the banner was actually rolled out that I saw that Dooremans design was not solely internally coherent. It formed a continuation of the architectural lines of the tower itself, generating in this way even more of an impact on the spectators — the ‘readers’ — down below. The lines of the Boerentoren were playing a subtle game with the lines of Dooreman’s text design.
Just as he had planned and anticipated. Since that day I can’t help but wonder: what would have happened if Dooreman had also been an architect? Maybe we should all start believing in reincarnation. So that Dooreman can come back and start all over again. And so that he, as a genius master builder, can win this Henry van de Velde Award a second time.
Fragments of this text appeared earlier in Lanoye’s contribution to Dooreman — 2009, Published by Lannoo nv, Tielt