BEXHILL-ON-SEA, England — Hailed as one of the greatest museum directors of the last century, Willem Sandberg organized some 800 exhibitions as head of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam from 1945 to 1963. He introduced film screenings and live music to the museum, which is devoted to Modern art; added design and photography to its collection; and increased annual attendance fivefold, to 300,000 people.
Yet, in a feat of creativity and sheer energy, Mr. Sandberg also found time to design all the posters and catalogs for the Stedelijk’s exhibitions, as well as its stationery, invoices, tickets and invitations. Now, much of that work is on display in an important solo show, his first survey in Britain.
The exhibition, “Willem Sandberg from type to image,” running through Sept. 4 at the De La Warr Pavilion here, is drawn from the Stedelijk’s collection, to which Mr. Sandberg, who died in 1984, bequeathed his personal archive. The show portrays him as an unusually resourceful and expressive graphic designer who applied design to advance his vision of culture as a progressive force in society.
In our age, in which museum directors sometimes seem more adept at administrative duties and extracting money from donors, Mr. Sandberg, who championed abstraction, kinetic art and other avant-garde movements, stands out as a creative force of his own, through his passion for design.
“It was Sandberg who insisted on continuing his work as a designer after becoming a museum director, because he enjoyed it so much,” said Carolien Glazenburg, curator of graphic design at the Stedelijk, who organized the exhibition with staff members at the De La Warr and the designer Fraser Muggeridge. “There was no board of trustees to challenge him, and although he often faced opposition from the Dutch media and politicians, that was because they thought his curatorial choices were too radical.”
Perched on the Bexhill seafront on the Sussex coast, the De La Warr Pavilion is a congenial setting for Mr. Sandberg’s work. Designed in the early 1930s by two Modernist architects, Serge Chermayeff and Erich Mendelsohn, the steel-and-concrete structure was one of Britain’s most innovative 20th-century buildings. It was intended to house the type of “people’s palace” that Mr. Sandberg loved, mixing exhibitions and lectures with popular dances and concerts.
Mr. Sandberg came from a family of aristocratic landowners. Born in 1897, he spent his 20s traveling around Europe: visiting the Bauhaus art and design school in Germany, apprenticing as a printer in Switzerland and working for Isotype, a pictorial information design project in Vienna. (The pictograms he created there are among the earliest exhibits in the De La Warr show.)
In 1928, he opened a graphic design studio in Amsterdam and started working for the Stedelijk, which appointed him as a curator in 1937. The “Abstract Art” exhibition, which he organized the following year, was one of the first surveys of abstraction at any major museum. Contemporary curators, including Hans-Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries in London, often cite Mr. Sandberg as an important influence on their work.
During World War II, when Germany occupied the Netherlands, Mr. Sandberg joined the Resistance. He used his design skills to forge identity papers for hundreds of Jews and other people who risked persecution. He also helped to hide precious artifacts from the Gestapo, for example, by designing a bookplate to make it look as if a Jewish collector’s books belonged to the Stedelijk. In 1942, he organized an exhibition, “Town and country,” as a cover to provide work for Jewish photographers, artists and designers, and to procure paper on which the Resistance could print leaflets and posters.
The following year, Mr. Sandberg joined a plot to destroy the Amsterdam records office to prevent the Gestapo from identifying the city’s Jewish residents. The attack was partly successful, but he and his co-conspirators were betrayed. All of the others were captured and executed, but Mr. Sandberg, who was away when the Nazis arrived at his home, survived by hiding in Gennep, a town near the German border, under the alias Henri Willem van der Bosch. His wife and son, however, were arrested and imprisoned.
Over the two years he lived in fear of being captured, worrying about his family, Mr. Sandberg’s hair went white. He sought solace by designing pamphlets that he called experimenta typographica, filled with drawings, collages, typographical doodles and quotations from Le Corbusier, Proudhon, Stendhal and other thinkers he admired.
Mr. Sandberg painstakingly tore paper to form silhouettes of people or objects for the collages, and made several copies of each pamphlet from whatever scraps of paper or card he could find.
As the De La Warr exhibition illustrates, the frugal ingenuity of experimenta typographica defined his designs for the Stedelijk, where he returned after the war. Many of his exhibition posters were purely typographical, using the small selection of typefaces available at Amsterdam’s municipal printworks, and two or three colors, one of which was always red, which he considered the most eye-catching.
He enlivened those meager ingredients with clever compositions and contrasts of hues and typefaces. Since he wanted the posters to popularize the museum, one of his self-imposed rules was that they must be “joyous.”
By the 1950s, Mr. Sandberg’s designs had become more overtly playful. A poster for a glass design show used lettering to create the shape of a wineglass. Another poster was issued on newsprint. He also improvised by combining characters from different typefaces to spell part of Henry Moore’s name on one poster, and Paul Klee’s on another.
Mr. Sandberg was equally inventive in designing exhibition catalogs for the Stedelijk. The catalog for a textile show was covered in swatches of fabric, which he persuaded the manufacturer to donate. He strove to sell catalogs cheaply to make them affordable for as many people as possible.
The De La Warr exhibition ends with the projects Mr. Sandberg completed after retiring from the Stedelijk. They include the graphic identity of the Israel Museum, which was founded in Jerusalem in 1965, and a set of Dutch stamps bearing hand-torn paper silhouettes like those he made for experimenta typographica.
Throughout the show, Mr. Sandberg’s finished designs are animated by preparatory sketches, notes, paper silhouettes and the letters he wrote to artists and colleagues — always using lowercased letters.
“Sandberg never used capitals,” Ms. Glazenburg said. “Writing them would have taken up too much time.”