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"There are so many ways to exploit a limitation," Karel Martens explains as he advances through nearly 50 years of his graphic design work on his laptop. "In the past, limitations were always given to me because there was no money. When you went to a printer, you were lucky if they had the typeface you were looking for. But you learn from that sort of thing."
He is visiting Yale University—–as he has done every year for three weeks since 1997—–to work with first-year MFA students. He has staked out a corner of the program director’s office, perching his computer on top of a print-littered table. He pauses to check that the keys he has tethered to his belt loop are still attached, explaining that he recently locked himself out of the office while his computer was inside. His glasses, too, are fastened by a makeshift leash. The simple string tied in a knot at either end of each eyeglass arm, along with Martens’s considerable body of work, shows that making do is often best for making.
The jury for the 1996 Dr. A. H. Heineken Prize for Art described Martens as "a rock in the defense against the sometimes all-too-fashion-able graphic racket that surrounds us." And indeed, in the Netherlands, where Martens lives and works, there is quite a racket with which to contend. But that wasn’t always the case. Trained as a fine artist, Martens attended the Arnhem School of Art in the late 1950s (finishing in 1961) and received instruction in "publicity" once a week from a painter. Martens views his lack of professional instruction as his gain: "I’m really happy that it was that way, because it gave me a broader experience. Now design education is about design, design, design—–and that’s a danger. I believe it’s better to be fed by society and other disciplines."
During the early part of his career, Martens worked in small villages, but his approach to design was never that of an isolationist. He often cites his generation and its ideals as shaping his attitude toward design, not to mention the organizations he worked for: often small, impecunious presses with socialist bents, like the Socialistiese Uitgeverij Nijmegen, for which he designed countless book covers between 1975 and 1981. Martens’s dexterity and economy are apparent in his work from the late 1960s and early 1970s, where graphic systems develop by way of a single color shift and the repetition of form. As he says, "I am a strong believer in the power of absence, so that you suggest things instead of showing them."
In addition to his print work for various publishers, Martens also produced designs for the Dutch government throughout the ’80s, ‘90s, and into the ‘00s for coins, postage stamps, and telephone cards, among other things. He’s also worked three-dimensionally, creating signage and the occasional building facade, like the Veenam Printers Ede building and the new extension for the Philharmonie building in Haarlem.
In 1998, the Leipzig Book Fair named Karel Martens: Printed Matter, designed by Martens with Jaap van Triest, the best-designed book "in the whole world"—–a comically super-lative prize, but one that distinguishes Martens as a master in his medium. Despite being one of the most beloved graphic designers practicing today, Martens has maintained a great degree of humility. As he puts it, "When I started working, designers’ names weren’t even printed in books!"
The role of the graphic designer has grown, so when the director of the Academy of Fine Arts in Arnhem approached Martens and Wigger Bierma to head a postgraduate program in graphic design, Martens proposed that it operate as a fully functioning studio. Martens and Bierma imagined that students would work alongside professors on commissioned work—–in effect, all program participants would get their hands dirty. They opened Werkplaats Typografie (WT) in the fall of 1998 and invited five students to join them in a former radio distribution center in northern Arnhem. True to his vision, Martens has since invited his students to help him design the architectural journal OASE, whose appearance he’s guided since 1990.
In 2001, Martens assumed a less prominent role at WT and moved to Amsterdam, though he travels to Arnhem once a week to check in on the students at the studio. In 2008, WT celebrated its tenth anniversary by publishing a book of collected works from the studio titled Wonder Years: Werkplaats Typografie 1998–2008. In the introduction, the editors ask, "How much do you need to represent something?" Martens always returns to this question when discussing a design concept. Anyone familiar with his work knows that his typical response is, "Not more than necessary." This minimalism, however, often transforms into visual abundance when specific limitations prompt him to "make the most of it."
As Printed Matter and Wonder Years assure Martens his place in the canon of graphic design, he approaches the adulation as a kind of reflective exercise, a chance to celebrate what drives his work. Sparsity, limitation, constraint—–however you choose to describe his approach, you’d be hard-pressed to find a designer who could make anything more of it.