Piet Gerards’s work in typography and graphic design is the architecture of the printed page. The reader follows an itinerary through streets, squares, alleys as the text proceeds, pauses, and continues. There are corners, one-way streets and corridors. There are images and blocks of colour, directions and hints as to how the information conveyed might be approached. As a city follows its own logical and organic laws so the structure of the page, the book, the poster, the exhibition, indeed anything designed by Piet Gerards has a topography particular to itself. Every project, like every city, is different. The design of the Themerson exhibition* in 1998, and the publication of Kurt Schwitters on a time-chart* in 1998, focused on those qualities that were the hallmarks of the Themersons’ work.
The Themerson Project had its beginnings in 1982. After a visit to Franciszka and Stefan Themerson in London’s Maida Vale, and armed with introductions to various friends of the Themersons in Warsaw and Lódz, Joep Schreurs and Piet Gerards set off for Poland. Meetings in Poland with Urszula Czartoryska and Ryszard Matuszewski, inspired them to make a book about the Polish avant-garde in poetry and graphic arts. The result was Poolse Avant-Garde 1919-1939 published later that year [niet gerealiseerd, bvm].
Another early project related to the Themersons was the publication of Anatol Stern’s Europa designed by Mieczyslaw Szczuka, this time in Dutch translation and in the original 1929 format. It differs from the Gaberbocchus 1962 edition not only in its larger size but also in content. The Dutch Europa includes a glossary of terms and an afterword by Paul Westerneng.
The Polish avant-garde and the work of the Themersons continued to preoccupy Schreurs and Gerards. In 1986, four years after their first meeting, Joep Schreurs approached Stefan Themerson with a proposal. He and Gerards were working on a series of typographical publications, and wanted to include a Dutch translation of Themerson’s Kurt Schwitters on a time-chart, first published in Typographica, 1967]. In July 1987, Schreurs wrote to the Themersons about meeting them and organizing a small exhibition of their work in Signe art gallery in Heerlen. He arrived in London at the end of July and telephoned the Themersons several times. He was about to give up, when someone answered the telephone, and told him that they were both in hospital. He wasn’t able to see them. Time passed. Franciszka and Stefan Themerson died in 1988. And in the meantime, Schreurs had become involved with a restaurant in Amsterdam, and was cutting back on his publishing activities.
Ten years later, the Themerson Project was relaunched. It was Joep Schreurs wo initiated the contact once more, but by the time when Piet Gerards and Gustaaf Begas of Galerie Signe arrived in London to look at the exhibition material in the Themerson Archive, Schreurs was already too ill to travel.
The project went ahead. The exhibition, ‘Gaberbocchus Press of Stefan & Franciszka Themerson’ was mounted at Galerie Signe in Heerlen, August-September 1998, and Kurt Schwitters on a time-chart was published in the same year.
This was the first Themerson exhibition about which Nick and I felt we could not have done better. Following the Gaberbocchus canon, black, red and white were the dominant colours. Gerards created a route leading from image to image that revealed new or different associations. He approached the design of the exhibition as a space in which streets and houses might be looked at from above, from below or from a distance. It was like his book design projected into three dimensions.
The exhibition encompassed the Themersons’ oeuvre: paintings, drawings of different periods and types, writing, book design, theatre design, publishing, experiments in typography, photography, film. Gerards illuminated these different strands as one lights and identifies streets and avenues.
Kurt Schwitters on a time-chart was published by Huis Clos, in a facsimile of Stefan Themerson’s typographic essay. The main body of the publication is wrapped in a cover-cum-dust jacket overprinted with text in English and Dutch about the background and context of the essay. Neither a book nor a booklet, the publication brought back into print a piece of history: a poetic context within which the work of Kurt Schwitters comes alive. The Dutch translation is printed on sheets of tracing paper tucked inside the back cover that can be overlaid on the facsimile pages.
The Themerson exhibition was bi-lingual. Gerards is accustomed to dealing with more than one language on a single page or in a single space. He is forever in-venting new methods to cope with multilingual publications. The invitation to the Themersons’ exhibition, for instance, featured two interwoven colours: red for Dutch, black for English, with italic and bold, serif and sanserif types to indicate categories. Typography can reveal or camouflage, assist the traveller through sentences and images, or confuse him. Gerards’s contribution here was a true partnership with the Themersons and with their oeuvre that he displayed and illuminated. That is what he does so brilliantly. Gerards attracts readers and viewers with the harmony and exuberance of his design, traps them in this visual excitement and then aids and abets their journey through pages, along walls and inside book cases.