• Inducted in 1979
  • Design
  • Born October 24, 1897
  • Died April 9, 1984

Willem Sandberg

i am invited to write a statement
about my work, my life, my ideas
my philosophy, my hopes or my dreams
and i guess
you will get a little bit of everything
a graphic designer
is somebody who brings order
into graphic communications
if possible he makes them attractive
in order that the public takes notice
a graphic designer
tries to condense communication
to make it more effective
but there are many kinds of designers
industrial designers
who try to make tools more effective
or in the widest sense
social designers
who try to redesign
human relations
like marx and engels did
or to design a people
like ben gurion
or to redesign a port of society
for example the artist community
or the relationship
between art and the public
as i tried myself
let me explain how i came to these ideas
between the age of twenty and thirty
i was interested in too many things
first i wanted to become a painter
and after leaving the army
at the end of world war I
i went to the state academy in amsterdam
but after six months i left
it was not my cup of tea
and went to italy and france
to study on my own
till at the age of 25
i saw the work of mondrian
that was what i would have liked to do
but it was already done
during youth
i suffered from bad health
and after some ineffective surgery
i lost my confidence in doctors
at 22 i became a vegetarian
and decided to become my own doctor
i started to fast
first ten days, then twenty days
and was healed
i continued experimenting on myself
and returning to holland
i began lecturing in “healing by nature”
i was rather successful
only being always surrounded
by sick people got on my nerves

so i left for vienna
in order to study psychology
with alfred adler
one of freud’s outstanding pupils
there i met dr otto neurath
head of the society museum
who had developed
a new method of statistic pictographs
now i could combine
my interest in society and in design

at the age of thirty
i returned to amsterdam
and soon received many commissions
to design statistic pictographs
for exhibitions, schools etc.
gradually i also received commissions
mostly from governmental institutions
to design calendars,
programs for theaters and concerts
and became a graphic designer
my only preparation for this job
was six weeks of typesetting
at a printer’s

during these years
i organized and designed
several exhibitions
that attracted public attention
when i was forty
the director of the municipal museums
invited me to become his assistant
i hesitated
because i never imagined to become
a civil servant
but after a few days i accepted
i entered the museumworld
on january first 1938

i started by organising
a show of abstract art
the first general exhibition of this trend in europe
(alfred barr had done so before in MOMA)
i immediately visited hans arp, max bill,
otto freundlich, gabo, kandinsky
mondrian and many others
for most of them
this was the first occasion
to see their work in a museum
and all eagerly collaborated
brancusi brought his sculptures himself
in the mean time
i had the exhibition rooms redecorated

the 40 year old brick building
made a gloomy impression
the central part was inside also
covered with bricks of several colors
very depressing
so i wanted to whitewash
the whole entrance, the staircase
and the main hall upstairs
my director agreed
but was afraid to bear the responsibility
so i suggested that he should take
a week of absence and when he returned
he hardly recognized his museum
the mayor of amsterdam
was very angry with me
but the start was made
and gradually the whole interior
was redesigned

during the summer of 1938
in the middle of the civil war
the spanish bishops published a letter
about how the republican government
was mishandling the treasures
of the prado museum in madrid
the republican government
invited me to report on the matter
during the fall i visited spain and could study
how well the government had cared
for the precious paintings
by bringing them to caves on the costa brava

returning home
just after “the days of munich”
where the western powers
had abandoned chechoslovakia to hitler
i heard how nervous the dutch had been
about how to handle their art treasures
in case of war
the first to ring me was
the mayor of amsterdam
who asked me to report
on how to deal with this question
overnight i had become an expert
on hiding art
together with the town engineer
we designed a heavy concrete cave
with air conditioning under the dunes
as we had no rocks in the neighborhood

when the germans overran holland
on may 10th 1940
the treasures of the stedelijk-
and of the rijksmuseum were safe
over 200 van gogh’s,
rembrandt’s nightwatch, the jewish bride etc.
were protected by 1.50 m of concrete
and 10 meters of sand

during the second half of 1940
everybody received new identity cards
the jews got a big “J” on their cards
shortly afterwards the jewish artists
were excluded from governmental commissions
this started with the sculptors
out of solidarity all the other sculptors
refused such commissions
in order to help them subsist
a fund was created
afterwards the germans organized
a ‘kulturkammer’
and every artist who wanted to function
had to become a member—most artists refused
so we created new funds
for painters, actors, authors, architects,
musicians etc. gradually this work
grew into the center
of the artists resistance movement

in the meantime the germans started
to deport jews to germany and poland
and wanted to create a ghetto in amsterdam
to collect the jews
this ghetto should be surrounded
by a high fence of barbed wire
but the town workers who had to build
the fence striked
in february 1941 this strike
became a general strike in amsterdam
and environment
thirty workers were shot
but the germans failed to build the ghetto
notwithstanding this success
we had the feeling that we should do more
so we decided to fake identity cards
without the ‘”J” and with the new names
for jews and other people who were in danger

our group of designers
did an excellent job and we found a printer
the artists resistance movement
distributed many thousands of these cards
and the germans were unable to discern
between the faked and the genuine cards
they only could find out
at the registration office of the town
and therefore we decided to blow up
the office

the building was well guarded
day and night by 2 policemen and 4 guards
after a long discussion
we agreed to kill nobody
on the evening of march 27th
six of us dressed in police uniform
a painter as the captain
and a sculptor as a lieutenant
marched towards the office
and took over the building
the six occupants were ordered “hands up”
got a sleeping injection and were
carried into the garden
the whole building was blown up
and a strong fire destroyed the contents
this was the first open attack
on the german occupation
next day many people in amsterdam
put flowers in their windows
the germans were furious and offered 10.000
guilders for a successful tip
about the perpetrators
this worked and on april 1st
they caught most of the people involved
twelve of them were shot on july 1st
among them were three of my best friends
i myself escaped because i was in the dunes
inspecting the hidden art treasures
my wife could warn me by phone
and i went into hiding for 2 years
under another name

we were not only trying to thwart german measures
but also planning to create a better society
for the future
there were many groups of people
who wanted to reshape public institutions
after the war—
there were two groups which elaborated
a new organization for the artists
near the end of the occupation
these two groups came together
i was myself a member of both groups
and a kind of liaison officer between the two
we decided to create a professional society
for each kind of artists
societies for actors, for authors, for composers
for executing musicians, for painters, sculptors
etc. and to bring all these societies together
in one federation
in order to strengthen the position of the artist
towards the general public
and specially towards the government
we suggested an arts council of which two thirds
of the members were proposed by the federation
the federation was constituted
right after the war
and the arts council was nominated
by the minister of culture according our wishes
in 1948: the minister was obliged
to ask the council for advice
in every serious question regarding the arts
and also about his budget
i was chairman of the national arts council
from 1948-60

during the two years i was hiding
i first lived in a small town
near the german border
and for the last 9 months
in a village between the two branches of the rhine
during the first year i remained in constant contact
with the new leader of the artist resistance movement
and the printer of our identity cards
both were shot on june 10 1944
they had become great friends
during the last months of the war
i became assistant food commissar of the region
this job with (faked) SS papers gave me the possibility
to move freely around the country on my bicycle

i must confess that starting a completely new life
with a new name at the age of 45
is not given to many people
for me although i was in danger for life every moment
this was quite a treat
most of the things i could do after the war
were encouraged by the experiences
during these years

-Willem Sandberg (adapted from a lecture delivered at the academy in Jerusalem)

Please note: Content of biography is presented here as it was published in 1979.