Friday, August 25, 2017

Shaping Modernity in the mid-twentieth century South Africa: Ernst de Jong (1934-2016)

The exhibition in the FADA Gallery (lower ground) focuses on the artist and designer Ernst de Jong’s (1938-2016) contribution to design in South Africa in the years 1957-1975. Video recordings of interviews with the designer, as well artwork and artefacts sourced from the de Jong collection, contextualise the display.
This selection provides a link to the accompanying exhibition of Helen de Leeuw’s modernising rhetoric that evinces interesting   parallels of circumstance and purpose with that of de Jong.  Both individuals could be said, as Chris Barron claims for de Leeuw, to have ‘created an alternative way of living for … South Africans suffocating in a stuffy aesthetic inherited from the British colonial past’.
The de Jong exhibition is part of an ongoing project by Lizè Groenewald to document, record and communicate the history of an extraordinary personality in his pursuit to domesticate modernism in twentieth-century South Africa.

Some notes on the work on display

Various items of student work 1951-1956

De Jong was born in 1934 in Pretoria. He spent much of his time during his school years either at the Hillcrest Swimming Pool or painting in his mother’s kitchen. Both these pursuits would serve him well in later life: as a talented diver, he was awarded a sports scholarship to study at the University of Oklahoma (OU)in the USA, where he enrolled for a BA Degree in Fine Art and majored in Painting and Information Design. In 1957, de Jong and his American wife, Gwen Drennan (1935- ), a fellow student at OU, returned to Pretoria where they opened Ernst De Jong Studios (EDJS) in 1958.

Items on display in the vitrines include a watercolour of a landscape with houses, executed when de Jong was sixteen and still at school, a set of hand-drawn roman letters crafted by Gwen as part of a typography project at OU and the University of Oklahoma Year Book for 1956 (in which the newly married couple appears). The delicate patterning and colours of The Successors, a stone lithograph, foreshadows the early style of EDJS, evident in the cover designs for the cultural journal, Lantern, and the Automobile Association Touring Guide of South Africa.

In the time that de Jong was diving for OU, the swimming team achieved unprecedented success and the exhilarating experience of winning in an American sporting arena would inform de Jong’s approach to all things once he returned to South Africa. In 1973 he was instrumental, with his brother Gerrie de Jong, in designing and building the De Jong Diving Centre, which is still maintained by the Tswane City Council. Arguably, de Jong’s use of a vibrant turquoise in several of his early designs, such as the cover design for the October/December 1958 Lantern, was prompted by his life-long attachment to the aesthetics of swimming and swimming pools.

Early work 1956 -1966
The 1956 fantasy landscape in oils, The Colonnade, is typical of de Jong’s painterly style when at OU. Despite the claim that his encounter with American Abstract Expressionism brought about a ‘sea change’ whilst he was studying in the USA, the visual language that he brought back to South Africa was more akin to the whimsical mark-making of American artist / designer Ben Shahn (1898-1969), whose work de Jong admired. De Jong’s commitment to Hard-Edge abstraction appears to have occurred only after he relocated to Pretoria in 1957, a shift which is evident in the other works displayed in this group. De Jong’s Degree Programme at OU included information design, painting and stone lithography. The latter was presented by Emilio Amero (1901-1976) who was an acclaimed muralist who taught an excellent technical course in print making.  De Jong himself became both a prolific muralist and an expert print maker, producing several series of serigraphs, of which a selection are on display.

Books and magazines

In 1960 de Jong designed and built a ‘white house’ in the modern style in Hill Street, Pretoria, where he lived and worked until his death in 2016. De Jong, by his own admission, was not a great reader, but the books in the Hill Street collection, amassed over more than fifty years and of which a small sample is displayed in the exhibition, reveal the influences and obsessions that shaped the designer’s life. A 1963 Vogue magazine features the glamorous de Jong couple in their avant garde home. His father, who was a civil servant (but would have preferred to be a painter), bequeathed his son a modest little book on modern painting. The formal principles of art are explained in an ancient copy of Helen Gardner’s Art through the ages, presumably a prescribed text at OU. The rules of fencing vie with Sam Haskin’s erotic photography, swimming pool design, cowboys, Picasso and yellowing texts on lithography.  Robert Motherwell’s ‘black balls’, Jasper Johns’s Flag and Ben Shahn’s illustrations for an idiosyncratic dictionary of peculiar words attest to the importance of American modernism in de Jong’s approach to art making. In 1983, Esme Berman’s encyclopaedic Art and artists of South Africa, declares triumphantly, “Ernst De Jong’s career furnishes a story of success”.

Johan Hoekstra (1939 — )
Johan Hoekstra worked as a designer for Ernst De Jong Studios from approximately 1960 to 1963.  Hoekstra met de Jong while studying commercial art at the Pretoria Technical College, where both Gwen and Ernst de Jong had been employed as design lecturers after arriving in Pretoria from the USA. Hoekstra brought to the studio his excellent illustration skills and an amusing quirkiness that was well-aligned with de Jong’s decorative approach and the frivolity of American modernism that was growing in popularity in South Africa.
Hoekstra designed several sun-emblems for de Jong, including the first EDJS logo, which was an illustrative symbol that evokes the robust earthiness of early Renaissance woodblock books. Hoekstra’s work captures the mood of an ebullient and hip Pretoria in the early 1960s. He left EDJS in the mid-1960s.

Colin Bridgeford (1938 — )
Colin Bridgeford was one of the first student designers employed by EDJS. However, his most important contribution emerged in the late 1960s when he re-joined the studio after a period spent in the advertising industry in Johannesburg. Bridgeford introduced the neutral language of the International Style to EDJS. He transformed Hoekstra’s rustic sun-symbol into a signifier of needle-sharp precision and efficiency. In his purity of vision, he echoed the hard-edge imagery and ascetic beauty of de Jong’s serigraphs. Bridgeford’s consistent use of sans serif letterforms and the grid conveys a heightened commitment to the modernist project in South Africa but also the increasingly anxious mood of the 1970s. Bridgeford left EDJS in 1975.


The Society of Designers in South Africa (SDSA) made this award only once, and it was presented to Ernst de Jong for his contribution to South African design. The jury’s decision to honour a producer of ephemeral trademarks (as opposed to the architects of the South African Reserve Bank, who only received a merit prize) attests to the high esteem in which de Jong was held in the South African design community at the time.
The 1970s had seen the emergence of the graphic designer as superstar and in the 1980s this trend probably reached its peak. De Jong himself had promoted the cult of design hero as early as the 1950s when he signed his cover illustrations for Lantern. The legendary American designer Paul Rand (1914-1996) followed the same practice, although de Jong was unaware of Rand’s work until much later in his life.
Before the 1990s, it was relatively common for a creative director to take the credit for the work of junior designers. Thus, the iconic logo of the 1972 Munich Games, although more usually attributed to the designer Otl Aicher (1922-1991), was the inspired idea of a lesser-known colleague, Coordt von Mannstein (1937- ). Similarly, the EDJS design for The Gift Horse trademark featured in the exhibition is attributed to de Jong in the New York Art Director’s Annual, but was in fact designed by his studio manager, Colin Bridgeford. In a field where creative outputs are invariably the result of team work, it is often difficult to determine with certainty the authors of past graphic design experiences, a challenge that contributes to the difficulty of constructing a history in this regard.

The Oklahoma motor hotel corporate identity

The Oklahoma campaign was executed as part of a collaboration with de Jong’s older brother, Gerrie, a property developer who built the iconic Oklahoman Motor Hotel in Pretoria in 1969. Both brothers had studied at OU and The Oklahoman project celebrated their love affair with American modernity, an experience that they re-imagined in the capital city of South Africa.
In addition to styling the visual identity of the hotel, de Jong produced a striking series of serigraphs (not on display) that anticipated the Shield Series (1975), the Night’s Passage Series (1976) and the Western Series (1977). Somewhat like the more recent South African restaurant franchise Spur, The Oklahoman appropriated Native American iconography as part of an emancipatory frontier narrative that sought alternatives to a conservative Christian Nationalist ideology and British imperialist aesthetics.

Everite mural
De Jong executed more than twenty-five mural commissions, thereby shaping the visual rhetoric of architectural spaces as diverse as the Atomic Energy Board, Arcadia Shopping Centre, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the State Theatre in Pretoria. One of his earliest commissions, completed in 1963, was for two glass mosaic murals in the Transvaal Provincial Administration Building. EDJS also designed the programme, on display in the vitrines, for the inauguration of this iconic modernist building in Pretoria. In the case of the undated mural design for Everite — a company that produces building products — de Jong capitalised on the outcome by re-using the design on the company’s corporate calendar.
De Jong, never one to bypass an opportunity to promote himself or his studio, ensured that, on the desk calendar, the designer of the mural received as much attention as the client. Although this strategy may appear conceited, Everite was, in fact, benefitting considerably from its association with a creative practitioner that exemplified modernity and excellence in international design at the time.

Irmin Henkel (1921 — 1977)
Henkel’s portrait of de Jong at the height of his success in 1970 provides an interesting counterpoint to the more recent video recordings of the designer reflecting on his life. Henkel, an orthopaedic surgeon, immigrated to South Africa in 1951. Largely a self-taught painter, he pursued a dual career of medicine and art and painted the portraits of several prominent political figures in the National Party government. In 1969, he completed a large commissioned canvas depicting the South African Cabinet of 1961, the year that South Africa became a Republic. Henkel was a central figure in the Pretoria social scene. He was well-acquainted with the de Jongs — they attended one another’s stylish parties — and he painted the portrait of de Jong as well his father, Gerrit de Jong, the latter, by request, in the style of Paul Gaugin.
Lizè Groenewald can be contacted by email lizeg@uj.ac.za or by phone +11 559 1024.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Helen de Leeuw and the shaping of modernity in South Africa c1950-1997

From c1950 by Helen de Leeuw began a lifelong challenge to the South African market to rid itself of erstwhile preferences, both anglophile and American, for mass- produced inferior products that began to overwhelm local markets and suppress extant and emerging local art and craft. She almost single-handedly, as shop and gallery owner, designer and entrepreneur, provided various outlets for local artists, juxtaposing their work with innovative Nordik and Germanic modernist production. In her emphases and in her selection of local craft production she shaped an innovative aesthetic.

Writing in 1965, Isobelle du Toit noted that Helen de Leeuw’s name at the time was synonymous with ‘good, modern and imaginative taste’. As the doyenne of what was perhaps rather loosely described as ‘modernist design’, de Leeuw’s distinctive selection of items for her enterprises functioned as ‘counter- cultural’, challenging the taste and fashion fads of the time. It was also expressed in innovative furniture design, gallery display and interior design.

Esme Berman noted in 1980: ‘ Helen de Leeuw has been responsible more than any other single person in South Africa for developing in the public a sound taste and a feeling for good design and craftsmanship’. (Esme Berman, quoted in The Star, 4 Aug 1980)

While de Leeuw catered predominantly for an emerging white middle class, it was in shaping their preferences that she contributed to the widespread embrace of local art and design. She was central in supporting a vast body of black South African artists, their studios, workshops and creativity in providing an outlet for their work as well as in providing moral and financial support for their endeavours. By coupling this work within a context of contemporary international design de Leeuw ensured their significance in both a local and international context.

Born in 1917 in South Africa of Greek parents, Helen de Leeuw (nee Mentis) initially had no claims to an artistic or design training per se, having majored in English and Latin at the University of the Witwatersrand. On completing her Masters in English she relocated to London to complete her PhD on aspects of the writing of Virginia Woolf. She never completed this, opting instead to acquire skills in pottery at Camberwell College (School of Arts).

With this rudimentary training abroad and an innate flair for design, she developed a deep respect for fundamental values in post war design in Europe. On her return to South Africa she set about exhibiting her pottery. With the trained eye of a craftsperson, she was particularly desirous that standards and taste in South Africa improve. She consequently set about reflecting her personal taste in her shows, drawing on her diasporic background and idioms which had been nurtured during her travels to diverse geographic regions when abroad and locally.

The Scandinavian link
De Leeuw became particularly known for embracing Nordic design, especially from the post war period. Having opted for neutrality during World War II, Swedish infrastructures were largely intact at a time when those in Europe were not. Auspiciously termed ‘Scandinavian’ at the time, and consequently less tainted by its German Bauhaus inspired association, design in the Nordic countries flourished in the post war period, in the developing of local industries and actively seeking an international market. 
A distinctive Nordic aesthetic was widely disseminated and popularized internationally, the result of sustained marketing strategies which developed outlets in as far afield as America, Australia and South Africa, the latter the only country in Africa to trade in Nordic derived goods. Central to Scandinavian design was a return to the organic sources and truth to materials. In the late 1940s, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Germany, in a bid to restore the economic infrastructure and not least regain their respective sense of national identity, began a concerted effort to reposition their industrial production and design in a range of accessible spheres.

With a strong apartheid Rand and initially little international opposition to trade with South Africa, relatively inexpensive ‘Scandinavian’ goods were imported by de Leeuw. To her, many Scandinavian/Nordic products not only echoed local craft traditions in South Africa but she also sensed affinities with emergent workshops in South Africa that echoed the Nordic aesthetic (such as Rorke’s Drift). Her juxtaposition of the local and the global therefore established an important precedent in South Africa, in which local craft, art and design were regarded as significant as international ones.

In 1959 de Leeuw first went to Finland and fell in love with Marimekko fabrics. She was to become one of only seven outlets in the world for such fabric, others in New York, Cambridge Massachusettes, Dallas, Chicago, Toronto and the other in Woollahra, NSW Australia. Marimekko was founded by Armi Ratia in the 1950s, and she and Helen became close acquaintances. Marimekko was foregrounded internationally when Mrs Lyndon Johnson (probably influenced by Jackie Kennedy ) bought 42 dresses from designer Armi Ratia. At the time Marimekko represented ‘cult clothing’ worn by ‘barefoot singers, women’s libbers and those who delight in a simple uncluttered way.’ (The Star, 14 Nov, 1972). Soon de Leeuw had the largest collection of Marimekko dresses in the world. Armi Ratia apparently advised her clients to go to South Africa to see the wide range of clothing made from her fabrics. (Die Transvaler, 11 Jan 1968) - image below.

On her return from Britain in 1950, de Leeuw held a small pottery exhibition and set up the ‘Craft Centre’ upstairs in a building in Union Centre. Norman Herber, the Greaterman’s department store manager, visited her studio and was very impressed by her work. In the process of enlarging and modernizing Greatermans, he suggested that her ceramics would bring people into his store, but was not certain whether they would buy ‘good stuff’. Bluffing, she convinced him that she had contacts with many craftspersons like herself and could fill the space he allowed her. Her bravura initiated a frantic search on her part, but ultimately she was able to fill her store. 

By the late 1960s she had opened 6 stores: -The Craftsman’s Market (Greaterman’s basement, President Street, Jhb), image above; Outlets in Pretoria- initially in Polly’s Arcade and later at The Helen de Leeuw Gallery,13 Steyns Arcade, Schoeman Street); Helen de Leeuw, Hyde Park (16 Hyde ParkCorner, Jan Smuts Ave Johannesburg) 1980(?); The Cottage 1967(c/r 8th avenue and Main Rd, Melville, Johannesburg); Helen de Leeuw, 1967 Stuttafords in Claremont, Cape Town; Ibi in Kimberly,1968 (at Flaxley House,34 du Toitspan Rd, which closed its doors on 26 January 1970.

In 1956 de Leeuw curated an introductory exhibition of a new design center, known as the Design for Living exhibition at 52 von Brandis street, in a venue close to her own shop, the Craftsman’s Market (in the Greaterman’s basement). Here she hoped to have a permanent exhibition of the best of local and international design on display. She was prompted in this by the eagerness for good work among a select Johannesburg public. The exhibition included what she regarded as modern furniture, pottery, glassware and jewelry.

Dining Room Furniture(1960s) courtesy of Modernist. Parkhurst. 

Dining Room Furniture(1960s) courtesy of Modernist. Parkhurst. 
In this she was inspired by two similar ventures:  The Design Centre of Great Britain, opened in 1956) by Sir Gordon Russell, who had been involved in the 1951 Festival of Britain, who considered ways to reform the education and training of new industrial designers. It was supported by the Council of Industrial Design, which had for years been instrumental in the fostering of good design and the raising of general standards of craftsmanship in Britain. In addition she was inspired by the Danish Copenhagen-based Den Permanente, a state-aided exhibition that foregrounded the best in Danish design and craftsmanship (including other Nordic design). The idea was initiated in 1929 by Kay Bojesen, a Danish silversmith and designer and became a commercial endeavor in 1931 under Christian Grauballe.

Aiming to have her design center equated with these examples, de Leeuw believed that the South African public was ‘hungry for good things and eager for positive direction’ (Letter by de Leeuw to Oliver Walker c1956). She added that she felt it to be the duty of the artists and craftspersons to produce of their best and set standards that enabled the buyer to be more discerning. 
The Design for Living exhibition space itself set an important benchmark for de Leeuw; ‘…wherever possible we used simple and fundamental materials – brick floors, bagged walls, terracotta tiles, unplastered wall, unpolished timber’.(ibid) with the idea that items set against this ‘unpretentious’ background would allow one to appreciate the excellence of design.  She noted: ‘If it is a little ambitious to establish a sort of South African Bauhaus, at least it is not a personal ambition but something based on the core of excellence I am able to cut out from the soft apple of mediocrity’ (ibid).

‘My aim in this design centre of mine is much the same. I have great confidence in and respect for the very excellent craftsmen of this country and a belief that the public is hungry for good things and eager for positive direction. I maintain that it is the solemn duty of the artists and the craftsmen to set the standards of taste; let him give of his honest best and the public will soon learn to discriminate between the shoddy and the sincere. I feel that it is up to those of us who have a standard never to deviate from it..’ (ibid) (my italics)

She intended to use the basement for exhibitions, including work by local and international artists. A subsequent exhibition at her centre included the work of  Bernard Leach, painter Joan Clare, artists Cecil Skotnes, Eduardo Villa, Douglas Portway, Stanley Dorfman, Monty Castle, Arthur Goldreich and Monty Sacks.

De Leeuw’s stores or galleries were in many ways an extension of herself, her taste and preferences. In this she typically reflected a changing attitude to taste - it was no longer dictated from above, but was eclectic, idiosyncratic and flexible. Her outlets were typified by an uncanny aura of the authenticity and clutter of a lived space that she craved. They contained articles of natural materials that were well designed and unusual. 

Her theme was truth to materials, natural fibres, and the durability of materials. In her stores she intentionally recreated the atmosphere of a market, where an amassed collection of goods could be browsed through at leisure. All items would thus be contained in one store:- clothing, cooking utensils, carpets , furniture, cloth, weaving, ceramics and art. Typically her venues became meccas ‘for progressive artists and bohemians’ (SA G&H Aug 1969). The stores also served as important venues for interacting with craftspersons and designers, artists and architects’ (The Star, August 1980).

Early anglo-oriental traditions initiated in Britain was based on the direct importation of a stoneware aesthetic from Japan and other east Asian sources. De Leeuw became acquainted with many of its exponents when in Britain, such as Bernard Leach. This neo- oriental English influence was reflected in de Leeuw’s preference for stoneware ceramics and glazes identified at the time in the work of emergent ceramicists such as Esias Bosch, Tim Morris and Andrew Walford, their work consequently readily embraced by her. Soon her ‘stable’ of potters included Sue Gilland, Mollie Fisch, Rita Tasker, Sonja Gerlings, Natasha Downs, Charles Smith, Gillian Bickel, Ian Glenny, Traute Bruck, John Dunn  and  Digby Hoets.

De Leeuw  included a range of chairs, tables and benches in her outlets. Many of these emulated well known styles that originated in European prototypes, such as the bubble chairs; campaign or safari chairs; the Harp Chair by Charles Smith (c1966 and 1974); the Thonet Rocker; the butterfly chair; the Springkaan chair and Spanish workers’ chairs. Over the years Indian, Turkish and even Chinese furniture were held in her stores. She believed that in furnishing one should not follow fashion slavishly but rather use what is suited to one’s needs : ‘..it is style that counts, not fashion, and basic good design, which is tightly married to good craftsmanship, is far more enduring than the latest novelty.’

Many jewelers trained in Europe settled in South Africa in the post war period. Names such as Erich Frey, Dieter Steglich and Otto Paulsen becoming prominent jewelers. De Leeuw always had a wide range of jewelry that included local and imported ware, as well as ethnic jewelry. In the 1960s Elsa Wongchowski jewelry was marketed by de Leeuw, and from the 1970s that of  Margaret Richardson (who had studied in Germany) and Eicke Schmidt became widely available in her stores (Star 20 Oct 1978). In 1980 jewelers who exhibited at de Leeuw’s outlets there included Mike Cope, Elaine Hofmeyr, Christina van Rensburg, Dieter Dill, Katryn Engelen and Gita Finlayson. (Die Beeld 28 Aug 1980) In the 1980s she exhibited the work of Kurt Jobst. De Leeuw supported the arts from the outset – one of her first exhibitions was of the Polly Street Art Centre at the Craftsman’s Market in 1956. This trend was followed over the years with some of South Africa’s notable artists exhibiting in her venues.

In 1968 Cecil Skotnes was to note that while Johannesburg had a large number of people who ‘vigorously collect art and crafts and appreciate the good and worthwhile things of living’ he added that: ‘To the refugees of the 1930s, the post-war immigrants and the new generation of local craftsmen, a great deal of the credit can be attributed. However, without enthusiasts to organize the distribution of their products, enthusiasts like Helen de Leeuw, who are basically craftsmen, who understand the craftsman’s personality and attitude towards work- there could never have been such a rapid growth of good taste in Johannesburg. 
Helen is the pioneer in this field, but her aims have not only centered around the crafts. She is counted among the few individuals who have contributed to the rise of the urban non-white artist. It was Helen who gave the Polly Street Art Centre its first kiln and she organized the Centre’s first public professional exhibition which included among the exhibitors many of the now well known sculptors and painters. If I were to compile a publication on craft and craftsmen in our country, I would undoubtedly dedicate such a book to Helen de Leeuw. (Artlook, September 1968)

Exhibition Curated by Juliette Leeb-du Toit.