A new book hopes to change all that. Titled Off the Grid: Histories of Belgian graphic design and published by Occasional Papers, it follows and expands on an exhibition (also titled Off the Grid) curated by editor Sara De Bondt and shown in the Design Museum Gent in 2020.
The book doesn’t shy away from the more problematic elements of Belgian graphic design’s past. De Bondt’s essay in Off the Grid discusses the Belgian colonisation of Congo between 1885 and 1960, and the graphic pieces that emerged around it.
Placing posters such as those by Lucien de Roeck in the “tradition of the maritime colonisation propaganda on the port of Antwerp,” she writes, “you see that the design did not come out of nowhere. It fits in a series of posters of the same size and with a comparable composition … they demonstrate how graphic design, implicitly or explicitly, supported Belgium’s colonising enterprise, giving it the visual and typographic tools it needed to carry out its task.”
Many of the flyers for Belgian parties with names like Hardfloor, Save the Robots and the Magic Mushroom Party used designs that played with the conventions of consumer packaging, mimicking the form of gaudy cleaning fluids, for instance. Others seemed to draw straight from the camp end of sci-fi, with primary coloured laser guns and cute, stout little robots.
Considering its size, Belgium’s contribution to electronic music has been pretty staggering; reflected in the witty, playful and occasionally mushroom-centric club designs presented in the book. In the late 1980s, Belgium birthed ‘new beat’ — a different kind of underground dance sound that went on to form the foundations of the country’s house and techno culture. The emergence of new tech such as synthesisers, sequencers and drum machines in the latter half of the 20th century mirrors the growth of digital design tools that club graphics creators were keen to experiment with at the time — despite the fact that computers in the 80s could take around 12 hours to export an image.
The hundreds of previously unpublished illustrations such as posters, signage, typography, book design, logos and archival photographs in Off the Grid are accompanied by essays from academics, historians and contemporary practicing designers, as well as first-hand accounts penned by some of the key figures from Belgium’s 20th century design canon. Off the Grid also discusses everything from type design to the nuances of design industry labour relations and the visuals surrounding Belgian club culture.
While the exhibition mostly focused on the origins of graphic design in Belgium in the 1960s and 70s, the new book moves beyond those decades and traces the country’s design history from the 1920s and even earlier to “offer a collaborative panorama of Belgian graphic design history from a multiplicity of perspectives”, as De Bondt puts it.
“The many parodies of fashion brands may have poked fun at the advertising industry, but at the same time they also exploited this strong visual language for their own promotion,” writes Katarina Serelus in the book. “This, in turn, introduced an alternative form of collectivity to the market, which was experienced through music, drugs and dance.”
Certain European countries have, over time, become synonymous with a particular style or quality of graphic design: Switzerland is perhaps the most obvious example, while Dutch graphic design has come to connote exemplary 20th century corporate identity work. In comparison, we know relatively little about 20th century Belgian graphic design — despite a rich, bold history in pushing boundaries across posters, flyers and other printed ephemera, typography, editorial design, and more.
Off the Grid is published by Occasional Papers; occasionalpapers.org