Hendrik Werkman – The Graphic Designer's Printer

Hendrik Werkman made his living as a commercial printer in Groningen, Holland, but is now remembered for his groundbreaking collaged artworks composed of type, rules, printing furniture and other objects, such as doorlocks. Many of the techniques employed by contemporary letterpress printers today – such as masking type, printing pictures of people from sorts, printing the back of woodtype – were pioneered by Werkman in the 1920s and 30s. He turned type into image, treated ink as though it was paint, loved paper textures and was delighted by the chance anomalies that occurred when all these variables came together.

H.N.Werkman, 'Plattegrond van de kunst en omstreken', uit Next Call nr.6, 1924, Groninger Museum

Caption: H.N.Werkman, 'Plattegrond van de kunst en omstre ken', uit Next Call nr.6, 1924, Groninger Museum

His experimental letterpress work began when he very nearly lost his printing business in 1923. He managed to retain just two of his 27 employees and moved the last of his type and equipment to a loft above a warehouse where he continued work as a jobbing printer. This event actually set him free – as he later wrote: “Like a wet poodle I shook off everything that for me was annoying”.

This was when he started making his ‘druksels’ (experimental prints or "printings") – short run or single prints – part traditional letterpress and part something else altogether! He put the paper on the bed of his 1850 German Dingler press, and placed pre-inked type and other printing materials on top: “I use an old hand press so […] the impression can be regulated instinctively. Sometimes you have to press hard, sometimes very lightly, sometimes one half of the block is heavily inked, the other half sparsely. Also by printing the first layer of ink on another sheet of paper you then get a paler shade, which is used for the definitive version… Sometimes a single print goes under the press fifty times”.

In September 1923, Werkman announced the launch of his new magazine – The Next Call – that he hoped would shake up the provincial members of the local art group De Ploeg, of which he was a member. It didn’t… but rather confirmed their pre-existing view of him as an eccentric. However, he exchanged copies for other leading avant-garde publications from all over the world.

Werkman was inspired by the avant-garde – Dada, Constructivism and De Stijl – but he wasn’t trying to change the world or impose a new typographic vision. In fact whereas other designers forced the letterpress process to achieve their designs, Werkman allowed the design to emerge from the process of printing: “Do you know the difference between me and the others? They are designers who do not work at a press and instead leave the production to others, while I produce designs during the course of printing.”

By the 1930s, Werkman was “hot printing” as he called it, ‘painting’ with rollers and using stencils and cut-outs. When Germany invaded the Netherlands and materials became scarce (every printer had to give up 200kg of metal type to make bullets) he worked with friends on a new subversive publication called De Blauwe Schuit (The Blue Barge) and two Chassidische legenden (Hasidic legends) portfolios. By this time there were almost no typographic elements in his work. In March 1945 he was arrested, probably for his sympathy towards the Jews, and his works were denounced as ‘Bolshevik art. He was executed by firing squad just a few days before Groningen was liberated by the Canadians.

H.N. Werkman, violist en publiek, 1942, Groninger Museum

Caption: H.N. Werkman, violist en publiek, 1942, Groninger Museum

Hendrik Werkman has been enormously influential. Paul Rand was an early fan and Graham Wood of graphic design group Tomato wrote that The Next Call was as “vital and alive as any typography since, with more heart and soul than anything resembling it today.” But if it’s not your cup of tea, then you’re not alone. Richard Hollis describes his work as a “mockery of professional craft standards” and that “Werkman’s uninhibited graphic invention has been an inspiration to graphic designers anxious to introduce an obviously ‘creative’ effect”. It would certainly be easy to produce prints that rip off Werkman’s ideas. But remember that Werkman was able to print ‘properly’ – it was how he made his living, even if his heart wasn’t always in it. However, at a time when other designers were stressing the importance of ‘pure communication’ and functionalism, Werkman used letterpress techniques to show that playfulness is an essential part of design. Werkman was, as Herbert Spencer put it, “honest, simple, contemplative yet passionate – and above all, intensely human.”

For further information see HN Werkman by Alston Purvis, published (2004) by Laurence King.
This article was written for Small Printer, the magazine of the British Printing Society.