The Printed Book
February 2012
The Printed Book: A Visual History
Bijzondere Collecties, Universiteit van Amsterdam (UVA)

‘The Printed Book: A Visual History’ was an exhibition that took place between February 8 and May 13, 2012, at Bijzondere Collecties (the ‘Special Collections’ department of the library of the University of Amsterdam). The exhibition basically consisted of a three-room display of 130 books from the collection of the library of the University of Amsterdam, as selected by curator Mathieu Lommen. As for ourselves – we were responsible for the design of the exhibition, and for the surrounding printed matter (but not for the design of The Book of Books, which was developed separately from the exhibition).
Thinking about possible ways of displaying books in a spatial way, we were reminded of a particular image we came across a while ago – the Dewey Decimal System, represented as a map. As most of you might know, the Dewey Decimal System is a classification system for books, developed by Melvil Dewey in 1876, and still in use in libraries all over the world. We’ve always liked the way in which this decimal system is sometimes depicted graphically – almost as a wheel of information, with knowledge radiating from the centre. The online map we stumbled upon (at takes this concept one step further, and turns it into an geographic depiction of a landscape:
Our plan was to translate this idea (the Dewey System made spatial) into a ground-plan for the exhibition. We could already envision these long, diagonal lines, breaking through the three rooms of the traditional exhibition space. We also realized that the schematic depiction of the Dewey System actually resembled the shape of an opened book:
In short, our idea for the exhibition was to translate these schematic representations into actual spatial structures. We imagined long showcases, laid out in space as light, radiating beams, literally breaking through the walls of the traditional rooms. Shown below one of the many maquettes (scale models) we made to explore this idea:
We envisioned these showcases to be long, light, custom-made tables, incorporating devices for the display of specific books. Here's another one of the many maquettes that we made around that time:
In short, we wanted to display all the books on these long tables, and leave the already-existing vitrines (mounted to the official walls) untouched, and empty. Our idea was to regard the exhibition as a completely separate structure, superimposed on top of the existing rooms. (Since the original plan was that this show would become a travelling exhibition, we thought this made perfect sense – to just ignore the existing vitrines, and to create an exhibition that could exist independently of the given space, so that it could be easily transported to other spaces).
However, after our first presentation to the board, we realized that our initial plan wouldn’t be possible. They strongly urged us to (also) use the existing, traditional vitrines, and left us with no other choice than to come up with another concept.

Our next plan revolved around the idea of two systems, clashing in space. In the already-existing, traditional vitrines, we would display a selection of books in chronological order – while on the long, light tables, we would show a selection of books organized according to Dewey. So the exhibition model was really based on the physical and spatial clash between two systems, two ways of organizing books (and two exhibition models – theirs and ours). This plan eventually turned out the one being realized:
printedbook-exh-1Exhibition view. Click on any of the images to see more. printedbook-exh-2
To emphasize the fact that these two systems actually overlap, we also incorporated some ‘dummies’ – empty boxes functioning as ‘stand-in’ books. The books shown on the long tables (in the Dewey section) actually appeared to be ‘robbed’ from the traditional vitrines, as in these vitrines, empty dummies replaced the missing books. It’s difficult to explain in words, but hopefully the photos will be helpful:
printedbook-exh-4-small   printedbook-exh-6-small printedbook-exh-7-small   printedbook-exh-9-small
As part of the overall exhibition design, we also decided to add two artworks to the space.

We were aware of French artist Aurelien Froment’s beautiful film-installation ‘Fourdrinier Machine Interlude’ (as we saw the piece in 2011, in an art space in Milan), and we were very happy that Aurelien gave us permission to show the movie within the context of ‘The Printed Book’.
In short, ‘Fourdrinier Machine Interlude’ (2010) is an installation consisting of a 7-minute video, showing a replica version of an industrial paper machine currently on display in the Basel Paper Museum. In a single motion, the camera follows the movement of the press, while a voice-over reflects on matters such as the shift from craft to industry and the invention of continuous production. This sequence is paused by a 3-minute piano interlude:
What we liked about the inclusion of this movie, within the context of ‘The Printed Book’, was the fact that the movie was projected on the last wall of the last room in such a way that it was visible (through the doorways) from all three rooms, serving as a constant reminder of the material dimension of printing.

The second artwork we included in the exhibition was a specially-commisoned series of photographs by Johannes Schwartz. In short, ‘Characters (2012) was a series consisting of six photos, displayed on separate panels. The subject matter of these photographs was the way in which human figures were represented in the books selected for this exhibition. By blowing up these figures life-size, the pages of the books are revealed as graphic mirrors of the human condition; they literally become 'bladspiegels’:
printedbook-exh-3-small printedbook-exh-8-small printedbook-exh-5-small printedbook-exh-15-small printedbook-exh-10-small printedbook-exh-11-small printedbook-exh-12-small printedbook-exh-13-small printedbook-exh-14-small   printedbook-exh-17-small
To navigate through the exhibition, we designed an A3-sized hand-out newspaper (printed by Dijkman Rotation, Amsterdam). The first part of the hand-out consisted of information about the books in chronological order, while the second part consisted of the books listed in ‘Deweyan’ order. On the back-cover of the publication, these two systems were printed on top of each other, to illustrate the idea of two clashing systems.
Printed-book-paper1-small Printed-book-paper2-small Printed-book-paper3-small
In addition to the exhibition design, we also created the accompanying printed matter – several invitations, flyers, posters, window graphics, adverts, etc. We discuss a small selection of this material below.

In general, the printed matter was based on the same concept as the exhibition design – the idea that the beaming ‘rays’ of the Dewey Decimal System could also resemble the pages of an opened book. For the printed matter, we created some ‘photograms’ of opened books – and actually used these images in two ways, throughout the printed material: firstly, in an ‘open’ manner, showing the book as an empty grid, waiting to be filled. And secondly, in a ‘full’ manner, showing the grid filled with fragments of books (fragments we created in an collage-like way). To create a more differentiated graphic language, we used both of these versions (‘empty’ and ‘full’) next to each other. Also, we created several variations of the collage.

First of all, here is the A0-version of the poster (as silkscreened by Wyber Zeefdruk, Amsterdam). You’ll see the ‘empty’ poster, and the ‘full’ variation:
Some photographs of the A0-sized posters ‘in situ’, hanging in the streets of Amsterdam, can be found here (‘full’ version) and here (‘empty’ version).

Secondly, here’s the A2-version of the poster (offset-printed by Lenoirschuring, Amstelveen), for now only in in its ‘full’ incarnation:

The invitation consisted of an A5-sized brochure, featuring the ‘empty’ image of the book on the front and back, while the information was printed on the inside of the booklet. When unfolded, this A5-booklet turned into an A3-sized poster, featuring the ‘full’ image of the book. Shown below the front and back of the A3 sheet (offset-printed by Lenoirschuring, Amstelveen):

The flyer came in the form as a A5-sized card (again printed by Lenoirschuring), perforated in such a way that it could be used as two separate postcards. On the front of this A5-card, we showed both versions of the image (‘empty’ and ‘full’), while on the back, some general information could be found:

The above photographs of the exhibition (the ‘installation views’, so to speak) were made by Johannes Schwartz, for which we would like to thank him very much. Also special thanks to Mathieu Lommen, Ellen Borger, John Robben, Steph Scholten, Garrelt Verhoeven and the technical staff of Bijzondere Collecties.

As a final image, or rather as a footnote, here’s a photograph that never appeared in the exhibition as it eventually took place, but that was part of our initial sketching. In short, the photo was a sort of study, in which we tried to portray one single book (in this case, TMITM by McLuhan/Fiore) from different angles. The initial idea was to have a whole series of ‘book portraits’ like this. Anyway, the plan never went anywhere, and we never used it in the exhibition. Instead, we asked Johannes Schwartz to make a set of photographs for the exhibition (which eventually would become the ‘Characters’ series) – and obviously, asking Johannes turned out to be a much better idea. But just for the sake of completeness, here’s the photo we originally made:

( c ) 1997 – 2024