The prolific founder of Werkplaats Typografie, Karel Martens focuses on the design of the Dutch architectural magazine OASE in his 1999 conversation with Peter Biľak.

When Karel Martens began studying art in Holland in the late 1950s, “graphic design” did not even exist as its own course of study. Today he is widely recognized as one of the most important practitioners of that very discipline.

A recent solo exhibition at the New York art gallery P! featured a wall-covering modular system, that extends his nearly 60 year experimentation with color, overprinting, patterning, and time. It also echoes earlier work with grids, which he speaks about in this interview.

Karel Martens Recent Work at P!, New York
Karel Martens Recent Work at P!, New York

In his work, Karel Martens embraces both freedom and order. He finds inspiration in the limitations of the profession and turns obstacles into challenges. OASE, a Dutch architectural journal, is an illustration of how designer can maneuver in the narrow field of graphic design production. OASE balances between book and a magazine and each new issue reinvents its forms to surprise its readers. Karel Martens gave OASE a clear direction and convincingly makes a magazine that is both modest and luxurious, making one believe that a low-budget publication is in fact a precious object to be collected. A grid became a fascinating element for Karel Martens. The most basic element in graphic design is given an active role that reflects the tone of the magazine. Karel is the founder of Werkplaats Typografie in Arnhem.

Sketch by Karel Martens for OASE magazine No.34 and 36
Sketch by Karel Martens for OASE magazine No.34 and 36

When did you start working on OASE magazine?

The first issue that I did was in 1990. Before it was a magazine of a different format, A4 size.

Did you suggested a new size?
Yes. The magazine has quite a theoretical approach, so used this book format. Before was just loose papers, where students would hand their type-written essays. It looked very nice, I liked it, but it was a bit problematic to continue this way, so I decided to change it.

And the change was using a book format rather then using a conventional magazine format?
There was a lot of text, and not so many images. It was easier to read in a new format.

What is the size of the OASE magazine? It is related to the maximum size of the sheet?
Yes, 24×17 cm it is the most economical size for the 50×70cm presses in the Netherlands. It is very economical, however, you cannot bleed on all sides. I have to adjust the design to this as well, so we move all the images up on the sheet.

When you started working on OASE did you design a fixed grid for the future issues?
For me the grid is an instrument that allows me to work with books. Very often it is a flexible grid so I am not too constrained, I still have to take decisions about placing text and images.

Grid of the OASE No.28
Grid of the OASE No.28 (rotated 90 degrees)

Has the grid changed since the first issue? How was the grid evolving as the magazine was growing up?
Yes, The 6×2 mm grid changed. When the production of OASE changed, and now we are doing it fully in-house, the grid changed. Now it is made completely on the Macintosh and this offers much more opportunities to play with columns, type and the margins.

I spent some time looking at OASE trying to follow the internal structure of the magazine. I had an impression that the grid is changing with every issue, as well as paper and typefaces. But those changes are so subtle that you don’t see them from issue to issue, you need to see a series them to compare the first one and the latest one and only then can one see the changes.
That’s true. As basic typefaces I am trying to stick with Monotype Grotesque and Janson, but there are exceptions. The grid is also changing when the format is changing [an issue on poetry and architecture has a different size]. The grid, and the division of the grid, depends on the complexity of the issue. The last two issues are bilingual, so I had to adapt the grid to accommodate more text. We are now doing an issue of OASE [issue 49] and we made the Dutch and the English text equal. This requires a change in grid too.

Did you add more pages when OASE became bilingual?
No, and that was the problem. The editor wanted to have the English translation, and asked me to put it in the back of the magazine. However, for me it was a nice opportunity to combine both languages, but they did not offer me more pages. The type was getting smaller and smaller.

So there is twice as much text now, but the same amount of pages?
[laughs] …exactly…

It seems that you turn all the technical constrains and limitations to an advantage, and there is no visible aesthetic compromise in OASE, all the issues work well with all these limitations.
Limitations are an important thing in design in general because they offer solutions.

You seem to almost enjoy those limitations.
It’s not that I would ask for them, but I am always trying to find my space when working on a project. There are not so many limitations as in the past, I feel more flexible, and it is easier. OASE is a very low-budget publication, and I know that if I change the paper, I will probable be able to add one more colour on the cover, or if I reduce the size I could add more pages. For me, from the beginning, it was important to realise that it is always the same audience that reads OASE, and they don’t really want to have always the same magazine with just a different cover. It is the same as if I would have invited a guest to my house and prepare a wonderful meal. They enjoy it, but if they come next time, I cannot prepare the same meal again. It is more respectful to the public to always prepare something unique. They look forward for the next issue.

How did OASE change when you worked on it with your students? Before it was much more of your individual job, now, the latest issue you designed together with Stuart Bailey and Patrick Coppens. How did it affect the process?
There is not much difference. Of course now the work is much more of a dialogue, Stuart and Patrick have different visions, and this is their contribution to the magazine, but essentially there is not a big change. We are trying to make it a game. We are not doing these kind of commissions for money. As I mentioned it is very low-budget magazine. So my honorarium has to come from a nice result. For me it is important to be involved with architecture, a field that is very close to design, I enjoy reading all the articles. It is a free time job. I let the content decide how the magazine is going to look.

Sketch for the spine of OASE No.32
Sketch for the spine of OASE No.32

You’ve been working on OASE for 8 years. Do you see a direction in which the magazine is going, or is it hard to predict because it is so much driven by its content?
I don’t know. I approach it differently every time. You can see it on the OASE logos. There isn’t one. Each issue is treated individually. I am completely free in designing the magazine, it is an issue of trust between the publisher and us.

How much are you involved in making the editorial decisions?
Not so much, I am not as intellectual as the other people involved in the magazine…

… but you were very influential for the magazine, you always propose the covers, you suggested the bilingual solutions, you discuss the articles…
… of course, I read all the articles and talk about them,
I choose the visuals, but I am not active in deciding about the future of OASE, this is not my worry.

When I saw OASE for the first time I thought it looked very Dutch. When I’ve seen later issues this feeling was only reaffirmed. What do you think makes it look and feel so Dutch?
That’s funny, I would also like to know…

Maybe it is the diversity of forms, this plurality that allows you to decide each time individually…
… yeah, perhaps… perhaps it is the flexibility of a small country. In big countries I see more constrains than here in the Netherlands. I don’t know.

OK, the last thing I’d like to ask, is a thing that all the people that know you want to ask but they don’t dare, and that’s the origin of your famous chinese-indigo blue jacket. Where does it come from?
[laughs] That’s not so special… I bought it first 15 years ago, I like it for all the pockets it has, and it is so light. I now buy them in Paris, last time I bought 3 of them…

[First appeared in the Dutch magazine OHNO, no. 1 (1999); re-published by Typotheque in 2004].