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Ootje Oxenaar – The Art and Application of Banknote Design

Ootje Oxenaar - The Art and Application of Banknote Design

By Phil Arnold for PCGS ……
On a dreary April morning in 1998, I was blearily wandering through the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. I was just 17 years old at the time, and I was fortunate enough to be part of a high school music trip to Holland. Despite my interest in visual arts and in Van Gogh, I was just too jet-lagged to enjoy the museum. Yet undoubtedly, I saw some of Van Gogh’s most famous works, including his prolific studies of sunflowers. Even in his own time, Van Gogh was known as a painter of sunflowers, and at the tragic end of his life, his friends brought these flowers to his funeral.

Today, Van Gogh’s sunflowers appear on teacups, shoes, tote bags, posters, and countless other items. It’s an indelible facet of Dutch culture known around the world.

Later that day the clouds had lifted. Following an afternoon of riding trams and exploring kitschy paraphernalia shops that we weren’t yet allowed to go into back home, our troupe of Canadian students were loitering outside our hostel near Dam Square. We were examining some of the unusual Dutch banknotes we had gathered. One girl had a note that caught my eye, and I asked her if I could take a closer look. I had never seen anything like it. I was mesmerized by this 50 Guilder work of art. Strikingly bold colors and unabashedly modern, but not in a cold way – in a beautiful and evocative way. The sunflowers on the banknote tapped into that Van Gogh cultural consciousness. Meanwhile, the color orange weaves throughout it – a color linked deeply to Dutch history as much as the colors red, white, and blue are for the United States of America. Without a portrait, and without a specific place or event depicted on the banknote, something special and uniquely Dutch was created.

This is the genius of Robert Deodaat Emile (Ootje) Oxenaar’s banknote designs.

“Ah, Mr. Oxenaar, as usual!” Was a phrase that was certainly uttered more than once during Oxenaar’s development as a graphic designer. Despite the artist’s middle-class upbringing by a businessman father with a long, proud military background, his more free-thinking mother gave Ootje and his brother Ruut the freedom to follow their own unique academic paths in life. Although Ootje had an incomplete secondary education, in part due to the chaos of the Second World War, he nonetheless was accepted into the Hague Art Academy in 1947.

His ethos as a student is best summed up in Els Kuijpers’ retrospective RDE Oxenaar: Designer + Commissioner:

“The artist’s mentality […] was expressed in a certain disdain regarding the regulated, routine existence of the bourgeoise and their standards of decency. Instead, it proposed a new art of life that transgressed the boundaries of everyday existence with its jokes and pranks and experiments with love and drink.”

Time and again throughout his career Oxenaar would push back against institutions and the we’ve-always-done-it-this-way attitude that held back expression amid bureaucracy.

After years of establishing himself as an innovative designer, particularly with his bold modernistic drawings, wry caricatures, and the deft typography of his bookwork, Ootje was accepted into the prestigious, if not stodgy, Association of Practitioners of Applied Arts (GKf) in the mid-1960s. Here, there were opportunities outside of commercial work, like books, and more into the governmental and cultural applications of graphic design – for example, the layout and appearance of bank checks, or the design and public awareness campaign of census forms.

It was also at this time that he began a decades-long stint designing postage stamps. This was a spark that led him to his most enduring legacy: his banknotes. “I like color, I like typography, I like the rhythm of lettering and playing around in pages, I like textures very much, and I like to work on a small scale. Banknotes and stamps work very well for me.”

Ootje had the opportunity to design his first banknote for De Nederlandsche Bank (DNB) in 1964 when the bank commissioned three designers to submit sketches for their new 5 Guilder note featuring poet and playwright Joost van den Vondel. Having won against his competitors with a design he initially thought was good, he commenced work with the DNB in the autumn of 1965 on what must have seemed like an exciting project.

“[It] was a real failure.” Ootje later recalled. “It was an awful design. Why? Because it was all new to me and I found myself in a strange position with the printing works, not the bank which develops the techniques, but the printing works.” The printers left Ootje in the dark, told him certain things had to be a certain way, and ultimately totally compromised his initial design for the sake of “security reasons”. But this was an important lesson for Oxenaar: He now knew how to make a banknote.

Ootje Oxenaar - The Art and Application of Banknote Design
This is Ootje’s first banknote, which he considered a failure. This banknote included a new anti-counterfeiting element: the oval targets in the center of the note. This was a see-through register or quality check whereby the targets align when held to the light, assuring the quality of the print. Oxenaar redesigned this element in the next series.

When the DNB returned and offered a commission to redesign a whole series of banknotes, Ootje told them he needed all the printer’s secrets when it comes to security elements beforehand so he could even begin a decent design. After that, it would be a top-down approach: all the features comport to the primary design, and not the other way around. It was a bold request, and he made a point to go all the way to the DNB president with his case. His response, according to Oxenaar, was, “Your arguments are sound. It’s your profession and my things [security elements] are in it, and if it is safe, OK. Your arguments are very intelligent and very reasonable, so I accept them.”

Ootje was set to revolutionize banknote design.

In 2012 De Nederlandsche Bank released a treatise called Designing Banknote Identity. It retrospectively defined the rules Oxenaar set forth when establishing his banknote series:

  • Reflect a Dutch, or at least not an un-Dutch character
  • Exude some happiness and a degree of humor
  • Express the time we live in (without being trendy or over-progressive)
  • Be contemporary
  • Not show living individual
  • No bias to religion
  • Be dignified
  • Be dynamic (as opposed to static)
  • Be representative of its value

That was the underlying framework, but what was Ootje’s inspiration for this new series of banknotes? For a long time, I’ve occasionally heard foreign banknotes derisively referred to as “Monopoly money”. In this case, believe it or not, there’s a huge element of truth to the characterization.

“The only banknotes that really inspired me, in fact, was play money, like the Monopoly money, and that is what I think is necessary for banknotes, too. I made things that you can easily see what you have in your hands, you can easily see they’re very clear, they have a clear typography, they have a clear color.”

The first banknote in this new series was a 10 Guilder note depicting Dutch Golden Age painter Frans Hals. Even to a modern viewer, Frans Hals’ paintings, with their bold painterly brushstrokes, have a spark of life and vitality that stands apart from the demure portraiture of the 17th century. A fitting subject for Ootje’s new project.

One of Ootje’s first goals was to introduce bright colors into the banknote. He had long felt that banknotes from around the world, including his own prior attempt, had a “muddy” appearance. When asking the printers, the excuse was that the banknote needed to have black ink for security reasons. And besides, it had always been done like that. Investigating further by interacting with ink and pigment makers, he discovered the opposite was true; having a clear, identifiable color was more advantageous not only in terms of having a stand-out design but also from a security standpoint.

The new banknote contained cutting-edge innovations for the time. Dry offset printing was newly developed. This allowed for color gradients to be available in the printing process, which would have been difficult for conventional reproduction to duplicate at the time; the result of a counterfeit being color strips rather than a clear gradient.

The redesigned see-through register (the “television screen” on the top right of the banknote) contains printing quality checks and a device for sorting machines to detect intaglio ink. Oxenaar felt it better to have these technical aspects out in front for the purposes of functionality, rather than try and hide them in the design. The banknote was also the first in the world to have OCR-B for automatic number reading.

Ootje Oxenaar - The Art and Application of Banknote Design
Left: The 1968 Frans Hals banknote also used vector-plotting with computers in the design. The reverses in the series, such as this abstract “Cornucopia,” made full use of the new technology. Another innovation for accessibility is the dot pattern on the bottom left of the obverse and a raised-ink aid for the visually impaired. Right: The 1971 25 Guilder banknote featuring composer Jan Pietersz Sweelinck. Reverse: Abstract waves.

One thing that is abundantly clear when first seeing Oxenaar’s new series is that the portraits are caricatures. Physical features are exaggerated, making the faces very distinct, almost comical. Oxenaar was straddling a very fine line with this humorous element. Bold colors? Caricatures? Is this a banknote or a cartoon? One way I feel Ootje dialed things back was in his artistic technique. He personally engraved the portraits like that of Sweelinck in wood relief himself. A distinctive, traditional, centuries-old technique and style, but blended creatively in a modern banknote next to early computer vector art and the still-new (in 1968) Helvetica typeface.

Ootje didn’t stop at merely shattering conventions. He also played some pranks, unbeknownst to the printers or the DNB.

While not really condoned, and even looked down upon, he nonetheless just kept doing it and getting away with it. The first was in his first Vondel banknote. He had placed his name somewhere in the altar on the reverse with the “Holy things”. He hid this too well for me to find, but further pranks would get more brazen.

“It became a sport for me,” he said.

On his final banknote (we’ll get to that in a bit), he hid the names of three much-loved women in microprinting in the roof of the lighthouse: his granddaughter Hanna, his girlfriend Ria, and a secret friend.

Top Left: Oxenaar remade his Vondel banknote to match the new series in 1973. Bottom Left and Right (close up view): Oxenaar’s subversive 1000 gulden note.

His most notorious prank would be on the 1972 1,000 Guilder banknote. Computers were only just starting to push the boundaries of creative possibilities, and with that opportunity Ootje perhaps went a bit too far.

“I put something personal into this, my fingerprint in the hair of one of the world’s most important philosophers, Spinoza. Very unholy of me, not very nice.”

I’ve seen conflicting sources describe this as a thumbprint, and one source reports it as his middle finger in Spinoza’s hair. Quite a statement. It could possibly be both, for on the left I see a print in the tented arch fingerprint pattern, and on the right, I see a radial loop fingerprint pattern. Does the second print belong to someone else? We may never know the full truth behind this prank.

The DNB took extraordinary and innovative security steps at this time, but the battle against counterfeiting is a never-ending one. Sooner or later, someone takes the time and effort to produce a quality counterfeit. Such was the case for the 1970 100 Guilder banknote. The DNB needed an emergency replacement, and fast. But who would replace the old Admiral on the new 100?

1970 note featuring Admiral Michiel Adriaenszoon de Ruyter.

The bank asked the public for their input. Who could be among the illustrious forbearers such as those already depicted in Dutch banknotes? The bank was in for a surprise.

“After we conducted some polls, it was clear that nobody knew who these people were.” Ootje recalled. Possibly at their wit’s end, the bank told Ootje, “You know so well what’s good and bad. Think something out for us.”

Ootje’s solution? Why bother with a portrait at all? Abandoning a traditional portrait would be a major first for European banknotes, and many nations soon followed suit.

100 Gulden note.

The new note, the first of the Nature series, depicted an endangered snipe. Its main new security feature was that the center of the note contained a screen trap: concentric circles so finely printed that an attempt to reproduce the note would result in an obvious moiré pattern. Technical features aside, the banknote was an instant hit with the public. Much like how Canada’s Loon Dollar coin became known as a “Loonie”, to the Dutch a 100 Guilder banknote became ubiquitously as a “Snip”.

“After the Snip’s success, I could propose anything I wanted.” Ootje later said.

Oxenaar’s next banknote (made with designer Hans Kruit) would be the sunflower of 1982, the banknote that caught my eye back in 1998. It contains some of the hallmarks of the previous Forebears series, such as some of the register checks, but they are more integrated into this design. Ootje recalled in a lecture on the note, “The bee was originally in another spot, but it had not been glued properly, and it started moving inside the plastic folder. It landed on the flower by accident, and that’s where it stayed. It flew there all by itself.”

His final banknote was the 250 Guilder Lighthouse banknote, released in 1986 and considered by some the most beautiful banknote ever. Breaking convention once more, the banknote is notable for the obverse’s vertical orientation. Oxenaar stated that since the Dutch live along the coast, below sea level, and under the dikes, a lighthouse is a symbol of strength and of a certain safeness. The reverse, which was also designed with the help of Hans Kruit, shows all the lighthouses in Holland in very small lettering. No portrait, no politics, but a true sense of home.

As counterfeiters became more sophisticated, Ootje’s banknotes started going out of circulation in the 1990s. The new replacement series of the ‘90s was designed by Jaap Drupsteen, who took the non-representational model to a new level with complete abstraction. However, Drupsteen would take a bottom-up approach to banknote design – his designs would change due to printing requirements. The opposite of Oxenaar’s approach.

Today, the guilder has long since disappeared from circulation because of the Euro. Ootje did submit designs for the common currency, and while they were not taken up, the circulating Euro notes do feature the portrait-free approach that he pioneered with the Snip note.

However, Oxenaar’s cultural impact remains. When polled, Ootje’s banknote designs still rank as the most beautiful in the eyes of the Dutch public, particularly the lighthouse design. They still stir up a sense of happiness, as was Ootje’s aim in his design philosophy.

There is a specific word in Dutch that’s been used to describe the feelings of sentimentality and comfort Robert Deodaat Emile Oxenaar’s banknote designs still evoke: Sinterklaasgevoel – literally, “Santa Claus feeling”. What a cultural gift to have given to one’s countrypersons.

Drupsteen’s abstract 10 Guilder (1997) among some of my old snapshots from 1998.

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