Some of you already know that I took December and January off of work to finish up a portfolio of my typography and apply to the Type & Media Master program at the Royal Dutch Academy of Art in The Hague (Koninklijke Academie van Beeldende Kunsten, or KABK for short). You can read about a typical week there or about the history of the program. I flew out to the Netherlands last week to go to the KABK Open Day (Dag), be interviewed by the professors, and meet current and other prospective students.
Approximately eight billion people have demanded a blow-by-blow account, so here it is.
The Hague is a city of about four hundred thousand people. The center of town is dotted with embassies and, like most European cities, crisscrossed by narrow cobblestone streets and filled with churches and buildings twice as old as the nation that I’m a citizen of.
Because of severe jet lag, I didn’t have much time to check out the city. But The Hague is home to Escher in Het Palais (Escher in The Palace), a fabulous museum with three floors of work by that original M.C., the Dutch artist and “intuitive mathematician” Maurits Cornelis Escher. You’ve probably seen Escher’s work in books and posters, but you haven’t really experienced it until you’ve seen it up close. Among others, they have prints of Three Worlds, Puddle, Tetrahedral Planetoid, and his masterpiece Snakes, made just months before he died.
The beach district of Scheveningen is a summer tourist destination. I took a trip out there on the tram (by the way, all of The Netherlands has a unified public transit system). It felt like a cross between Santa Cruz and Kowloon, a beach, boardwalk, and pier, with a few casinos, expensive restaurants and hotels (including the beautiful Kurhaus), and a string of shopping malls. There were lots of people out, including surfers, a group of about thirty pit-bulls and their owners walking on the beach together, and some sort of motorcycle show. I’m sure it’s a nice spot to get away to when it’s not 0˚C with a wind chill of -4˚C1.
On Saturday I visited the school. Jan Willem Stas, the program director, and most of the current students were there to talk to. The typographers Erik van Blokland and Peter Verheul dispassionately listened to me present my portfolio and interviewed me. They conveyed no opinion either way about my work, and they were interviewing people all day long, so the best I can hope for is that I stood out a little bit. They are expecting about a hundred and twenty applications for a program that only takes eleven students each year, so the competition is steep.
I also met, briefly, Petr van Blokland, who teaches in the Graphic Design program at the school, and saw but did not get a chance to meet Paul van der Lans and Just van Rossum (yes, brother to Guido van Rossum), who also teach there.
I spent the rest of the time meeting and talking to the current students, and to a few of the other prospective students. My amateur typographic eye was extremely impressed with the quality of both the current and prospective students’ work. Several of the students had insightful, constructive criticism about my portfolio2, which was exciting and humbling. All of the students spoke very highly of the program and the professors.
KABK is also an undergraduate art school, and the entire school was participating in the open day. I toured the art/science, graphic design, industrial design, fine art, letterpress, photography, textiles/fashion design, and interactive media departments. I was impressed by all of it; It looks like a great environment. The letterpress students were letting people select a font—a real font, from a drawer, made out of lead—and print their names on the press. All the current Type & Media students were quick to inform me, however, that I’d be so busy with the Type & Media program that I wouldn’t have time to do anything else. Kinda like the first year of the Linguistics Master’s at UC Santa Cruz.
They plan to tell people in March, but the current students said I shouldn’t expect hear back from them until April or May, and one of this year’s students didn’t find out he’d been accepted until June. One student said the Dutch are very lax about deadlines and bureaucracy. That sounds refreshingly different from the academic system in the States, where everything revolves around filling out the correct paperwork in triplicate using a blue or black ballpoint pen and having it postmarked by the appropriate deadline, and if you screw up, you have to wait until next year.
Everyone was blown away that I flew from California to Europe just for the open day, but if I hadn’t flown out I would be applying completely blindly without knowing much about the program, the school, or the city. And I now know that the competition for the program is extremely tough, which helps me to be realistic about my chances (i.e. not great). While I have lots of friends who have a passing interest in typography, and while I’ve corresponded with other typographers online, I’d never actually met anyone else face-to-face who’d designed a typeface before. That alone made the trip worth it.