Tribute to a most singular man – Godfried Konings, graphic designer (1962-2016)

In July 2016, a disastrous and fatal accident ended the life of Godfried Konings at a moment his life was turning around and daring plans had been laid out for an uncommon, even unknown future of himself, his wife Arian Roefs, and his children Iza and Jan, then respectively thirteen and eleven years old. Earlier in 2016 they had sold their home in the mountains above Santa Fe, New Mexico. The plans were to buy a motor home and travel, to be on the road in the good old American tradition of Woody Guthrie, Ernie Pyle, Jack Kerouac, William Least Heat-Moon and who not – to discover more of the wide open spaces and the magnificent natural possessions of the country that had drawn Godfried and Arian away from the Netherlands. “A couple of years of travel, definitely,” Godfried did not hesitate to say. There had been long discussions, hours bent over road maps, visits to motor home sellers. The kids had said farewell to the school they loved and their Santa Fe friends. “It wasn’t easy for them, but they agree with, and look forward to being (motor)home-schooled kids in the future, and learning more about America, nature, industry and life while visiting National Parks and other sites of excellence.” This was not just the father speaking – I listened to what the kids themselves had to add and I observed their curiosity while researching the journey, and they too were oh so eager to enter this new phase.

But first Iza and Jan would be shown the places in Europe where Godfried and Arian had grown up, studied, worked, and vacationed before their offspring was born. They spent a few months exploring France; they rented an apartment in Paris. Long weeks on the beaches of Brittany followed, where they went surfing from sunrise to sunset. Then the journey went to the Netherlands, to Brabant province, to visit family members and to introduce Iza and Jan to more locations from Godfried and Arian’s own youth. It was during the family visit that Godfried had his accident. He was fifty-three years old, had been with Arian since they were both teens in Brabant; he was too young to die, too great a father to disappear; and he was an outstanding graphic designer to boot.    

Really, I’d rather not write in the past tense about Godfried Konings. Not yet. Later. First, I want to tell about his daughter Iza who is on her way to become a creative creature herself, and about his son Jan who has the potential to become a great soccer player or a downhill skier of fame, if not an inventive engineer or, maybe, an industrial designer.

Iza is my granddaughter, sort of. I have known her since she was just one year old, then already a very Dutch blonde. Not much later she began to show a great intellect, to display great creativity and to conquer anyone with a great smile beneath steady eyes no one can forget. As you see, I think she is great. I love her. One day, I picked her up at kindergarten when she was not yet six and had politely requested to be taken out to dinner at a sushi place. She proved to be the most expensive blonde I took to a Japanese restaurant, ever, for she kept ordering new selections of sushi, plate after plate, as if they did not cost me an arm and a leg. Iza reads (a lot), plays the violin, cooks well, and acts out on stage without a shadow of hesitation all characters’ roles in a play she has written herself.

Jan the sportsman is a thinker as well, which is possibly the reason why he excels at sports. Agile, daring, deeply motivated he stands out in the field or on the slope. He can look at someone, including me, with clear questions in his eyes: who are you? what moves you? why are you saying this or that? He is playful, too, but while he plays not much escapes his attention. And he is developing the same sort of rather detached sense of humor his father Godfried cherished. Even if he was born in the US and in a way is the more American of the two siblings, his approach to life shows strong Dutch influences: he is rational, the sort of guy who knows he has to measure before grabbing his tool and starting to saw; he knows how to put things in cool perspective. He is a cool guy with a cool future ahead of him.

“Iza and Jan,” Godfried could often be heard saying, “they are the pride of my life, my best design products.” That may be true, but this doesn’t indicate that Godfried’s graphic designs were of a negligible quality.

I met Godfried ten years after he and Arian had emigrated from the Netherlands to America. They and my wife Ans and I left Holland in the same year, 1994. They first settled in New York City; we began our odyssey in the western states. We eventually met in New Mexico because a mutual acquaintance thought “these Dutch guys” should meet. Surprise: I learned that Godfried had been an intern at the design studios in Amsterdam where I, one of the partners, was just about to leave for another endeavor sometime in 1986. I did not remember him, but he remembered me. We found we had lots of mutual acquaintances and former colleagues to gossip about. And we became friends who tried to get together as much as possible in New Mexico to drink beer and cognac and criticize in a very Dutch way called “kankeren” first the country we originated from, then the country where we had decided to settle, or vice versa. We agreed on each and every detail, and late at night we would drive home, he to his split-level house down from the ski valley north of Santa Fe, I to my high desert abode near Abiquiu, both feeling very content with our shared world view and knowing without the slightest of doubts our opinion was the only just one. I miss those evenings. I was looking forward to him, with Arian and Iza and Jan, knocking on the door of my new home, back in old Europe, to share long days of talking and talking and laughing and laughing. Iza and Jan meanwhile would ride the surf north of Nazaré in Portugal’s Atlantic Ocean.

Godfried was educated at St. Joost Art Academy in Breda, the Netherlands, at that time offering the best graphic design education in northern Europe. He and Arian worked in Amsterdam for a while before they were tempted to move to New York City. In Manhattan, Godfried’s creativity was soon discovered; he was commissioned by a couple of financial institutions such as JP Morgan to create annual reports, brochures, and corporate identity programs. After he and Arian moved to Santa Fe they started ARGK Graphic Design, Interactive Design, Identity Branding as a joint venture, and worked for the Santa Fe Art Institute, the Forest Guild, the New Mexico State Investment Council, and other New Mexico clients; a few of his East Coast connections, such as UBS, kept commissioning him. A few years later he, with Arian, who is a marketing expert, started a second company called OOTS!

Initially, Made by OOTS! ™ was a design and marketing company of products aimed at children. Godfried designed, Arian after coordinating production in China and Vietnam sold — to market leaders such as Anthropology, Container Store, Land of Nod, Barnes & Noble, AllModern, and many American museum stores, as well as through Amazon. The “All American Classic” yet eco-friendly lunchbox became one of their acclaimed products and was presented by Oprah Winfrey, in the Today Show, in the New York Times, and elsewhere. After their first successful years they extended their product range with more “Dutch Design,” this time also by young designers such as Suseela Gorter (‘Flat Flowers’), and by Tom Welling (‘ByeByePet’) and Ben Fritz, who created a smart ‘Woodmobiel’ that can be turned into different life-size vehicles or structures by kids themselves.  The product was a success with kids and (grand) parents alike, with (pre) schools as well as aftercare facilities. Before introducing the Woodmobiel in America, Iza and Jan were involved with the test audience.

“Dutch Design” has quite a name around the world. The Dutch were great font designers ever since the printing press was invented and graphic communication pioneers from the moment publications started to reach larger publics, way before WWII. Art, architecture and design already received broad support from the national government in the 1930s. Most famous is the promotion by the former PTT, Dutch post office and telephone services, whose policy to engage young and expert visionaries over the years brought about an immense treasure of unconventional art, architecture, product design, and well-designed print that became an inspiration for other government agencies and for the private sector. As a result the Dutch art and design climate was envied by colleague artists and designers in many other countries, and “Dutch Design” became an international trademark worth money in the bank. “I do miss this favorable climate,” said Godfried. “It allows for perfection, experimentation, innovation—a permanent feeling of momentum—and it delivers so much efficient beauty … It stimulates an ever present avant-garde.”

There proved to be a market for his Dutch design in New York, but also in New Mexico. “We were planning to have kids,” Arian says, “and looking for a different kind of ‘peaceful romance’ than available on the East Coast. The desert had always attracted us.” Arian and Godfried, now Green Card holders: permanent US residents, decided to resettle in Santa Fe. In this “second most important American art town,” as it is known (although its reality is a little less impressive and is sometimes called ‘Santa Fake’), Godfried’s qualities were soon recognized by the Santa Fe Art Institute and several art galleries as well as local companies.

He steady on created an oeuvre that indeed stood out by clearness, directness, elegance and communicative power, although, as said Godfried, “The battle for good, distinctive design is a tough one in America. Quality is not easily recognized, nor understood sufficiently to be decently rewarded. Of course the graphic programs available for the computer and being used widely nowadays by people without any background in design, without a notion of visual art or communication techniques, kill quality; these ‘designs’ are easily available and cheap, and cheap is what counts most in America. As a consequence, everything begins to resemble anything. This development is really damaging the design profession.” In the end, the narrow scope of creative graphic design in the Southwest led to his enthusiast support of the family’s decision to fulfill the old dream and get “on the road.”

Looking at Godfried’s oeuvre, what strikes me is its airiness, its light-heartedness. There is nothing of flippancy, though; his careful handling of typography, his thought-through arrangements of typography and images, his use of background colors, the simplicity of his compositions — all elements are well-planned to lead to a pleasant print or web product, easy to read, intriguing to look at, or efficient to work with. Is it “Dutch Design”? Yes. A few “Americanisms” may him be forgiven; if his competence was not primarily built on marketing techniques and his inclination was to disregard “populism,” under Arian’s supervision Godfried learned to grow more patient with the narrowness of vision reigning some clients and to look for clever solutions importing high quality into the products notwithstanding meanwhile fulfilling their more basic demands.

And now Godfried is gone. Much too soon. His design oeuvre ánd his two super-cool children give testimony of his appreciation of high standards in work and life. Quality determined his nature and behavior.  There was no low station in Godfried’s professional and personal life; he was a most singular man.

Ton Haak, Tomar, Portugal (2017)