Museum Plantin-Moretus

By | September 23, 2012

Typographic Pilgrimage: Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp

At the Plantin-Moretus Museum visitors will find intact the old printing firm of Officina Plantiniana, under the sign of the Golden Compasses, established at this location in 1576 by its founder Christopher Plantin. The complex also includes the family’s historic home in the Flemish Renaissance style; an extensive collection of paintings and prints, including works by Peter Paul Rubens, who also designed title pages and illustrations for their books; an unprecedented archive of business and family records; and an impressive library containing 640 manuscripts and 25,000 volumes, including works printed on Officina Plantiniana presses as well as books printed throughout Europe. In addition to classical texts and religious works, such as missals and liturgical volumes, the printing house produced scientific treatises and significant books on the arts and humanism, many by the humanist Justus Lipsius.

After Plantin’s death in 1589, his son-in-law Jan Moretus I took over the business, which was then passed on to the most capable son for the next ten generations. In 1876, after 300 years of printing activity, Edward Moretus sold the entire building and its contents to the city of Antwerp with support from the Belgian State and the following year the Plantin-Moretus Museum opened its doors.

In July 2010, I visited the museum and was astonished by the authenticity of the sixteenth-century print shop, which boasts the world’s oldest printing presses dating from around 1600; type cases full of cast metal type; a collection of 4,500 punches and 16,000 matrices, some of which were produced by the Parisian Robert Granjon, one of the greatest type cutters during Plantin’s time; and an unequalled collection of woodcuts and copperplate engravings. Plantin pioneered the use of copperplate engraving as a technique for book illustration.

I found it interesting that the type foundry and foundry workshop were set apart on their own floor, called the foundry floor, which was located on the top level (or third floor) of the north wing. Those floors were laid in stone to reduce the risk of fire. Since the casting of type was normally contracted out to specialized firms, the foundry was used only at intervals from 1622 to 1660 and later from 1736 to 1760.

Among the most significant books in the Plantin-Moretus Museum collection is the three-volume Biblia Latina, the 36-line Bible, printed around 1460 in Bamberg, Germany, by Albrecht Pfister using type cast by Johannes Gutenberg. Only 14 copies still exist and this is the only copy in Belgium. Of the Officina Plantiniana accomplishments, Plantin’s Biblia Polyglotta, which he worked on from 1568 to 1573, is considered the greatest typographical undertaking of that century—an eight-volume scholarly edition of the Bible’s text in five languages: Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, and Aramaic. King Philip II of Spain financed the venture and sent the great Spanish theologian and humanist Benedictus Arias Montanus to Antwerp to supervise the project.

In July 2005, the Plantin-Moretus Museum was officially added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. In the words of Ludovicus Guicciardini, “As fair and wondrous as all that precedeth it is the great and splendid printing office of the royal printer Christopher Plantin, for, to this day, its like hath no compare in all Europe.” (Description of all the Netherlands as translated by Cornelius Kiliaan, Amsterdam, Willem Blaeu, 1612)

Entrance to the Plantin-Moretus Museum.

Entrance to the Plantin-Moretus Museum on the Vrijdagmarkt in Antwerp.

View of Heilige Geeststraat

View of Heilige Geeststraat.

Printing shop

The printing shop in the Plantin-Moretus Museum.


View of the courtyard.

View from foundry.

View overlooking the courtyard from the type foundry window.


De Nave, Francine. The Plantin-Moretus Museum, Printing and Publishing before 1800, Francine de Nave, Plantin-Moretus Museum, Antwerp, 2004.

De Nave, Francine, and Tijs, Dr. Rutger. The Plantin-Moretus House, Workshop, and Museum Complex: Building History, Antwerp, 2005.

De Rynck, Patrick. Guide to the Museum Plantin-Moretus Prentenkabinet, English edition, BAI, Antwerp, 2009.

Golden Ratio lends itself to fashion

By | January 6, 2011

Sisters use formula to find perfect fit

This article by Tanya Mannes with photos by John Gastaldo was published in the Thursday, April 15, 2010, edition of The San Diego Union-Tribune and caught my eye because my husband, Calvin Woo, and I are fascinated by the golden mean and apply this “divine proportion” to our graphic design work. I also teach students about this and other proportional ratios that have emerged over the course of design history, particularly during those eras when mathematics and geometry weighed heavily on contemporary thought and practice. It’s interesting to see how Ruth and Sara Levy apply these principles to fashion design.

The Union-Tribune article at

Golden ration lends itself to fashion: Sisters use formula to find perfect fit

Ruth and Sara Levy’s website and a video of their presentation on the Rachel Ray show:

The Fashion Code website

The Fashion Code on Rachel Ray Show

Vitra Design Museum

By | January 6, 2011

Vitra Design Museum

Vitra Design Museum, designed by Frank Gehry, is one of fourteen highlights on the Vitra Campus architectural tour.

During the summer of 2010, I visited the Vitra Campus in Weil-am-Rhein, Germany. Vitra manufactures industrial furniture, including classics by Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, Isamu Noguchi, Jean Prouvé, and Verner Panton, as well as work by contemporary designers. In addition to the factory buildings and the Vitra Design Museum, which was designed by Frank Gehry in 1989, the campus includes an array of innovative architectural structures designed by a diverse group of international architects. According to architecture critic Philip Johnson, “Not since the Weissenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart in 1927 has there been a gathering in a single place of a group of buildings designed by the most distinguished architects in the Western world.” A guided architectural tour provides access to many of the buildings, including the Dome designed by Buckminster Fuller in 1978, the Fire Station by Zaha Hadid, which boasts no right angles, and Tadao Ando’s Conference Pavilion both completed in 1993. These examples of modern architecture together with the museum exhibitions make the Vitra Campus an important cultural destination for the study of industrial furniture design and architecture. I was there to explore the newly opened VitraHaus, view the exhibition Die Essenz der Dinge/The Essence of Things, which considered “reduction in design from economic, functional, aesthetic and ethical perspectives,” and examine historical pieces from the Vitra collection, one of the world’s largest modern furniture collections representing all of the major styles and eras from the beginning of the nineteenth century.

The VitraHaus is a really fascinating building. It was designed by Herzog & de Meuron, a Swiss architectural firm headquartered in Basel. Their inspiration for the VitraHaus derives from the graphic icon of an archetypal house with a gable roof. Twelve of these individual “houses” are stacked on top of each other and blended together to form a unified structure that deceives perception and defies gravity. The ends of the houses are glass and positioned to take advantage of incredible views of the surrounding countryside. The interior spaces invite exploration; they are unique and unexpected especially where the houses intersect. The VitraHaus Café, Design Museum Shop, showrooms for the Vitra Home Collection, and the Vitrine, an exhibition space that features historical objects from the Vitra collection, occupy the VitraHaus.


VitraHaus, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, opened on the Vitra Campus in 2010. Luscious ripe cherries dangle from the branches of a tree on the campus, which was founded in the midst of cherry orchards.

VitraHaus, interior.

VitraHaus, interior, looking out over the beautiful countryside through iconic house-shaped windows where two "houses" intersect.

VitraHaus, interior, showcases products from the Vitra Home Collection.

Buckminster Fuller's Dome

Buckminster Fuller's Dome.

Vitra Fire Station

The Fire Station, designed by Zaha Hadid in 1993, has no right angles—a visual metaphor of the explosion that destroyed the previous structure.

Susan at Vitra Design
Susan Merritt in the Conference Pavilion at the Vitra Campus in Weil-am-Rhein, Germany, during a study trip to Europe in July, 2010. The Conference Pavilion was designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando in1993.

All photographs by Susan Merritt.

References: Die Essenz der Dinge/The Essence of Things exhibition leaflet; Welcome to the Vitra Campus Design & Architecture booklet; notes from my personal travel journal.

Learn more about Vitra at their website:

Zambikes, innovative and inexpensive bikes designed to be built and used in Africa

By | December 30, 2010

As a design professor at San Diego State University, I interact with young adults all the time, so was particularly inspired by the vision of Dustin McBride and Vaughn Spethmann, two young men from Rancho Peñasquitos, California, who founded Zambikes to build strong bikes for the rugged Zambian terrain. McBride and Spethmann recently teamed up with American bicycle designer Craig Calfee of Bamboosero and are also producing bicycles made of bamboo. Their process exemplifies qualities of good design: identifying a critical concern, listening and being sensitive to the needs of the community, and responding with an effective solution.

I first read about Zambikes in The San Diego Union-Tribune in a letter to the editor from Diane Spethmann of Rancho Peñasquitos. Her letter was published in the “Community Dialog” section of the Thursday, December 23, 2010, issue in response to an article published on December 5, 2010: “Project putting garbage to work wins prize.” The article, as Spethmann stated in her letter “rightfully highlighted Long Way Home for winning the BBC/Newsweek World Challenge, which recognizes grass-roots efforts to better communities. Long Way Home developed an effective way to use unwanted tires to build much-needed schools. The story,” she continues, “missed an opportunity to mention that one of the 12 finalists was Zambikes, founded and run by two San Diego County men, Dustin McBride and Vaughn Spethmann of Ranch Peñasquitos. In the three years they have lived in Zambia, McBride and Spethmann have trained and employed 30 Zambians to manufacture and distribute bicycles, bicycle-drawn cargo carts and ‘zambulances,’ and are now making bike frames out of locally grown bamboo. Using microfinance loans, their bicycle products empower entrepreneurs to start businesses, and the bicycle-drawn zambulance enables people in remote areas to receive medical attention, thereby saving lives.”

According to The World Challenge website, 2010 was “the sixth year of The World Challenge Competition and our 12 finalists again raise the bar for sustainable enterprises that are putting something back into their communities. They are all boosting livelihoods and improving living standards without wrecking the environment.”

View the 12 finalists at The World Challenge website and learn more about the organization.

Learn more about Zambikes and Bamboosero from the following videos and website:

Zambikes, Not only building bikes but changing lives

How we make bamboo bikes and trailers


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