In 1957, South African born Ernst de Jong returned to Pretoria, South Africa, after studying painting and information design at the University of Oklahoma in the USA. De Jong and his American wife, Gwen Drennan, immediately set about opening a graphic design studio that profited from de Jong’s transformative experiences in Oklahoma and established itself as a pioneer of identity design in South Africa. The modernising rhetoric of Ernst de Jong Studios (EDJS), and indeed de Jong himself, came to signify the utopian aspirations of a putatively bright, new and modern Republic. As the political and cultural contexts of the country changed, so did the nature and fortunes of EDJS; de Jong closed his design practice in 1994 and then gradually faded from view.
This study is a discursive space, an interrogation of and often personal reflection on the circumstances of de Jong’s life and creative practice, as well as the inventive task of ‘prying open’ the artefacts, events and relationships that informed this practice. I aim to make visible an influential life, but also to question how it was constructed, and then re-presented — both by the participants and myself — for the purposes of this study. Concomitantly, I flesh open the drive, in a post-colonial community, to appropriate modernism in its project of individualisation. Oral history, and in particular ‘life history’, provides the starting point and underlying framework for my narrative that explores design briefs executed for the journal Lantern, the Rand Afrikaans University and the Afrikaanse Taalmonument. Although the three case studies cannot provide a comprehensive account of the vast output of EDJS, they serve to throw light on mainstream graphic design experiences in publication design, university branding and heritage design in the years 1957 to 1975 in South Africa.