On March 31st I went to see Rick Poynor in conversation with Wim Crouwel and his son Mels Crouwel at the Design Museum. It was first in a series to mark the retrospective of the iconic graphic designer and typographer; Wim Crouwel, a Graphic Odyssey.
Afterwards, I plucked up the courage to speak to the man himself to ask for a short interview – and he said yes! But more of that later; first the talk…
It was billed as a discussion between father and son, led by Rick Poynor, about the relationship between graphic and spatial design; Mels Crouwel being an accomplished architect. Perhaps inevitably, but not disappointingly, the focus was mainly on Wim Crouwel’s life and work.
The Design Museum’s exhibition, is the largest and most complete retrospective of Wim Crouwel’s work. Poynor asked him if that felt overwhelming; “I’m really overwhelmed… and tired!” Wim answered with a smile.
Between 1947 and 1949 Wim Crouwel studied Fine Arts at Academie Minerva in Groningen, The Netherlands. It was Holland’s first modernist building, but was an arts and crafts school rooted in the 19th Century, teaching the decorative arts. So Wim started life as a painter, firstly painting mostly landscapes, then moving to more impressionist work and eventually entirely into abstract. But he always found the building itself more inspiring than what was going on within its walls.
In 1949, he started two and half years of military service, which he describes as “the most rotten time of my life.” But it gave him time to think, and he during that time, he realised he wasn’t a painter.
When he finished military service, two old colleagues offered him a job as an exhibition designer and graphic designer, with the opportunity to learn his trade on the job, which he jumped at. He is well-known for the architectural use of space even in his graphic design work, but his 3D design work, which helps to explain this approach, is often overlooked.
While there he worked with Swiss designers on an ambitious floating exhibition, funded by the Marshall Plan – the US scheme to help re-build post-war Europe. His colleagues used Swiss type AkzidenzGrotesk everywhere, and Wim fell in love with it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t readily available in Holland, so they had to buy Swiss newspapers and cut out the letters they needed by hand!
He took an evening class in typography with an inspirational modernist teacher, and finally got the modernist education he’d craved. After just two years, in 1953 he quit his job to set up his own practice and hasn’t picked up a paintbrush since.
Poynor asked Wim Crouwel about the cultural atmosphere in the The Netherlands at that time. Wim spoke of the 1950s as a fantastic time; “lively, fascinating and full of life – a very inspiring period”. Designers were then regarded as publicity draftsmen and really had to build design as a profession, but they could make a good living from designing magazines and posters.
He described it as a socially interesting period. They were rebuilding after the war and the role of visual communications was to make things clear for people. He said “We were there to clarify the message, to communicate information, clearly and simply. We would show people what to do and what not to do. We were making things better.”
In 1955, Crouwel started working with Edy de Wilde, Director of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. He had come into the arts scene as a lawyer, and was a friend of a friend. Wim said “You always have that luck as a designer; to have clients who are a friend of a friend.” De Wilde needed a new designer and his friend recommended Wim. “He was a close private man. He gave me free reign. He was the best client I ever had. He never criticised any plans I showed him; always when it was done. So I could keep it in mind for next job. Next time I could do better.”
Wim’s posters for the Van Abbemuseum were almost entirely typographical and abstract. Every poster had one thing in the middle that caught the eye and, rather than relying on images of the art, he translated the content of the exhibition into typography, or into a single word. He had little or no interaction with the artists. “I never wanted to stand between the artist and the museum. I wanted to do my own thing – translate it into type.”
He portrayed the horrors of Hiroshima with black on red.
When Rick Poynor asked what this poster was inspired by, Wim answered “Just the names of the artists. There’s no visual reference at all. Even the colours have nothing to do with the exhibition! I just liked the poster.” He also said this was the most Swiss of all his posters.
“Dubuffet was a print exhibition only, so this poster is showing the idea of print; the half word as it comes from a plate onto the paper.”
This one is an interpretation of Fernhout’s landscape paintings; the horizon which brush strokes across it.
His fonts were always sans serif, but he was using lots of types, he had not yet found one love.
The type in the Leger poster on the left was inspired by the black outlines around the work, although he said “Looking back, this poster tells you more about me than the exhibition – the older I get the more I’ll admit that.”
Rick Poynor asked what the right hand poster was for. Wim Crouwel replied “It was an open air sculpture museum; I hope you can see that.” Poyner replied “I can now; yes!” And of course, you can.
This is his first poster that features an image – Rick Poynor asked why he chose this direction… “I hardly know why. They’re my own hands on the drawing; photographed from underneath. I wanted to point out the f.”
In that year Wim used some more photographs. The French style of posters had come into favour – large images with type at the top. Wim said “I did my best but I hate to show them. Minimalism was quite a relief for me.”
He described this poster for the Vormen van de Kleur exhibition as “…much more me; the simplest thing I could do to represent the art.”
In the late 1950s, Wim had come across a book called Grid Systems in Graphic Design, by Josef Muller-Brockmann and the grid is at work in the poster above.
When Edy de Wilde became the director of the Stedelijk Museum
in 1964, Wim went to de Wilde and said wanted to differentiate himself and show a new a new period in the design of the posters. He wanted to work with a consistent grid across everything, to standardise the typography as if the posters were issues of a magazine. He used Univers type because it has the same x height on every weight, so he could use all weights on same line.
The first of these was a poster for streets, so he designed the SM logo into the corner, as if the poster had been pulled off to reveal it.
The poster below is the only poster to actually show the grid, and perhaps Wim’s most famous poster. It was a design exhibition so in this case it made sense to reveal it.
It’s hard to imagine that this was all created pre-computers. Wim’s devotion to the grid system led to the nickname Mr Gridnik.
In 1963, Wim Crouwel had founded the design group Associatie voor Total Design NV, or Total Design for short (now Total Identity) with Friso Kramer, Benno Wissing, Paul and Dick Schwarz. The intention was that they would work on everything from architecture to posters (although it didn’t quite work out that way). In Dutch, the name also has a tongue in cheek, double meaning; combining the words for self-importance and a 17th century word for drawing.
At that time there weren’t any design studios in Holland, just independent designers with one or two assistants, and so all the big commissions went to studios abroad, particularly England. Crouwel and co went to England to find out why this was the case and were told that “institutions like to talk to institutions; a single designer might drop dead.”
So they set up Total Design each with their own clients, and the big companies came straight away, making them a really strong design group very quickly.
In 1967 he started working with Cathode Ray Tube technology, and discovered that round shapes were affected by the new machine very badly.
He knew was going to have to live with this machine, so he designed the typeface New Alphabet, which embraced its limitations and only contains horizontal and vertical strokes.
Traditionalists hated it, but younger people loved it and Wim was invited all over the world to give lectures – but you couldn’t read it! It was used on a magazine cover, but they had to provide a translation.
His assistant made it more legible and it went on to be a famous type. It was later used on Joy Division’s Substance album cover, although this seemed to bemuse Wim Crouwel because they used it without knowing why it was created – afterall it was 1988; the start of digital age.
The Foundry have now made New Alphabet and other Crouwel fonts available to buy and use. He often only designed the letters he needed for the poster, so they’ve had to fill in the gaps, and sometimes make them a bit more legible.
Netherlands Visual Communication is another example. “It is visual communication, but only in a certain sense!”
After this experimental period, Wim Crouwel returned to his earlier minimalist style, with this poster for a Jackson Pollock exhibition.
It was a reaction against the posters with images and is a really wonderful example of his approach to translating art into typography, as if from one language to another. Those familiar with Pollock’s work can instantly see that it was inspired by Pollock’s dripping paint, but interpreted in a way that only a typographer could see it.
In describing the De Stijl poster above, Wim Crouwel said, “I like to work in space. I’ve always been inspired by architecture more than other graphic design. I followed it closely, knew architects, and crept in that direction whenever I could. I did these drawings myself…” At which point Mels piped up; “Actually we did them!”
Mels was ten when Total Design was founded and used to clean and run errands for them in the summer, so he grew up around design. The family lived in a glass 16x4m boat that Wim designed; filled with furniture also designed by Wim. Mels met his colleagues and friends. He said “I was quite stupid never to stand up against it! It always appealed to me. We loved all the same people.”
Mels Crouwel has known since high school that he wanted to be an architect. He had always been inspired by his surroundings, and didn’t want to do the same thing as his father. “He did very well, which made it hard.” (In fact Wim’s second son Remco did become a designer, but went to college on the other side of Holland.)
In a pleasing continuum, Mels is now designing the new Stedelijk Museum. He’s changed the orientation to face the entrance onto museum square and into the sun. The other museums back onto square, with their entrances in the shade. He’s kept the old museum and describes the new entrance as a piece of furniture stuck onto what was the back. The rest of new space is underground. The roof is in keeping with the other museums and the connections within enable you to experience just the new, just the old or both at once.
Rick Poynor asked Mels if Wim had any views on the plans. “No; we didn’t discuss them until one or two nights before. He liked it. We never discuss the process; only the results.”
The discussion then turned to modernism. Wim confirmed that he still hates post-modernism and believes that there are big lessons to be learnt from modernism. He recommends reading as much as possible from this period and says that it is still the most important movement. Crucial is the word movement – it’s not a style. He concedes that it’s lost at the moment, that it’s looking for new handles and is in a transition period. But he has great expectations for something new.
Mels added that the problem is that modernism has become a style. It wasn’t intended to be. International style came from modernism, but it was a reaction to what had gone before. Only now, we have the technology to really make modernism work. With the same optimistic ideas and humanistic ideals, with the same spirit. But architecture should not look the same as it did in the 1920s. You should apply new things if they’re better. The movement is what’s important, not the look.
The debate was then opened up to the floor and someone asked Wim what he thought of design as art. To my great relief, he’s not a fan. He said, “I’m a little afraid of design as art, of moving away from the client and creating your own content. Rarely people are good at both. Design and art are in the same neighbourhood, but they should not be in bed together. But, I am also curious about this border crossing.”
Somebody then asked about his use of lower case, particularly referencing the telephone directory he designed. He explained that at the end of the 20s and into the early 30s the use of lower case was a movement. The belief was that capitals are aristocrats, and that we didn’t need aristocrats, we needed people. So it was considered more humble.
He also pointed out that it was once proposed that upper case should be banned, but the printing trade refused. And that the first letterhead of the Bauhaus stated “wir schreiben alles klien, denn wir sparen damit zeit”: “we write with lower case and we save time with it.”
But he clarified that in the case of his telephone directory it was completely different. It was the first digitally produced directory and so there were limits on what he could do – he could only change case, weight or punctuation seven times, so he chose to save the changes for commas, and to enable him to put the names in bold. He also put the number next to name with no dots. The other change was the alphabetisation within street name, not by name. He thought most people who know where people lived and this would save trawling through pages of Smiths. It also saved paper by removing a column and this allowed thinner books. This was all accepted by the post office to his astonishment. They also researched it and it went down very well in research panels.
However, the new telephone directory launched to massive criticism. People hated that the names were in lower case. Others fell over the alphabetisation. But the Post Office carried on because couldn’t see a better way and the telephone directories stayed this way for eight to ten years. They changed only when advertising was introduced and then it all went back to how it had been previously.
Someone then asked about Total Design’s famously comprehensive style guides, provided to other designers working on something Total Design had created. Wim explained that the problem is, “every designer wants his own inventions. If you give them a guide book, any designer will try to get around the rules, they might follow the guide to the letter, but not in spirit.” In the end, they stopped proving style guides in order give freedom to the designers. They used to be strict. “Of course the best a client could do was give us all the work!”
The next question was about the timelessness of Wim Crouwel’s work. It was observed that young designers are using digital technology now to produce work that looks a lot like Crouwel’s. He asked, “do you embrace technology?”
Wim replied “I’m flattered. And there’s a lot of propaganda for timeless work. I’ve always tried not to stand between sender and receiver. But timelessness doesn’t exist. There are always ‘when’, ‘why’ and outside influences. You are always a child of your time. You can’t make timeless work.”
“I love modern techniques and I love the computer although I learnt late. They are tremendously time saving. You can have an idea on screen with variations within an hour, so you can make sharper choices. It used to take days. My view and my strictness are getting milder. My understanding of the work of others is less critical. My last ten years of work is milder and softer.”
Someone then asked what is it about the Netherlands that enables great work to be produced, specifically in architecture?
Mels explained that state architects gave young people a chance. There is an open-mindedness and the idea that everyone must have their first chance. So architects get to build early. There is a huge belief in what one youngster can do given the chance. EU legislation has reduced this, now everything has to be through competitions. He also argued that Dutch architects are used to lower budgets, because they don’t get a lot of the big European commissions, so they’ve gained a reputation for no-nonsense architecture for a fair price.
Wim also praised the art school system, which has turned the Bauhaus system on its head. Instead of one year of experimentation and then mostly specialism, they do four years of experimentation then specialise right at the end. It’s an open approach that enables students to develop their character and their style.
Asked about the exhibition, Wim said “I like the exhibition very much. I see it as a moment to finish my career.”
Before he does, here are the answers to the questions I put to him (and I can’t tell you how exciting it is to be able to type that sentence!)…
What’s the most important thing to know about you?
I am a workaholic.
How do you feel looking back on the body of work pulled together for the Design Museum exhibition?
It felt as if I was in a heavenly hot bath.
What are you most proud of?
That young designers still like my work.
What’s the biggest lesson that you’ve learnt over the course of your career? What advice would you give to an aspiring designer?
Be curious and try to pave your own recognisable path.
What makes a great designer?
What’s your favourite colour?
Wim Crouwel A Graphic Odyssey is at the Design Museum until 3rd July 2011.
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