British designers and the cult of Crouwel

As a new exhibition of his work opens at the Design Museum, Wim Crouwel’s influence in the UK appears stronger than ever

In the last decade, Wim Crouwel has been crowned as one of the great international heroes of 20th-century graphic design. Wim Crouwel: A Graphic Odyssey,

This career retrospective at the Design Museum, is the latest and perhaps grandest event in a sequence of celebrations that has made him one of the discipline’s most revered elder statesmen. It goes without saying that Crouwel’s status within the Netherlands, as a towering design figure, has long been assured. But his ever-growing fan base in Britain, and in countries such as France and Japan, is founded on a different kind of renown. This second reputation has developed only in recent years long after Crouwel, now 82, withdrew from the hurly-burly of running a design business.

Once a designer (or any kind of achiever) reaches a certain level of fame, it’s easy to take this high visibility and collective enthusiasm for granted. The fame generates more fame and it starts to feel inevitable – as, indeed, does the Design Museum’s decision to mount the exhibition. To put things in perspective, though, it’s worth remembering that high achievement and acclaim during a career are no guarantee of the kind of attention in retirement that Crouwel receives. Two questions then follow. How did this high level of acclaim come about? And what does it mean in terms of the ‘public’ – British designers – doing the admiring?

I ask this as someone who has followed Crouwel’s career for many years. In 1987, he was the first graphic designer I ever interviewed (for the long defunct Designers’ Journal). He was 58 then and had recently become director of the Boymans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam – an appointment almost unimaginable in Britain. A committed educator, Crouwel had been a full-time professor at the University of Delft since 1980, though he continued to design posters and catalogues for the Stedelijk Museum and to act as an adviser to Total Design, the company he co-founded in Amsterdam in 1963. Under the terms of his contract with the Boymans Van Beuningen, these activities had to cease.

Reading Crouwel
In the course of the interview, I showed Crouwel a copy of Octavo magazine, designed and published by 8vo, an austere production that proclaimed its undying commitment to European typographic modernism. “Yes, I have this!” he exclaimed. “I have a subscription. It’s fantastic. I feel very close to these people.” Looking back, it was a sign of things to come. In 1988, in Octavo no. 5, Crouwel contri­buted an article titled ‘lower-case in the dutch lowlands’. That year, there was another portent of growing Crouwel awareness in British design when Peter Saville and Brett Wickens redrew his futuristic New Alphabet of 1967 for the covers of the Atmosphere 12-inch and Substance compilation album by Joy Division on Factory Records. It did look phenomenally cool. Then, in 1989, Crouwel engaged 8vo as designers of the Boymans Van Beuningen design programme, catalogues and posters. As the collaboration progressed, these were widely published in the UK.

Crouwel’s term as museum director lasted until 1993. During this time, he received the Stankowski Foundation prize in 1991 for the ‘totality’ of his work (the book is worth tracking down). The early to mid-1990s were quieter years for his reputation, with Crouwel’s supposedly objective brand of modernism now deeply out of favour as the new expressive digital typography took hold. Then, in 1997, David Quay and Freda Sack made a canny connection to contemporary concerns by releasing digitised versions of the New Alphabet and other experimental faces by Crouwel through The Foundry. “We thought that Crouwel’s typeface work was of major importance,” writes Quay. “New Alphabet had great significance at the time when computer technology was in its infancy.”

That year also saw the publication in the Netherlands of Wim Crouwel – Mode en module, an exhaustive study by Frederike Huygen and Hugues Boekraad, two of the Netherlands’ finest writers on graphic design history. This compact, densely illustrated, 432-page tome, which is fantastically difficult to find now, is a sacred tablet for Crouwel cultists. In Spin’s 50 Reading Lists, published in 2006, ten of the 50 designers – among them Bibliothèque, Michael C Place, Mark Holt and Hamish Muir (both formerly of 8vo) and Roger Fawcett-Tang – selected Mode en module as favourite reading matter, making it the most popular book. One has to admire their linguistic skills because the text is in Dutch and no English translation has ever appeared. Nor is a translation likely. Last time I asked, the book’s publisher, 010, couldn’t afford the cost, yet has always declined to allow another publisher to produce an English edition under its own imprint.

Graphic design’s poster boy
This is a small tragedy for Crouwel studies because even if another full Crouwel monograph were to be published, as is bound to happen, it’s unlikely to equal Mode en module’s depth of research. What the monograph’s publication only in Dutch does indicate is that as recently as 1997, when Crouwel was 68 years old, a Dutch publisher producing design books for an international market didn’t expect sufficient interest in Crouwel outside the Netherlands to justify an English text.

It would be a very different story today. The language mistake wasn’t repeated in Wim Crouwel Alphabets by Kees Broos and David Quay, published in 2003, and Crouwel celebrations have been close to continuous ever since. The influential Dutch designers Experimental Jetset are unstinting in their public encomiums for Crouwel, who goes some way to returning the favour, describing their work as “clear, strong and one-track minded”. Tony Brook of Spin, guest curator of the Design Museum exhibition, has been another champion, while amassing his own collection of Crouwel originals, some of them in the show. In 50 Reading Lists, Brook thanks Crouwel for his support and “for kicking the whole thing off”.

In 2007, Galerie Anatome, the Paris gallery dedicated to graphic design, mounted Typographic Architectures, a Crouwel exhibition accompanied by a book. Idea magazine produced one of its massive special issues devoted to Crouwel the same year. The 80 20 100 exhibition in Rotterdam marked the occasion of his 80th birthday. In 2009, he received the prestigious Gerrit Noordzij Prize, given for exceptional contributions to the field of typography and type design. Crouwel has made lecture appearances in London and he also shows every sign of taking a close interest in the latest design developments. When I took part in a recent panel discussion in Amsterdam about the condition of contemporary Dutch graphic design, Crouwel was there in the audience, sitting with two other senior design comrades, Gert Dumbar and Jan van Toorn. While his continuing visibility wouldn’t be enough on its own to secure his great reputation, it certainly helps.

Modernism’s return
What is it, then, about Crouwel’s body of work that has brought him so much to the fore of late in Britain? From 8vo onwards, the most ardent Crouwelians have been designers committed to typographic modernism. 8vo called themselves “visual engineers” and everything about that phrase would resonate for Crouwel. The designers who applaud him now tend, like Crouwel himself, to put most emphasis on typography. They like visual rigour, precision, purity of form and dynamically balanced structure. They like systems and visual programmes that impose order and consistency. The formal attributes of modernism excite them: classic sans serif typefaces, intricately worked grids, bold use of negative space, photography rather than illustration. The history of mid-century European modernism enthrals and inspires them, but more as an imaginary utopia of style than as an ideal of how a reformed visual realm based on modernism could embody a radically new polity.

Crouwel can hardly fail to be aware that the tribute bestowed by
the neo-modernists cuts both ways. “On the one hand it’s flattering that [modernism] has come back,” he said at the London College of Communi­cation in 2009. “Sometimes, I love it, sometimes I think it’s rubbish. Depends if it’s good or not. But it’s stylised and therefore different. It can be very well done, but it has become a style.”

A kind of contradiction
There is no question that Crouwel’s work has great historical significance, above all in the Netherlands where he helped to define the visual landscape of his time. He is also the creator of some wonderful poster and catalogue designs that still look impressive. But he is not alone or even rare among designers in either of these achievements. One thing Mode en module also shows is that Crouwel, like most designers, did plenty of routine work that doesn’t look especially remarkable today.

The most disappointing aspect of the current wave of Crouwel adulation is that it seems to ignore all the ways in which work like Crouwel’s is interestingly problematic. The ideal of graphic clarity and neutrality in the cause of supposedly universal social values and greater business efficiency must have seemed inarguable in the early years of Total Design – its very name a little manifesto. But the inherent limitations of this programme (what of politics, ideology, subjectivity and differences of background and experience among viewers?) soon received telling criticism from Jan van Toorn and other Dutch designers thinking hard about the complexities of communication in their era. In the 1970s, Total Design attempted to move with the times and broaden its design approach by employing mavericks such as Anthon Beeke, with only limited success. This chapter in the Crouwel and Total Design story seems to get overlooked, even though Crouwel himself has talked freely about these issues. When I interviewed him in 1987, he readily acknowledged the drawbacks of the design method he had argued for and practised with such evangelical conviction.

“I was always saying that the designer should not be too much visible,” he told me. “He should not stand between the receiver and the sender. But I realised afterwards that I was always there – but never in my ideas. There is a kind of contradiction.”

In 2007, in AGI: Graphic Design since 1950, Crouwel suggested that his acclaimed work for the Stedelijk Museum, far from being timeless as he had once hoped, can be dated quite accurately. I don’t see that as in any way a problem. No matter how effective (or ineffective) it is, design is bound to express its time and it must evolve to suit our present needs. It makes no sense to fetishise Crouwel or other modernists whose work 50 years ago was a response to conditions of rapid economic development in European social democracies. And it would be even more misguided to treat his archive as a ransackable storehouse of fashionable stylistic effects. These views of Crouwel, coming from non-Dutch devotees, misinterpret both his national context and his intentions. We should study his example, and study design’s past, the better to understand where design is now.

Wim Crouwel: A Design Odyssey is at the Design Museum in London from March 30 until July 3. Several talks are also planned, with contributions from Rick Poynor, Tony Brook, Adrian Shaughnessy, Ben Bos, Mark Holt and Hamish Muir.

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