Reprinting a classic: Wim Crouwel’s Vormgevers

Mark Blamire of Blanka has reprinted 250 copies of Wim Crouwel’s classic late 60s poster, Vormgevers. But the lack of original artwork and a desire to respect the original posters led Blamire on a long and winding road to eventual success…

Vormgevers - by Wim Crouwel

Mark Blamire of Blanka was first introduced to Dutch designer Wim Crouwel in 2006 by Tony Brook of Spin. Blamire invited Crouwel to participate in his 1 An Exhibition In Mono project. It was during the exhibition’s stint in Dublin that Blamire asked Crouwel, also in Dublin at the time, if he would allow Blanka to reprint his most famous poster, Vormgevers. Crouwel gave permission but explained that the artwork would need to be redrawn and recreated in Illustrator as the original artwork from 1968 no longer existed.

Vormgevers has now been successfully reproduced by Blanka although the journey from permission to reprint to actually printing has been a complex one – and one that demonstrates the determination of Blamire to do the job right – as he explains here:

It was during a conversation with Mason Wells at Bibliotheque that we started to really think about how we would go about reprinting the poster, says Blanka’s Mark Blamire. Mason, being somewhat of a collector and an enthusiast when it comes to poster design, was really pleased that we were remaking this poster but became very concerned when he learned that we were just going to redraw the poster in Illustrator. Let me give you a little bit of background about the poster to explain Mason’s concerns. It was originally created in 1968 before the invention of Apple Mac. The top half of the poster is constructed out of 57 vertical lines [425mm long] and 41 horizontal lines [635mm long]. To draw this number of lines at this length and to do this without making a single pen skip or to make every single line exactly 4mm and 18mm evenly spaced apart and to do this without any deviation in spacing or glitch when drawing the lines would have been impossible without the use of computer aided design – so the original poster had many little tiny quirks and unique imperfections which were part of the poster’s uniqueness and which made up in its design thumbprint. Mason was 100% right with his reservations. To produce the poster using a computer would have removed all of the uniqueness of the original and we would have been making a sterilized, homogonised version of a classic piece of print. We had hit our first hurdle. The original artwork didn’t exist and we didn’t want to make an imperfect version of the poster.

Detail showing imperfections
It’s easy to forget how difficult it must have been to create a poster of this complexity without the use of modern day computer equipment. Here you can see the pen skips of the Rotring in the 1968 original version of the poster. Whilst we spent over 50 hours retouching this poster to restore it to a printable state, we also retained all of the imperfections in the hand-crafted original artwork

Reprint detail

We return to Wim with our observations and he agrees completely that the new plan of attack would be better but the only way to achieve this would be to lay our hands on an original. The original is black ink on white paper with no half screen dot so intrinsically it is an exact equivalent of the black and white camera ready piece of artwork that was made to create the original. This was our second problem. The original is now so rare that it comes up approximately once every three years at auction and goes for in excess of 1000 euros. Anyone in the country who owns an original felt uncomfortable about loaning us the print due to its value and rarity (we only manage to trace two copies of it in the UK). We really are painted into a corner. But compromising by making a weak replica is now no longer an option. We have to wait to get it absolutely perfect but it is the only option. Damn you, Mason, and your good advice!

Let’s now skip forward a very long and frustrating 18 months of waiting patiently to find an original. At last a poster dealer in Switzerland has located a copy. We have to get our cheque book out and pay the most I have ever paid for a poster but at least we can now start finalising it. The poster turns up a few weeks later and, at last, we have a copy. It’s all started to make sense now. Seeing the original for the first time ever is a truly great experience – all of the tiny little imprecise details and accidents contained in the poster means the wait now seems entirely worthwhile.

reprinted poster detail

Now we face the problem of how to make a perfect scan of the original so that we can create a printable version of the poster. We spend an additional month finding a repro company able to make a scan at a big enough resolution to make an exact replica. On the top half of the poster (ie the black upper half), the white key-lines which are reversed out of the black are in very fine detail in some places, maybe because of the reproduction techniques from 1968 or the printing process. Also, some of the vertical lines are only just visible. Achieving a good enough scan to be able to hold all of the detail will be a problem. We will also need to take an exact photo not just of a high enough quality to capture all of the details but which will also avoid any curvature on the lens affecting the straight lines which make up the design. Probably a plain old PMT camera would do the trick but everyone has discarded this archaic reproduction method.

After two weeks of hunting around and asking colleagues, we are finally pointed to a man in South Wales – Richard Kenward at Precision Drum Scanning (obviously we opt not to drum scan it as we don’t want to cut up the original into sections – it isn’t even an option and flat bed scanners at this size dont exist) so we use Richard’s magic little toy which gives the equivalent of a 350 mega pixel image (there are only two of these cameras in the country – the other allegedly belongs to the royal mint). Technically speaking, it’s a converted Scinar camera fitted with a better-light scanning camera back. I am not entirely sure what any of the camera spec actually means but am convinced that it is the right process when we are shown an image from a gallery who commissioned Richard to take a reproduction image of a 24 foot tapestry. The resulting file size came in at just under 5 gigabytes – not only could you see every single thread in the tapestry but also the fibres making up the threads themselves. Richard is definitely the man for the job.

By this stage, I have become obsessed with reprinting this poster. Letting the original out of my sight scares me so I have to make a 300 mile round trip to Wales to escort the original poster to be scanned and make sure it all happens smoothly without any damage to the original. After the initial set up, we leave Richard to carry out the work returning later that day to collect a disk and the poster. We return to London happy that we are a step further on to completion. The next stage is to carefully fine tune the image to get it ready for print. We run out a proof to show it to our printers to make sure they are happy: we use Generation Press down in Brighton because they do an amazing job of handling print and they really care about getting everything right. (When you’re a designer and you meet a printer like this you tend to use them wherever possible.) Again it turns out we were right to check in with them. The vertical lines in the black area, once they are put onto a printing plate and with the potential risk of ink spread in the black areas, the poster may make the lines completely disappear. Great!

Printing plate
Printing plate

Another hurdle to get over. It’s going to need a serious amount of minor tweaking to make it printable. We now need to restore each of the lines to make them the tiniest bit wider while still preserving the mistakes and glitches from the original. My head now starts to hurt from the minefield of knitting the lines back together so I start making some tests to find the best option. After an initial inspection and running of proofs we realise the scan we made [which came in at 300mb for the grey scale channel alone] isn’t going to be good enough to hold the detail and will make the retouching close to impossible. I start swearing in the office quite profusely as I realis I need to drive the poster back to Wales to have a bigger shot made at twice the resolution to give me more than enough detail to retouch the file.

Another five weeks later and we return to Wales having spent the last three weeks retouching the image. It took a total of over 50 hours to retouch and involved creating over 2,500 individual masks in Photoshop. Each vertical line had to be masked out separately and retouched individually to just marginally broaden the line widths to make them printable again but also to keep all of the detail and signatures of the original hand drawn version, We also ran out over 20 digital proofs to match against the original to ensure we were keeping all of the same detail of the original. I was reading Wim Crouwel, Architectures Typographical: 1956-1976 book at the time of retouching the poster where he explains how in the 60s he experimented with using the grid from a tapestry and embroidery to create letter forms and typefaces – now I’m digitally re-stitching his poster artwork back together.

printing plate check
Printing plate [with ink] being checked/cleaned for imperfections

During the retouching process, I also spend my time trying to research the paper stock that the original was printed on. Wim had a rough idea of the original stock but was not 100% sure. His pointers did help us narrow it down a little and we arrange a meeting with Daniel Mason to see if we canfind a paper match. The meeting goes well but is still inconclusive. We are trying to find a paper manufacturer that made a specific type of paper 40 years ago and distributed to Holland. Daniel’s experience and contacts are invaluable and I spend the next two weeks researching and looking at the paper options from the contacts he helped me with. After much deliberation we narrow it down to two paper stocks Keaycolour or pop’set, both made by Arjo Wiggins. These are the closest match historically to the original: they were made by Wiggins Teape in the 60s and distributed widely across Europe as a poster paper. There are now 5 different diffrent types of white to chose from. It is hard to make an exact match to the original as, due to 40 years of aging in daylight, the poster is slightly more yellow than the original print would have been when it was made and paper manufacturing has changed so drastically over the years it was difficult to make a final call on it. Then I realise that it isn’t my decision to make. We decide to send the swatches to Holland for Wim to inspect, accompanied by a final proof for the artist to check and sign off.

We also speak to Tony Brook again, as he has a small collection of Wim Crouwel’s poster designs in his archive so his knowledge and history in isolating the best paper stock will be invaluable as a second opinion. Of the five paper samples on the table for discussion we all independently arrive at the same conclusion and pick the same paper stock. Wim is also very happy with the proof and pleased that we have retained all of the hand drawn detail from the original. Hurrah at last it seems to be going in the right diretion and we can finally print the poster.

Printing plate being cleaned and checked
Printing plate [with ink] and first test proof [woo hoo]

proofing machine
The proofing machine, Each print was printed on a flat bed proofing press to control the density of the black [to match the original poster] and to create more precise detail, each print was printed individually by hand to create a quality which is probably closer to screenprinting quality via a lithographic route

Pantone check
Double checking against pantone black to measure density of black ink on proof with the consistency of the 1968 original Stedelijk museum poster

Densometer to measure density of black ink on proof with the consistency of the 1968 original Stedelijk museum poster

Generation Press sets up a day for us to print the poster and we travel down to their offices to take some photographs of it being produced. It is such a historic poster to me and personally I feel that I have to be there to watch it being made. Also, because when the original was printed the black of the ink isn’t incredibly dense or saturated, we need to control the print so that it isn’t a really crisp strong black but a sublter softer version to match the original. Each of the posters are printed on a very old and sturdy looking lithographic proofing press – it is amazing watching the printer set the machine up to control the density of black. Each one is then printed individually by hand. It’s the equivalent of watching a slightly faster screen printing process but using a lithographic proofing system, it not only gives us more control over the density of the ink coverage but it also gives us a sharper more detailed and entirely accurate production. I am very happy to see the first proof come off the press, it feels very special to see it printed at last. The light at the end of the tunnel is almost in sight now. We return home and upload and publish the the photographs we have made that day onto the Blanka website. We usually do this to set up a system to advance order our posters for the people on our mailing list, Thankfully overnight lots of orders come in – the hard work has been worth it.

The final stages. We fly to Amsterdam for the day to meet Wim. He has also agreed to sign Edition certificates which are being sent out with the posters and it also seems important that he sees the finished thing and is entirely happy with the finished results. Wim doesn’t actually own a copy of any of his posters as they are now all held in an archive by the Stedelijk Museum, but he is very happy with the results. He also considers that maybe he should keep a copy of the reprint to frame in his apartment, I am extremely flattered that he is this happy and that our painstaking efforts to make it happen properly have all been worthwhile.

Wim Crouwel signing 250 certificates

It’s kind of appropriate that it has taken over two years to achieve our goals and make this poster happen. By accident, we realise that it is the 40th Anniversary of the original design being sent to print and also at the end of the year Wim celebrates his 80th birthday. It feels like the right time for it to happen. It’s been a hard fought and slow process to get to this point but we have learned a lot about the art of making posters properly along the route travelled and its been a entertaining journey. We have received some really lovely emails of thanks from the people who have so far bought a copy and are pleased with the results. Again, it’s the small notes of appreciation at the end of the job that make the two year slog and the 1200 miles of road travelled now all seem completely worthwhile.

Posters back at Blanka towers

Sometimes it’s hard to put these things together but now every second seems entirely worth it to see it reprinted properly and that it gives joy to the people who have so far received a copy. Special thanks to Wim for making this journey and experience possible. Thanks to everyone else who assisted us in making this happen.

Blanka’s lovingly reprinted Vormgevers posters are available from for the thoroughly reasonable sum of £100. While stocks last

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