Throughout this month, we have been following the activities of design studio Build. On 28 June, Michael and Nicola Place, who make up Build, travelled to Dublin for a screening of Helvetica, followed by a panel discusssion and talk by Wim Crouwel. The following morning Build caught up with Crouwel to conduct this interview for CR
Friday 29 June 2007 09.40hrs; Wim Crouwel [WC], Michael Place [MCP] & Nicky Place [NJP]
We were in Dublin for Candy‘s SweetTalk 24 event , where Mr Crouwel had given an engaging, hour- long presentation – a potted history of his work and thinking – which was then followed by the Dublin screening of Helvetica – the film. The inevitable bar-stint followed [not with Mr Crouwel, we might add, who quite sensibly and quietly went back to his hotel] so when we turned up late for our meeting the next morning, well, it must have all seemed so predictable. In fact, we had turned up early for the meeting, just at the wrong hotel. So, we finally managed to catch up, 40 minutes late; we were extremely apologetic, he was extremely understanding…
MCP: Looking at your work, I always think it’s so incredible; the form, the typefaces, the layout. It’s very influential and yet we are seeing this out of context from the time it was created. At the time, did it seem shocking or was it accepted by those around as just good design, or were people quite indifferent?
WC: It was an amount of luck, we had the right clients who embraced this sort of thinking – mainly the director [of the Van Abbemuseum, and then of the Stedelijk Museum] who was a great and long term client. We met through my art school in Southern Holland [Groningen] where I was teaching in 1954 (up until then I was painting, i didn’t really know what to do) – the head of the school knew the director – and six months after I had started teaching I got a phone call, which was the beginning of a long relationship with him. He wanted to represent artwork with a more advanced way of thinking that reflected what was happening with Modern Art. We were very interested in the abstract at that time. He was very supportive, as I dealt with him directly, and he dealt with the curators, who always wanted to have a say in the way their shows were promoted or represented. I just dealt with him, and he was very supportive of my ideas, as they fitted with the ideas of abstract paining, so my ideas were really quite accepted.
MCP: How did the public perceive your work?
WC: Well, the general public, I don’t really know. But the interested public were very receptive to it. I was often invited to talk and the public that came to these talks were very accepting. In 1952 I had met a swiss designer whilst working for an exhibition design company in and between ’52-’54 we worked together on large-scale projects encompassing art, architechture and design, our aim, to ‘redefine the visual world’. From this came an institute which translates as ‘The Foundation of Good Living’, which produced a magazine promoting good interiors and therefore good living. It was a different direction for interiors, promoting a new, functional aesthetic, so even then there was a sense of promoting new thinking, new ways of looking at the world. In 1955 I met Kho Liang le who was an interior designer and we worked very well together, later setting up Designstudio.
MCP: You mentioned that luck has played a part in your success – that the director of the Stedelijk being a patron of what you did really helped to break the work to a wider audience and had you not met him that things could have been very different…
WC: Yes, he definitely understood the value of good design, that design should reflect the [new] thinking of the time. He had a law background but became director of art museums as an art lover; in 1954 he bought the first Picasso in Holland, for which people thought he was crazy. He went on to buy many more pieces and this is how he developed the collection of the Stedelijk.
MCP: You said in your presentation that the director would always critique your work but not until after it was done. Was his critique ever harsh?
WC: Oh, usually he would say something like, “that was not so inspired” or something like that. He was never too harsh. We had a long ongoing relationship like this.
MCP: When you became director [of the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum] you were then the client. Did you take anything from your time as designer for the Stedelijk that helped you in commissioning design for the museum?
WC: Oh, yes. I adopted many of the same techniques – of critiquing after and dealing with the curators on behalf of the designer. I had 15-20 years of experience working as a designer which I wanted to bring to my role as director. Sandberg, the director [of the Stedelijk], was a practising typographer and when we had meetings he always had a ruler and was drawing type. But when I became a director myself I found it was difficult to manage the responsibilities of director and be as involved in the design as I would have liked, so I hired two people to work with me. My brief to them was not “work with my grids” but rather “make the Institute visible” through a series of catalogues and posters for the museum. After a period of time we looked at the work as a set, and found that is was quite mismatched, it did not seem to have a single voice. So, I had to think how to address this. At around this time I had been approached by 8vo to write a piece on lower case typography for Octavo magazine. I knew that Hamish Muir and Simon Johnston had been taught by the Swiss typographer Wolfgang Weingart, and that they had taken this back to the UK and – with the other 8vo partners – had developed a new kind of language that had evolved away from this Swiss background; and that hadn’t made it back to Switzerland or Holland – which I found very interesting. This is how I came to commission 8vo to work with me for the museum. I didn’t want to impose my thinking but up to that point 8vo had mainly used Helvetica, whereas the museum’s typeface was Futura, so this had to be a rule – as well as to have one size of cataloge and one of posters. That would mean everything had a consistency.
MCP: Do you think 8vo felt daunted working with you and on such a large undertaking?
WC: Well they didn’t seem to be. They dealt with the curators themselves, each curator wants to make their own catalogue, so my only directive to the curators was to let the designers design.
MCP: Everyone seems to have a piece of Wim Crouwel work that that they love. For me it really is your typeface design – was that driven by a lack of expression in other available typefaces – or a reaction to the work/brief that became the seed for the new idea/design?
WC: We never designed a full typeface, only around the ten or so letters that were needed. I always searched for the abstract, something that would strike the eye.
I love sans serif typefaces. I love to work with Gill or Akzidenz Grotesk – both have an unevenness, which for many is fantastic. As Spiekermann says in the [Helvetica] film of Helvetica: “all the little things make it interesting…”
MCP: I’m a great believer in personal expression in graphic design and I believe that graphic design can ask questions as well as answer them. Do you see design as pure problem solving – or is that personal expression vital?
WC: Of course design is about problem solving, but I cannot resist adding something personal. A page should have tension.
MCP: Was there anything else that was influential to you in designing typefaces?
WC: I was, of course, very influenced by Joseph Müller-Brockmann. We met in 1957 and were friends since then. But Müller-Brockmann only every used Akzidenz Grotesk, never anything else, but he was a great inspiration.
MCP: Did you and JM-B ever critique each others work?
WC: No, I had far too much respect for him: He was ten years older than me, he was one of my heroes. I loved the abstract quality of his work – it was amazing. Müller-Brockmann was my man!
MCP: I came to your work quite late on, when I saw a version of New Alphabet on a Joy Division cover. Did you know about Peter Saville and that he had used that at the time?
WC: No, I had never met him at until we met in a chance meeting at the Mies Van der Rohe Pavilion in Barcelona.
MCP: How did you first see the Joy Division cover?
WC: In a magazine and on the internet. Somebody kindly took the letters and made them more legible, which of course wasn’t the original idea! Eventually I worked with David Quay at The Foundry to make the New Alphabet a fully working typeface. He had approached me to see if i would be interested in working on it and because all the drawings existed for this it was possible. My father was a draughtsman and he had drawn up all the letters for me based on my sketches, so it was very possible to work on this to make it a full typeface. They [The Foundry] also worked to develop Gridnik, which started life as a commission for Olivetti typewriters. Myself, Joseph Müller-Brockmann and another designer were each commissioned to develop a typeface for the interchangeable balls for the typewriters, but in the end these were not used. So, I had had the drawings for Gridnik for 20 or 30 years, and David Quay developed it for release, as well as creating the missing letters and the different weights now available. I’m not a typeface designer, so I needed to work with someone to complete the typeface.
MCP: I am currently working on a typeface and when you design a whole alphabet you realise its such specialist skill…
NJP: Listening to your talk last night, I was thinking that of course when someone presents their work we see all the good parts, the cream of the work, and that naturally the stresses and difficult times disappear into the background or get lost in time. Has your experience really been the ‘golden time’ that it appears to be?
WC: Oh yes, it has been fantastic and it is as you see it. Although, in the beginning, designers used to be called ‘Advertising Designers’ who used to fight with everyone. But we designers all knew each other and wanted to lift design to a professional level, make it a profession in its own right. But we also realised we would never get very rich as a group; between the years 64-85 Total Design never really made much money, although we each had good salaries, but the business itself never made huge profits. In fact, one year, we made a loss. But we borrowed money from the financial directors who funded the studio and each year we paid them back, so the business was stable and we were able to have good salaries and pensions.
MCP: I started designing by doing record sleeve design – is that something you have thought about?
WC: I have never done any record sleeves…
MCP: You did one!
WC: Did I? Oh yes, for quite a strange project. Yes, a friend brought us together, me and the [music] artist – but music is not my business.
MCP: Record sleeves have always been a really exciting area of design, for me anyway, especially in the UK. Do you think design for music is important?
WC: Well, yes I do, music can be very inspiring, but design for music has never crossed my path, only where I have created theatre/ dance posters. Design for music is just not in my system….
And then as hurriedly as we arrived, we had to leave. We thanked Mr Crouwel for so generously giving us his time, and suddenly we were off to the airport. Where, of course, we found our plane was delayed an hour and we could have continued talking for a good while longer. Isn’t that called Murphy’s law?