Wim Crouwel: From Groningen to Gridnik

“If I don’t know what to do, I use blue.” Just one of several nuggets delivered deadpan by the charming Wim Crouwel at last night’s D&AD President’s Lecture.

brusselmans poster

“If I don’t know what to do, I use blue.” Just one of several nuggets delivered deadpan by the charming Wim Crouwel at last night’s D&AD President’s Lecture.

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In an entertaining hour, Crouwel took a sell-out audience of 1100 through a 50-year career rooted in his love of architecture. In fact, Crouwel said, he has always been influenced far more by architecture than by the work of his peers in graphic design.

This influence began at the Minerva art school in Groningen, where he enrolled as a student in 1947. His course, he explained, was firmly lodged in nineteenth century arts and crafts techniques such as stained glass-making. But all this went on in the first Modernist building in The Netherlands, which the young Crouwel found far more inspiring.

Ignoring his tutors, who, he says, knew nothing about Modernism, Crouwel and the other students on the course did their best to find out about this exciting new world of light and air. In the local library, Crouwel found a sample of Cassandre’s Bifur typeface which “made a great impression on me”.

In the early 50s, he moved to Amsterdam and found a job at an exhibitions company – in an often ignored side to his work, Crouwel spends as much time designing exhibitions as graphics. There he worked with Swiss designers on an ambitious travelling show funded by the Marshall Plan – the US scheme to help re-build post-war Europe (The Marshall Plan commissioned many such projects in the period while also providing much of the funding that allowed Otl Aicher’s Munich Olympics programme to be such a memorable project. Surely its influence on post-war design is a topic worthy of investigation by design historians?).

“The 50s were a fantastic time,” Crouwel remembered. “We all thought that design could help to build our community.”

His Swiss friends introduced him to Swiss type, particularly to Akzidenz Grotesk which he saw as “a true expression of our time”. In a scenario unimaginable to designers today, Crouwel explained that Swiss type was very difficult to obtain in the Netherlands at that time. Therefore, in order to create designs using it, Crouwel and his friends bought Swiss newspapers and cut out letters from their pages to use in their artwork.

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In 1955, Crouwel began a 10-year association with the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven for whom he created some of his best-known work. Crouwel’s exhibition posters almost never featured the artist’s work. Instead, he would create a logotype as the central element for each one in response to the work. Again, architecture was the main influence as Crouwel sought to construct his letterforms in a manner derived from the Modernist buildings that he loved so much.

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architectuur, 61cm x 88cm, 1959

In 1963, he founded the first Dutch design studio – Total Design. Searching for an appropriate model, he and his partners Dick Schwarz, Friso Kramer, Benno Wissing, Ben Bos and Paul Schwarz, visited Fletcher Forbes Gill in London, which had opened the year before, and copied its structure of discrete groups led by each partner. A year later, the director of the Van Abbemuseum, who had been such a valuable and trusting client, left to run the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and took Crouwel with him.

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Crouwel’s grid for the Stedelijk Museum

While his work for the Van Abbe had used different typefaces (albeit all sans serif), Crouwel decided that the Stedelijk required a more systematic approach. Influenced by Josef Muller-Brockmann “and this idea of the grid in which you could play all your typographic games”, Crouwel decided that all his work for the museum should be created using the same underlying compositional structure: a hardline approach that earned him the nickname “Gridnik”.

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vorm gevers, 63.5cm x 95cm, 1968

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Crouwel continued to produce beautiful posters for the Stedelijk until a fateful meeting in 1971 when the director decided that press ads would be a far more effective way of promoting his shows. “They worked much better, which was a shame but…” Crouwel said. Instead, he concentrated on catalogues until a new director sanctioned a return to posters, seeing the commercial value in them as merchandise to be sold by the institution.

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Catalogue cover for Claes Oldenburg

Now nearly 80, Crouwel continues to work on exhibitions and print today, even though he officially retired in 1993. From 1985, he became director of the Museum Boijmans – Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. Deciding that his role as director was too taxing to allow him to design graphics as well, Crouwel asked 8vo to help having been inspired by the studio’s Octavo magazine. Presumably, Crouwel recognized kindred spirits among the London-based studio as the work of both seemed to predict the influence of computers before either had ever touched one.

Crouwel has been an enthusiastic convert to the Mac since 1993, although he still sketches by hand first and has to get his son to check everything before he sends files to the printers. “I love the computer,” he said, “We used to work for three days to prepare a poster for print, today you can do ten times as much in the same time. I’m very jealous of young people today, I’d love to start all over again now.”

Much of Crouwel’s work does enjoy a second life already: several of his logotype designs for posters have been turned into fully-functioning digital typefaces by The Foundry, while contemporary designers continue to find his work relevant. This must be particularly gratifying to Crouwel as he continually stressed his belief in designing what he felt to be appropriate for the times. Hence his preference for sans serif type: “I always prefer to use a typeface of today for today”.

But even more gratifying has been his friendship with Dutch master architect Gerrit Rietveld, the pair of them restoring the latter’s most famous work, the Schröderhuis in Utrecht. “I get tears in my eyes when I look at such crystal clear buildings,” Crouwel said. “If I come back, I’ll come back as an architect.”

The next D&AD President’s Lecture will be by Hillman Curtis on 5 June.

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