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Wim Crouwel on his 80th Birthday part I

In case you missed our Christmas special, here is an edited version of's long chat with Wim Crouwel. He talks about design, modernism, and his famous rivalry with Van Toorn.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 06-05-2009

“Fascist!” yelled a voice from the floor. It was 1979 and Wim Crouwel had just delivered a defense of Modernism to a full house at the Paradiso in Amsterdam. “I was shocked,” he says. “But I didn’t react, just swallowed it and moved on.”

By then, Crouwel was already an icon of Dutch typography and was accustomed to criticism. As head of Holland’s first multidisciplinary design studio, Total Design, his work and aesthetic had become a visual mainstay. “We worked for everyone from the museums to the post office,” he says, “so I can understand why some people disapproved of that. Their issue was probably more a feeling against our influence than anything else.”

A few years before the fascist taunt, Crouwel and arch-opponent (but good friend) Jan van Toorn went head to head in a very public debate over style. Van Toorn the humanist versus Crouwel the modernist, a conflict that came to symbolize more than just different aesthetics, but different and clashing world views. It was an era when people still believed in the power of political and social ideals.

During the debate, Crouwel argued that designers had to be neutral, professional, and always trying to rise above the trends of the zeitgeist. The message was the essence, meaning the design had to be clear and functional. Van Toorn’s counter-argument was that such neutrality does not exist. To him, a designer needed to show something honest and raw that could reflect the chaotic reality of the world.

From early in his career in the 50s, Crouwel embraced modernism as a movement that could work for the people - a beautiful and yet very Dutch ideal. “After the war, Europe was looking for ways to build better societies,” he explains. “Of course I’m left-wing, like most creative people are, and wherever I looked, I found the best solutions in the visionary principles of modernism. I really did believe that design was a way of helping people, a way of guiding them through their lives.”

Today, Crouwel shakes his head at the irony of this - that such a movement flourished during the harsh and ugly intellectual environment of the inter-war years; a time when a disastrous financial crisis spawned the rise of Nazism, which lead to war. “It was a very strange period,” he says, “It’s like design was moving against the tide.”

Crouwel’s designs between 1956 and 1972 for the Van Abbemuseum and the Stedelijk Museum are renowned for their experimental typesetting. His grid-based work was always resolutely systematic which gave the posters a very clean and modern look even before the introduction of digital typesetting.

Those techniques, although borne in the early 60s, are still now hailed as applicable. Without getting too technical, Crouwel’s method was to develop a “grammar of form”, which could be used to create all necessary “form conjugations” in precisely the same way as today’s blog software provides internet users with a basic grammar for self-publishing. His self-imposed challenge then was to think through the fundamentals of how such a system could work and then realize it.

That era came to an end though when a new museum director at the Stedelijk decided to divert limited budgets away from posters and into newspaper advertising. “It was a smart thing to do,” Crouwel says. “The posters were very abstract and probably not helping to really sell tickets.”

Crouwel’s next step was Director of the Boijmans Van Beuningen museum in Rotterdam. The highlight of that period was an exhibition he curated of objects designed in 1928, the year of his birth.

“The feelings and intentions of designers working particularly between 1927 and 1932 were so influential on me,” he says. “That was the real crystallization of modernism and functionalism, and the aesthetic I always found most moral.”

In the exhibition furniture by Marcel Breuer and Le Corbusier stood along side a Bugatti Type 35 B GP. There were architectural photographs by Jan Kamman, building models by Johannes Duiker and Mies van der Rohe, and graphic design by Piet Zwart. “It turns out that this year was a very important year,” Crouwel says.

Perhaps least saddened by his decision to leave designing for the museum world was his harshest and most vocal critic, the well-known writer and feminist Renate Rubinstein. A few years earlier she had baptized his work “The New Ugly” in a column for the left-wing weekly, Vrij Nederland.

Crouwel just shrugs. “I hadn’t even met her until that awkward evening at the Paradiso when I was called a fascist,” he says. “We were introduced afterwards in the foyer and we both behaved graciously, like human beings.”

Crouwel’s poise under attack is unsurprising. Now, just one month older then eighty he retains all the grace of a proper, old-school gentleman. He picks his lean and elegant body up off his favourite Rietveld chair and moves forward to pour coffee.

“You see I was never a romantic,” he says. “I think that is what really bothered my detractors the most. That I could remain so cool, if you’ll permit me to use such a modern word.”

To illustrate his point Crouwel picks out a book that juxtaposes his and Jan van Toorn’s designs. “It’s easy to see how differently we worked,” he says. Images of various posters, stamps and exhibitions lie side by side to maximize the contrast – Crouwel’s work is ordered, neutral and honest; Van Toorns’ is dynamic, passionate and messy. A stamp by Crouwel depicts graphics from Holland’s famous De Stijl movement. Van Toorn chose instead to use overblown faces of prominent politicians. Even the atmosphere of the exhibition photography is enough to pick up on their wildly opposing mindsets.

“We were both very much influenced by what was going on in the world,” Crouwel says. “We were both children of our times, but how we indicated that was quite different.”

To commemorate the discovery and subsequent publication of a long-lost transcript of the original 1972 debate between Crouwel and Van Toorn, both designers were invited back last month to readdress their differences. “Nothing had changed,” Crouwel says. “He still believed in his work, which was always very politically engaged, and I still believed in mine. I never wanted people to see my work and to think immediately of me. The message had to be number one.”

Some things, however, have changed. Crouwel might still be a modernist but the crumbling of his chosen ism has forced him, albeit reluctantly, to soften his perspective. “I don’t think I got it wrong,” he says. “But maybe I’m a bit milder now. I think I understand a little better why people do their work differently and I can see why many designers like to be influenced by the past rather than my preference for the future.”

Different countries grappled with modernism in different ways depending on culture and context: in Russia it was expressive, in Italy it was more futuristic and in Germany, by way of the Bauhaus, it was more restrained. It’s essence everywhere, however, concerned dreams about a better world via design that stood for utopian universalism, objectivity, and timelessness. Part II of this story here.
Main image at top by Michael Levy

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