05 October 2019


Obituary Wim Crouwel

(1929 – 2019)

Text: Jörg Stürzebecher

Dutch graphic designer Wim Crouwel passed away on 19 September 2019. 


“Designer A, who favors the analytical approach to arrive at a maximally objective message, will be inclined to make use of solidly tested means only and will not be easily tempted to experiment for the sake of novelty. For this reason, he is also likely to end up in a place that is sometimes characterized as rather dry.”

This is how Wim Crouwel described his point of view in The Debate, which was held on 9 November 1972 at the Museum Fodor in Amsterdam and became famous. It was between himself and Jan van Toorn about the tasks of graphic designers. Van Toorn, who called for socially committed design, saw the dangers of technocratic thinking in Crouwel’s approach. Historically (after the conflict between Max Bill and Jan Tschichold in 1946), this was the 20thcentury’s second high level confrontation about approaches to graphics. It was stimulating not least because both Crouwel and van Toorn worked on solving comparable tasks through catalogues and posters to exhibition designs and stamps. That such a debate was possible and perhaps even necessary, was due to the time. The youth and student revolts lay in the recent past; the Provos, a Dutch counter-culture movement, were playing a political role in the Netherlands, and popular forms of artistic expression such as rock music and experimental street theatre were increasing in importance alongside high culture. In retrospect a paradoxical situation arose. Crouwel's approach became somewhat aloof, but the appreciation of his graphic work rose steadily, beyond the Netherlands at least and so around the globe, and even at that time he was already considered one of the most influential designers in the world.


His work had much in common with other great artists. Like Otl Aicher, he designed many typefaces for posters, especially the “New Alphabet” which he devised as a result of his work in pop culture - there were abraded letters and record covers, of which “Substance” by Joy Division (1988, design: Bratt Wickens for Saville Associates), for example, demonstrates the difficulty of correctly deciphering lettering. Like Willem Sandberg, he presented the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam with a varied yet recognisable face, and like Gerald Kiljan and Piet Zwart, his innovative design was used by the Dutch post office on its stamps. Crouwel’s personal style was extremely elegant, but not only did he keep his distance by means of his often folded arms, but he was also very conscious, strikingly obviously so, of his importance. This was demonstrated, for example, when he became the co-founder and ‘face’ of Total Design in protest against the Dutch air-line KLM awarding its graphics contract to the British office of FHK Henrion. From the early eighties, young designers, such as publisher Lars Müller, Hamish Muir from Octavo, Darmstadt-based lecturer Su Korbjuhn and Experimental Jetset from Amsterdam were always rediscovering him. In 2007, the Japanese graphics magazine IDEA dedicated a monographic edition to him, which for designers is akin to winning a Nobel Prize. Finally, from 28 September 2019, the Stedelijk Museum will be showing another exhibition about his life's work, which has now come to an end, but will continue to have an effect for a long time to come.  


Nº 284
Region of Design

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