Wim Crouwel + Jan van Toorn | Books

The Debate, Part 3

This month, The Monacelli Press publishes the first English translation of a famous 1972 debate between Dutch graphic designers Wim Crouwel and Jan van Toorn, a public clash of subjectivity versus objectivity at Amsterdam’s Museum Fodor that helped set the stage for bold philosophical showdowns to come in design culture.
Held in response to an exhibition of Van Toorn’s work at Stedelijk Museum, including student posters protesting the Vietnam War—in an era of youth culture and increasing resistance to authority, capitalism, and the power of media—the stakes were aesthetic, ethical, and politically charged. 

This week, Design Observer publishes four excerpts from The Debate, now available from Monacelli.

Read parts 1 and 2.  

Within a year of each other, Jan van Toorn and Wim Crouwel each designed a catalog for an exhibition of the work of visual artist Jan Dibbets (b. 1941). Van Toorn did so in late 1971 as the in-house typographer of the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, while Crouwel did so in the same role for the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. The character of each catalog differs significantly: the Van Abbesmuseum catalog looks much like an artist’s book, while the Stedelijk one has a retrospective character. Similarly, the typographic views expressed are quite divergent. 

On the back cover of the Van Abbemuseum catalog there are two brief comments on the work of the artist. Museum director Jean Leering starts off as follows: “In this catalog, Jan Dibbets would prefer not to see an introduction to his work. The work should have to be plain, as such, or rather, the meaning of the work only reveals itself by looking at it—through visual observation instead of verbal consideration.” 

The front cover shows a field of two shades of blue, the surrounding white serving as passe-partout. Inside the booklet, it is revealed that the two shades refer to a blue sky over a dark blue sea. The images are printed in black-and-white, but in the same size and position as on the cover. They show, however, the horizon fading from view while the sea is on the rise. A loose insert lists the works on display. 


Above: Jan Van Toorn, cover and spread for Jan Dibbets catalog, Van Abbemuseum, 1971 

Jan van Toorn worked as graphic designer for the Van Abbemuseum from 1965 to 1973. Each catalog he designed for Eindhoven has a markedly individual character and realization. Each time the specific topic of the publication had a strong influence on his typographic approach. For this reason, the designs all leave a different impression, making them distinctly recognizable. 

Aside from two essays about Dibbets and his work, the unpaginated Stedelijk publication comprises a biography, a listing of selected solo and group exhibitions, a concise bibliography, and an overview of film and video works. The elaborate list of works on display is added separately. 

Crouwel considered the Stedelijk Museum catalogs as items in a series, requiring that each one be instantly recognizable as coming from that museum. He strengthened this identity through the rigid typographic views he systematically applied. For example, he always used the same typeface, Univers, always in the same size. Although Crouwel relied on bold or italics for typographic emphasis while avoiding variations in type size and underlining, he did experiment with color and different kinds of paper. His catalogs always had the same height, but their width could vary. 

Crouwel designed catalogs for the Amsterdam museum for twenty years, from 1964 to 1984. His rigorous system to a certain degree neutralized the personality of the individual artist, the catalog’s actual subject. His preference for grids stands out. This layout plan for both typography and the placement of illustrations defined every design’s basic principles. He handled the opportunities provided by the grid in a highly disciplined way, creating a recognizable yet always unpredictable result. At the same time, each publication looked like an issue of a journal. 


Within Total Design, the studio Crouwel set up with others in 1963, he further developed the notion of grids with such like-minded practitioners as Benno Wissing and Hartmut Kowalke. In the end, the development of grids and the standardization of typefaces, typesetting, and paper sizes not only saved time when working on assignments, it also ensured their quality. With the ready availability of grids on preprinted sheets, assignments could be executed quickly. And because all sorts of typographical problems were thought out in advance, not much time was lost in making design decisions. 

Above and top: Wim Crouwel, cover and spreads for Jan Dibbets catalog, Stedelijk Museum, 1972

As a result, it was possible to work on many assignments simultaneously, while the elaborated designs still had a uniform appearance. It was colleague Jurriaan Schrofer who once labeled Wim Crouwel as the “system-general.”

Wim Crouwel + Jan van Toorn
Wim Crouwel is recognized for the creation of radical, modular letterforms. Pushing the boundaries of legibility, Crouwel’s innovative type was often supported by easily read sans serif typefaces within a carefully structured framework. His typefaces were digitised by the Foundry in the late nineties and are available for designers to use digitially from the type library. 

Crouwel famously established a grid-based methodology for the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, a system which he applied rigorously from 1963 to 1985. 

Crouwel was one of the five founders of Total Design, a multidisciplinary design studio set up to work on major design commissions. The studio’s diverse experience enables them to execute both complex and wide-ranging projects for a variety of clients, from industry, trade, government and cultural sectors. 

From 1985 to 1993, Crouwel was a director at the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam, where he commissioned the British studio 8vo to fulfil the design requirements of the museum. Crouwel continues to design intermittently on a diverse range of projects for both graphic and exhibition design commissions. 

Jan van Toorn is one of the most influential Dutch graphic designers to have emerged since the early 1960s. His designs persistently call attention to their status as visual contrivances, obliging the viewer to make an effort to process their complexities. Van Toorn wants the public to measure the motives of both the client and the designer who mediates the client's message against their own experiences of the world. His work has stimulated a more active and skeptical view of art, communication, media ownership and society. As director of the Jan van Eyck Academy, Van Toorn drew together all the strands of his critical practice into a multi-level educational initiative that urged designers to think harder about design's role in shaping contemporary reality. 

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