Rick Poynor | Essays

Wim Crouwel: The Ghost in the Machine

Cover of the monograph Wim Crouwel — Mode en module (1997) designed by Karel Martens and Jaap van Triest

Major graphic design exhibitions remain a rarity and large shows devoted to a single designer’s body of work are even more unusual. This week saw the opening in London of Wim Crouwel: A Graphic Odyssey at the Design Museum and questions are already being asked by Dutch admirers of Crouwel, who turned out in force for the occasion, why the first major retrospective of this leading figure, now 82, had to happen in the UK rather than in the Netherlands.

The show, guest curated by Tony Brook of Spin in collaboration with Design Museum curator Margaret Cubbage, is beautifully done. With commendable restraint, Brook has followed Crouwel’s frequently stated guideline and not attempted to interpose his own personality as a designer between the subject and the viewer. The space has been opened up by the show’s architects, 6a, turning the room into a huge viewing temple (pictures here). As a consequence of these smart curatorial decisions, Crouwel’s work comes through with magnificent clarity, giving visitors a chance to assess the nature of his achievement. There’s a good catalogue, too.

Wim Crouwel, Leger, exhibition poster, 1957

While I admire his work in the context of its time, I don’t subscribe to the cult of Crouwel that thrives among British designers with neo-modernist tendencies (I have an essay about this in the latest Creative Review: summary here). I have also acknowledged elsewhere that in the celebrated debate between Crouwel and Jan van Toorn about objectivity and subjectivity in design, I would have to side with Van Toorn’s politicized view rather than Crouwel’s claimed neutrality, despite what I just said about the exhibition’s design. This is not because I think Crouwel’s arguments have no merit or sense, but because I can’t believe in the situation his commandments would bring about if designers were to follow them en masse with the absolutism he demanded in the 1960s and 1970s. It would be boring as hell.

I thought of Crouwel a few days ago, before seeing the exhibition, while watching Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert, released in 1964, the year after Crouwel and others founded Total Design in Amsterdam. The film, famous for its experiments with color, begins with a long opening sequence in an industrial landscape. On the one hand, it’s clear almost immediately that the female character (played by Monica Vitti) is alienated from this setting; at the same time, Antonioni finds great beauty in buildings like an oil refining plant, which were transforming the Italian landscape during this period of accelerated economic growth. Crouwel, a man fully adapted to this new technological world — like Vitti’s husband in the film, the plant’s manager — would have been at home there.

“I’ve always been fascinated by techniques and construction processes,” Crouwel writes in Typographic Architectures (2007). “Sprawling, human-built landscapes where high-voltage power lines run to the horizon have actually inspired me. [. . .] Railroads with their skein of rails and overhead wires are, to my eyes, full of poetry. I’m dazzled by pictures of space travel. [. . .] My output from 1956 to 1976 was the direct expression of these sources of inspiration.”

Wim Crouwel, Shapes of Colour, exhibition poster, 1966

What we can see now more clearly than ever, particularly in Crouwel’s posters in the exhibition, is that his practice was often at odds with the severity of his pronouncements. Far from suppressing his own creative personality in the way he advised, Crouwel was expressing it to the full. It just happens that this personality was inclined towards reduction and minimalism. Long-lasting client relationships can provide designers with the freedom and continuity to develop their thinking and methods, and Crouwel was fortunate to work with the museum director Edy de Wilde for three decades, first at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven and then at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. According to De Wilde, who would have known better than anyone, Crouwel embraced the possibilities of the machine culture, while emphasizing that, “The machine cannot replace the precision of the human eye and human feeling.” (Kunst + Design: Wim Crouwel, 1991) De Wilde worked with the designer on hundreds of projects and concluded that pragmatic and emotional concerns were of equal importance for Crouwel.

In a fine analysis of Total Design’s philosophy, which appears in The Regime of Visibility (2005), the Dutch art critic Camiel van Winkel comes to much the same conclusion, though he puts it less charitably. Crouwel, he writes, “concealed his aesthetic preferences by legitimising them with the argument of maximum legibility.”

Wim Crouwel, Contemporary Art, museum poster, 1971

Crouwel himself accepted long ago that his work is far more personal than he once claimed. I interviewed him this week at a live event at the Design Museum and we continued our conversation over dinner. Like anyone else, he still has his aesthetic preferences and still holds strong views — postmodernism, he said in 2003, is “loathsome” — but in recent decades he has been much more open to other possible ways of working.

After years of talking to visual people about their work, I find it hard to see these personal philosophies as anything other than necessary fictions. These deeply held views tell us a lot about the motivations of the person espousing them. They are vital to the creative process and other creative people of similar outlook might find these precepts useful. But it’s the same as religions when they are viewed in absolute terms as the one true explanation of reality: they can’t all be right. There is room for many forms of practice and ways of thinking about practice and the cultural sphere is much the richer for it. Talking to Crouwel, who is excellent company, one senses his wry amusement at his earlier emphatic prescriptions. He knows the world wasn’t really like that, but it suited him to believe it was.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Graphic Design, History

Comments [12]

Thank Rick, for this revelation.

Rick, you've hit on the not-so-dirty little secret of modernism: that its practitioners were and are just as willful, intuitive and subjective as any of the most "expressive designers" out there.

Your reference to "personal philosophies as necessary fictions" reminds me of the debate about "bullshit" we had here on DO several years ago. I suspect they are different manifestations of the same syndrome.
Michael Bierut

Wim sure has nice shoes. Damn.

Joe Moran

Thank you very much for this fine piece.

The opening paragraph seems to be a reminder of the adage that graphic designers are sometimes taken for granted by their nearest community.
David Versluis

That modernist "practitioners were and are just as willful, intuitive and subjective as any of the most "expressive designers" out there" is hardly a fresh revelation. Variations on this opinion have been expressed in critical design writing going back two decades (and I count Rick Poynor amongst those critics). Of course, that contrarian writing was dismissed and marginalized, and the rationalizations championed. What would count as revelatory is if design learned the lesson of unquestioningly accepting celebrity pronouncements and nurtured contemporary contrarian thought.
Kenneth FitzGerald

Michael, re: bullshit — that was a great debate and I see where you are coming from, but I wouldn’t want to imply that I think these larger private philosophies and self-motivating rationales are all bullshit. For the designers who hold these views so strongly, these “necessary fictions” are clearly vital in giving shape to coherent bodies of work. It’s when the personal philosophy begins to insist dogmatically that others pursuing different concerns and paths are wrong and that everyone should get with the same programme that the trouble starts. In the 1960s and 1970s, Wim Crouwel, a forceful and charismatic character, was inclined to be highly prescriptive. He takes a much more relaxed view now.

Of course, as Kenneth suggests, the limiting narrowness of such a perspective within graphic design was thoroughly examined during the years of postmodernism. Modernist form was understood to be a “vernacular,” one set of aesthetic choices or preferences in a smorgasbord of possibilities. But time passes, the wheel of fashion turns, the design world forgets and new versions of earlier thinking take root again, irrespective of previous debates and critiques. Crouwel, too, is ambivalent about the neo-modernism that some of his admirers practice, which he views as a style without any serious intellectual rationale.
Rick Poynor

Thank you Rick for reminding us about Crouwel and the amazing Total Design. How long is the London show on? Best, A.M.
Anna Maria West

Anna Maria, the exhibition runs at the Design Museum, London until 3 July.
Rick Poynor

The show looks great and I wish there were a venue in New York that could host it. Barring that be aware that a well printed catalog for the show is now available from Unit Editions in the UK. Unit is also publishing a monograph on Total Design that ships at the end of this month. The last big Crouwel monograph is now quite scarce and sells for upwards of $800 on Ebay. My guess is that Crouwel will be the next big monograph in the Phaidon series on graphic designers. About time. It will sell well to all the kids high on Modernism. I do agree with Rick Poynor that the vogue for this is a "stylistic" choice right now. But there's nothing wrong with that. Why are the young looking to Crouwel and Brockmann these days? I suppose it has to do with a nostalgia for order in the chaos, economic, political and otherwise. But not to worry. It's beautiful stuff. I had someone say to me the other day that the highest achievement in the history of graphic design was Swiss pharmeceutical packaging of the 1950's and 60's. Whatever. It's all good.
Terry Lennox

For designers, it is very easy to like what is familiar and ubiquitous. It is also very easy to rebel against the same thing, and then talk about it. I think what is needed is a point of view in one's own work, not discourse.
Tushar Gupte

Tushar, I agree with the need for a point of view, but how can you have a point of view in your work (or in anything else) without thinking about what you are trying to do and then perhaps talking about it, too? In other words, discourse.

In the case of Crouwel, he was a constant contributor to the design discourse of his day and that's one reason why his work has stayed interesting — because it has a strong point of view that he was able to articulate.
Rick Poynor

Even for those Dutch designers who find Crouwels work too ‘cold’ and formal (as I do), he has been a profound influence, especially in the seventies and early eighties when furious polemics were fought in the mainstream(ish) press in the Netherlands. The phrase ‘Nieuwe Lelijkheid’ (New Ugliness) was launched then and has been a favorite qualification of design and critics ever since…

In my days at Art School (where one of Crouwels sons was one year behind me) a major influence on us fledgling graphic designers was Piet Schreuders, a self-taught designer who published a small book condemning the work of Total design and other followers of Swiss design: ‘Lay In Lay Out’. Watching Crouwel and Schreuders slugging it out was like seeing the Ali-Frasier fight; highly entertaining and very enervating.
Bert Vanderveen

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