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An evening with Wim Crouwel

Premsela’s Pioneers of Industrial Culture programme investigates the relationship between culture and commerce through discussions with some of the most influential Dutch designers and thinkers. 

By No author / 30-06-2011

This fourth interview in the series continues the discussion at the Design Museum, London, with a conversation between Deyan Sudjic (Museum Director) and Wim Crouwel during the final week of Crouwel’s retrospective exhibition.

The dialogue focused upon the tension that can emerge when the agendas of design and industry attempt to align, yet the conversation was peppered with engaging anecdotes that illustrate Crouwels pioneering life and his motivations as a designer responding to modern culture.

"I have a Modernistic view on society- I think design can solve a lot of problems for society"

Modernity is a word that is used frequently by Crouwel and embodies a set of ideals that drove his life’s work. He recalls his first encounter with the ‘Modern’ during his early days at art school set in one of Hollands first Modernist buildings.

Crouwel describes his experience of the building as significant and profound, he felt it encapsulated the climate of change following the war and it left a lasting impression in him. Modern architecture, along with abstract art were deeply influential during the development of his ideas as a designer and the role he believed design could play within society.

Crouwel describes design as a means ‘to create a better world' and 'design is a question of thinking it over', his approach is modern and assertive - he recalled times when he had to convince clients to consider untried methods and of the difficulty of working with clients with whom there is a conflict of ethics: "Sometimes you have to say no to a client because you don't think you can solve their problem- their idea is completely different to your view of the world."

Sudjic pushed Crouwel to elaborate on an assertion that design was a  'response to problems', it emerged that Crouwels definition of the word 'problem' was is in its broadest sense- as an outcome or goal to work towards and achieve- and it became clear that expression of an idea was firmly within his idea of a valid goal.

The discussion turned to the opportunities for a symbiotic relationship between industrialization and expressionism in design, Crouwel used exhibition design as an example, in this case he describes the problem as 'finding a good solution to make the idea of the curator clear to the public'.

Crouwels career as a graphic designer saw a significant changes, he experienced an evolution of the discipline from paper and type-setting to becoming digitalized and computerized.  The arrival of digitalization had a great impact on Crouwels body of work, and reinterpreting printed material for this new context lead to controversial decisions such as removing capitalization from the telephone directory and the design of  New Alphabet - a font developed specifically for the capabilities of the first digital printing technology.

The compelling logic and intelligence of Crouwels assertive, straightforward approach was combined with great humour and fascinating examples -this short overview covers just a small portion of the history Crouwel shared that evening.  

For more stories and recollections, including Crouwels first encounter with typography, buildings that brings tears to his eyes and the important role that Benno Premsela played in the set up of Total Design, download the podcast from Premesla’s website or iTunes.

Click on the images to enlarge

Photography: Joe Gascoigne

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