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Wim Crouwel on his 80th Birthday part II

Part two of our chat with Wim Crouwel continues here: he talks about Dutch design in the 80s and his hope for a new unifying vision for the world of design.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 06-05-2009

By the 80s those ambitions were basically dead, and because broader objectives proved impossible, modernism was mostly reduced to little more than an aesthetic. “In the beginning I really believed that I could strive for something neutral,” Crouwel says. “I thought that by being strict and orderly and by not letting influences that deflect from the message into the work, I could be timeless. What I know now though, is that timelessness is impossible. That is probably the real change in my opinion.”

Flicking through catalogues, Crouwel points to the sorts of details in his work that date it. “Liberal politics, man walking on the moon, the introduction of digital typesetting,” he says. “You can see the influences quite clearly.”

One of Crouwel’s favourite examples is the New Alphabet he created in 1967. The project was a reaction against the first generation of low-resolution computer typesetting. As a functional modernist, he was always unashamedly willing to submit to the demands of the machine. “The critics all said that we shouldn’t follow technology and that it should follow us,” he says. “But my point was that for the next twenty years, we would be dealing with technical limitations so it would be best to develop typefaces that at least worked.”

Primitive computers could only make straight lines so Crouwel stripped the round edges from traditional letters to create characters that consisted of only horizontal and vertical lines with corners at either 45 or 90 degrees. At the time, he called his results a theoretical exercise, more about testing the possibilities and limits of new technology than creating good typefaces. Its genius is that it could be created on early computers consistently and in every size and grade.

“The New Alphabet was over-the-top and never meant to be really used,” Crouwel says. “ It was unreadable.” But to his great surprise, the script made a come-back decades later in 1988 when legendary British rockband, Joy Division used a version of it on the album cover of Substance.

“I look at it now and see it as something very typically 60s,” Crouwel says. “I could never have created it in the 50s or in the 70s and I think the band might have been attracted to that.”

Crouwel breaks into passionate German as he aligns the ideas inside his New Alphabet with those of the Bauhaus. “German is a very difficult language,” he says. “They use capitals at the beginning of every noun, but Bauhaus scrapped that. They put everything in small case to save time. It was revolutionary. To fit with the parameters of the machines, I also used all lower case, but added under-strokes to indicate capitals.”

Graphic design, however, the more functionalist side of modernism, fared better than architecture and object design. As a discipline, it was less affected by the weaknesses of the system, perhaps because of its less personal relationship with the public’s domestic lives. Many modernist public housing projects were dismissed as soulless, bureaucratic and inhuman; and the furniture was considered elitist, prohibitively expensive and intellectually confusing.

“The problem was that ordinary people didn't like it,” says Crouwel. “It was so far from their romantic views about living. It was too revolutionary. People were still living in over-decorated houses with heavy curtains and tapestries, the very opposite of what this style represented … but look at it now, you have a sort of Mies van der Rohe chairs sold by the thousands in Ikea.”

Paralleling all this were the massive changes happening in design education in Holland during the 70s. The Bauhaus tradition of mastering the basics in disciplines like typeface and materials was replaced by a freer, more personalized approach to learning. “It started with Joop Hardy, director at AKI in Enschede,” Crouwel says, “and soon spread throughout the country.

“Design education was no longer about producing professionals who were ready to do real commercial work,” Crouwel continues. “But rather, it became about developing the person. Schools started producing artists who were big on attitude, very conceptual and who all had a very strong point of view, but they had no real skills. Consequently, a lot of them ended up disappearing.”

Which is how the 80s began - a “highly uncritical” decade of post-modernism and anything-goes mind-sets. “I was glad to not be designing then,” Crouwel says. “I really did not believe in any of it. Design had become such a fashionable world and included just about everything. I called it collage design.”

During his tenure at the Boijmans Van Beuningen museum (1985-1993), Crouwel chose not to use a Dutch graphic designer and instead found two young English designers trained in the New Modernist style in Basel. “I just didn't like what was happening in Holland at all then,” he explains. “I couldn’t relate to it, but I did like the New Modernist’s response to the post-modernists. They had very clear answers.”

Looking back, Crouwel thinks Holland struggled with the freedom offered by post-modernism and really lost its way design-wise. As if in survival mode, object design, at least, came back strongly in the 90s with a new brand of hard-core conceptualism.

But even the most celebrated names of that movement didn’t entirely convince Crouwel. “I was a bit puzzled by the influence of Droog Design,” he says. “I saw it as too much about linking nice ideas into one scene than doing anything really important, and the ideas always seemed more important than the execution.”

It’s not all grim, however. About others Crouwel is happy to heap on the praise. “I’m a big fan of Rem Koolhaas,” he says. “I enjoy his Mies van der Rohe influence and his very experimental personal point of view.”

The most enthusiasm, and in spite of her rather conceptual direction, is reserved for Li Edelkoort, the recently departed head of the Design Academy Eindhoven. “She is the wonder woman of Dutch design,” Crouwel says. “She is so influential. She is 100% design and a concept thinker. She foresees things and is a master. If you talk to her, you immediately get under her influence and I am afraid for the school’s future now she has left it.”

When it comes to graphic design, Crouwel picks out Experimental Jetset as the operation doing the most interesting work: “Clear, strong and one-track minded,” he says. But his enthusiasm stops there.

“I like designers who think about their work,” he says. “I get examples sent to me all the time by people asking for an opinion. Recently I received a typeface and I told the boy I didn’t like the uneven word shapes and thought it was unnecessary. He wrote back to me saying he did it because he was bored and wanted something new. I hate that … when they work from their stomachs like chickens without heads. I much prefer the thinking types.”

Crouwel points to the restrained ambitions imposed on graphic design by the advertising industry as the cause of the discipline’s slump. “Nobody is seeking out the universal anymore,” he says. “I want to see the next big idea and less of this convenient adjustment to circumstances. It’s that sort of commercial approach that has caused Dutch graphics to lose so much influence. It’s lost its edge and has become so much less visual.”

So Crouwel waits for a signal of a new beginning. “Something that belongs to the times,” he says. “I still believe that people need sharp, well defined ideas that they can follow and work from, and which help them to believe in something. I’d love to be able to witness the birth of a great new style, a direction that we all can look towards for new solutions.”

Crouwel is a Dutch cultural icon, and perhaps the country’s most important graphic designer. Frederike Huygen recently described his work as a poetic form of cold art. “But I’m not an artist,” he says, immediately stripping away the shades of romanticism that coloured his final comments. “My work has always been for paying clients and it was really only ever about designing solutions.”

Main image at top by Michael Levy

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