Wim Crouwel

Unadulterated Functionalism

Wallpaper *145, April 2011

photo: Qiu Yang

His apartment looks not nearly as ‘noise-free’ as one would expect from a man nicknamed “Mr. Gridnik.” Still, every bit of furniture in Wim Crouwel’s living room is chosen for a reason. Gerrit Rietveld’s famous Red-and-Blue chair, Charles Eames’ lounge chair and Frank Gehry’s ‘Power Play’ plywood chair seem very far apart stylistically, but I can see why someone with a fascination for expressive construction would find something to admire in all of them.

It characterizes Wim Crouwel: his tastes as a connoisseur of design culture are considerably broader than the stern principles he adheres to as a designer. “There’s a constant struggle between what I appreciate in the work of others, and my own ideas,” he once told me, “but often, when I like something that vastly differs from my own work, it reinforces my own standpoint.” That standpoint is unadulterated functionalism. Born in 1928, at the high-point of the modernist avant-garde, Crouwel has always remained true to his chosen roots. At age 35, he joined forces with graphic designer Benno Wissing, industrial designer Friso Kramer and the entrepreneurial brothers Paul and Dick Schwarz to found the design agency that changed the face of the Netherlands. The firm’s name was its program: Total Design. It was the first design agency in the Low Countries that followed the business model and design strategies of larger bureaus in the UK and the US: to design all aspects of a client’s identity as one programmatic whole, from its logo, letterheads and advertising to its products and packaging. Including “the spatial organisation of the factory itself,” as a note from co-founder Dick Schwarz from 1962 states. Crouwel himself had a sound background in ‘spatial organization,’ as designer of exhibitions and trade fair stands for a great variety of clients in the 1950s, from museums to bicycle parts manufacturers. And he had served a similar range of clients as graphic designer, making a name for himself as creator of idiosyncratically typographic posters for Eindhoven’s Van Abbe Museum. At Total Design in the early 1960s, he switched to the Stedelijk Museum of Amsterdam, providing its printed matter with a stern functionalist look and feel that reflected the museum’s accommodating stance vis-à-vis the artworks it presented – and its status as authoritative institution.

The rigidity of the ‘Stedelijk’s’ house-style – much too detached, too corporate for many in the artistic elite – spawned a landmark debate on graphic design in the Netherlands in 1972. Crouwel’s opponent was his successor as designer at the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven, Jan van Toorn. The debate defined the two poles between which Dutch graphic design navigated for decades, but in hindsight, one could say that both represented different consequences of the same modernist tradition. Van Toorn followed modernism’s socially inspired strand, engaging with the public and stressing design’s biased character as social message, while Crouwel took the problem-solving direction implicit in modernism’s emphasis on rational design and production methods. Crouwel advocated – and still does – an unadorned design, devoid of what he considers irrelevant ‘noise.’ A designer’s personal feelings, his political stance or social engagement should stay outside of the commission; a client’s message should be allowed to speak for itself, as functionally and eloquently as possible with the available means. Though culturally speaking this was not a popular outlook for the young-at-heart in the 1960’s and 1970s, it proved to be a highly successful design philosophy. Total Design became one of a handful agencies in the Netherlands who worked for both large government and cultural institutions and corporate clients. Together, they reshaped the official look of the country, with Total Design as the banner bearers and Crouwel as herald.

photo: Paul Huff

In his work, his writings and as professor at the Industrial Design Department of Delft Technical University, Crouwel promoted and taught a cool professionalism, that was often mistaken for dispassionate neutrality. Within the boundaries of his client-oriented trade, however, Crouwel is a passionate craftsman who delights in solving formal puzzles. Once the commission is rationally analysed, a grid has been established and a set of rules to approach the design is defined, Crouwel starts playing his own game. His 1967 ‘New Alphabet’ is a case in point, albeit without commissioner. This study into the typographic limitations and potential of the crude computer screens of the time takes a rigid pixel grid as point of departure for designing a proper font for the medium. The designer was the first to admit that his alphabet was rather hard to read, but that was not the experiment’s main focus. The endeavour was an investigation into preparing a “formal grammar” that would solve the tension between traditional curved letterforms, digital reproduction and linear aesthetics. The aesthetical premise is typically Crouwel – when Crouwel thinks ‘not pretty,’ he mostly means ‘not consistent.’ Since curved lines and diagonals cannot be consistently drawn on a screen, Crouwel discards them altogether. Only the corners are slanting, to optically round them off.

Wim Crouwel’s interiors shoot, for Wallpaper* April 2011 (W*145). Direction: Wim Crouwel. Photography: Dan Tobin Smith

In his experimental alphabet, Crouwel practiced what he would preach some years later, in his 1973 inaugural address at Delft Technical University where he was appointed Professor of Industrial Design. In his speech, he defined the task of designers as being a matter of “form-preparation” rather than of “form-giving.” Designers should organize “a formal grammar, from which all necessary formal conjugations can be developed.” With this statement, Crouwel represents a rare bridge between pre-war functionalism and internet-age interface design, geared at facilitating users to define the formal outcome of processes that are functionally and aesthetically prepared by the formal grammar contained within the software. In Crouwel’s view, the ultimate source for any formal grammar is the grid – “I can’t make even the simplest sketch without drawing on squared paper,” he merrily confesses. He has used it consistently throughout his career, invisibly directing the balance of his designs. But every once in a while it surfaces, most notably in his poster for the 1968 exhibition ‘Vormgevers’ (form-givers) at the Stedelijk Museum, where it is consistent with the subject: designers. The limited edition cover of this issue of Wallpaper* represents yet another materialization of Crouwel’s grid, this time used as two-dimensional anchor for a virtual three-dimensional space. The illusion of space is due to the application of a gradient, a device Crouwel also used in his famous postage stamps of 1979, in which the grid-based ciphers seemed to hover in an undefined space. Here, it serves to associate the grid that has given him his nickname with his first beginnings as “spatial designer” of interiors and exhibitions. And of course it’s functional, as a basic design for a furniture photoshoot, symbolizing the six planes that define a place – and mirror the objects, like an interior mirrors its dweller.

max bruinsma