Currently on the verge of its seventh decade, the career of the Dutch graphic designer Wim Crouwel has produced several major bodies of work. Among them there are the series of posters and catalogues designed for the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven between 1955 and 1963, those designed for the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam between 1963 and 1985 and the New Alphabet typeface, which, created in the spirit of experiment in 1967, has been a source of interest and inspiration ever since. Given the extent and longevity of Crouwel’s influence, it seems incredible that the Design Museum’s ‘A Graphic Odyssey’ is the first full-scale retrospective of his work. Curated by fellow graphic designer Tony Brook, it is an exhilarating tour through Crouwel’s prodigious output.
The most significant visual treats of the exhibition are the extensive displays of posters created for the Van Abbemuseum and the Stedelijk. All made for the client Edy de Wilde, who took Crouwel with him when he moved from being the director of the former institution to that of the latter, they are a case study in what can be achieved when a brilliant graphic designer is paired with an enlightened commissioner. Designed according to strict Modernist principles, the two sets of posters are predominantly typographic and in several cases use custom letterforms crafted by Crouwel to reflect the content of the exhibition in question. Among the best known of these are the apparently inflated alphabet designed for the Stedelijk’s Claes Oldenburg exhibition in 1970, and the grid-system typeface invented for the poster and catalogue of the 1968 industrial design exhibition ‘Vormgevers’. These pieces make it obvious that, for all his apparent graphic discipline, Crouwel took enormous pleasure in creating form.
A problem common to graphic design exhibitions is how to make something as small and workaday as a leaflet or letterhead into the main event. Often curators and designers attempt to solve this by blowing up images and using them as wallpaper. This works as a means of injecting drama, but tends to detract from content: you can learn very little about a layout designed for an A6 format by expanding it tenfold. Adopting the opposite approach in this exhibition, the architectural practice 6A have created a display system that generates both a sense of pace and focus around the most ephemeral of exhibits. Built of white tables resting on angular legs that are grouped together to form islands within the gallery, the structure is punctuated by perspex display cases and angled sections of table surface as a means of creating emphasis. Resting on these tables, exhibits such as a set of stamps designed for the Dutch postal service are imbued with a monumentality that belies their scale. Overall the exhibition has a serene, bordering on clinical feel that perfectly compliments Crouwel’s restrained compositions.
Alongside Crouwel’s own designs, ‘A Graphic Odyssey’ includes works by his influences, colleagues and disciples, and even a couple by his arch-rival Jan van Toorn (a Dutch contemporary who was explicitly opposed to Crouwel’s Modernist problem-solving approach). Including Swiss posters and magazines from the 1950s, corporate designs by his colleagues at Total Design, the firm he co-founded in 1963, and recent work by younger international designers, these add a valuable contextual strand to the exhibition. If I have a reservation, it would be with the use of the word ‘legacy’ to describe the input of recent generations – a slightly pompous term that belies the liveliness of Crouwel’s ongoing influence. To get a better sense of the current impact of his work read the quote reproduced on the wall from the Dutch group Experimental Jetset: ‘The graphic landscape in which we spent our childhood years was largely designed by Wim Crouwel and his peers. As a consequence, Crouwel’s handwriting has become our native language, our mother tongue. What was intended by Crouwel as a purely functional system, has been embedded in our psyche as a poetic language: a vocabulary filled with beauty and tension.’