Wim Crouwel: A Graphic Odyssey at The Design Museum London

By Alice Neal | 08 June 2011
A photo of graphic designs inside a gallery studio
© Luke Hayes
Exhibition: Wim Crouwel: A Graphic Odyssey, Design Museum, London, until July 3 2011

Anyone who has deliberated between the merits of Times New Roman versus Arial for that oh-so-important email knows the importance of typography.

The Design Museum also thinks font matters, dedicating a floor of the museum to the first UK retrospective of Dutch graphic designer Wim Crouwel.

Anyone not au fait with the litany of Dutch companies Crouwel designed for may be unaware of his work, but Joy Division fans will recognise Crouwel’s New Alphabet font from the cover of Substance.

Designed in 1967, New Alphabet was a thoroughly modern typeface, with its vertical and horizontal lines geared towards use on computers. At times the letters border on the illegible, and it is perhaps this penchant for visual aesthetics before function that elevates Crouwel from font designer to something a bit more special.

The exhibition does well to encapsulate a 60-year career in such a small space. Photos, slides, videos and hand drawn alphabets are circled by bold museum posters and logos to reflect a varied working life.

Crouwel began his career in Groningen studying fine art.  This skill and attention to detail is exemplified by numerous pencil sketches on display which give a real sense of how Crouwel worked.

During childhood visits to the circus, Crouwel was more interested in the construction of the big top than the vaudeville delights within it.  This fascination with space led Crouwel to design exhibitions for the Van Abbe museum in Eindhoven in the 1950s. The exhibitions are denoted by slides of projected on the walls.

However, these images are somewhat overshadowed by the more colourful posters for the museum displayed alongside them. The posters show the first signs of Crouwel’s recognisable grid-based layouts. Against a block colour backdrop, the black or white asymmetric letters are the definitely the main focus.

In the 1960s, Crouwel took his style to the more commercial world of logo and identity design, starting the firm Total Design, whose client book – on display here – reads like a Who’s Who of the Netherlands.

Crouwel also designed fonts for more functional projects such as stamps, calendars, Olivetti typewriters and a controversial, lowercase-only phonebook. The stylish, paper-saving edition did not go down well with the public, and complaints meant the original capital letter version was reinstated. These objects offer a glimpse into the growing importance of branding and design in everyday life during the 1960s and 1970s.

Crouwel’s extensive poster and exhibition catalogue designs for the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam are an interesting interplay between design and art. With designs for catalogues on distinctive artists including Jackson Pollock and Roy Lichtenstein, Crouwel had a tough job on his hands.

It is here that the grid-based system is most effectively exploited, giving the freedom to adapt the catalogue layout to reflect the subject matter while retaining a distinct identity for the museum.

Crouwel’s flexibility as a designer and strong aesthetic ideals position him somewhere between design and art. This retrospective is worth seeing for design lovers and font fanatics alike.

  • Open 10am-5.45pm (10pm July 1). Admission £6-£11, book online.

See Wim Crouwel talk about the show:

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