Wim Crouwel A Graphic Odyssey
Exhibition posters for Het Nieuwe Bouwen 1982
The name Wim Crouwel has become a touchstone for designers and design educators around the world. His reputation as one of the few truly great graphic designers of the 20th century was sealed a long time ago. The qualities of his work are plain to see: the transcendence of the merely functional; the distinctive use of abstract typographic forms: the relentless experimentation with the grid; the ability of his work to communicate. He seems to have achieved the perfect balance - one that defines the phrase commercial artist.
Today. few designers share the modernist principles that so inspired the young Crouwel. but they recognise the special nature of his work With the seismic changes that technology continuously brings to design, there is no better place to look for inspiration in how to deal with this maelstrom than in the work of Wim Crouwel - a man who has engaged head on with the future and who has attempted to shape a better one all his working life.
For my ﬁrst encounter with Wim Crouwel. I owe a debt of thanks to Mark Holt. one of the founding partners of 8vo. In the late 1990s. Mark brought a selection of posters to the Spin studio. Two posters in particular had me spell-bound: National Zeitung by Karl Gerstner and Visueule communicatie by Wim Crouwel. Nothing quite prepares you for seeing Crouwel's posters in the flesh. My bank balance has been heading south (and my poster collection north) ever since.
Later. I approached Mark about the possibility of him and Wim giving an informal talk at the Spin studio. Unbelievably, they came. I remember coming to work that day ready to sit in silent awe at the feet of these two masters, but neither Wim nor Mark would have any truck with such nonsense, and reverence was soon replaced by engagement. Since that day. I have squeezed into lots of packed lecture halls to hear Wim speak Each lecture has been different, always with new insights, and always with a fresh perspective.
With this in mind. my personal highlight during the curation and creation of the Design Museum exhibition - Wim Crouwel: A Graphic Odyssey - was the opportunity to interview Wim at length. Over the years. I have come to know him well. and have always enjoyed our meetings. but as the date for our interview draw closer the butterflies started. Would it go well? Would the presence of a film camera make the setting too formal? Would he be willing to go into the sort of detail I wanted him to discuss?
The interview was scheduled for early one morning in December 2010. I wake to find a freezing fog-bound day in Amsterdam. Schiphol Airport was closed, planes were grounded, and the only sound was the occasional Dutch bone shaker rattling over the cobbles. I wandered over to Wim‘s ﬂat. In the mist, his building gave itself up slowly. I walked up the steps and pressed the buzzer. A warm voice came through the intercom. The conversation lasted for two hours and covered all aspects of his stellar career. Wim, as always, gave much more than was reasonable to ask.
Tony Brook: I'd like to begin by asking you about vour early life. You were born in Groningen in 1928. Can you describe what it was like grow-ing up there?
Wim Crouwel: It was a provincial town, but it had a university, so it was a very lively provincial town. I had a wonderful youth there. My father was a blockmaker for the printing industry - he prepared illustrations for letter-press printing. They were combined with the text for newspapers and soon.
Were you artistic as a child?
I did a lot of drawing, but I was more interested in three-dimensional structures. Every year a circus was held near our house, and I was always very interested in this. Not because of the circus performances, but because of the tent and the tent's construction. It intrigued me. At home I made a small tent from old drapes and wires, and put nails in the floor to construct a real tent. I still have photographs of this. I was very interested in technical installations and manufacturing techniques.
At some point you must have decided to go to art school.
My father helped me with that. I was immediately given permission to go to art school. That was a wonderful time, because high school had been awful for me. I was a very bad pupil... I had to 'repeat' entire years. But art school was heaven for me; suddenly it was a completely different life. It fed my ideas of construction and architecture, because the school I went to - the Minerva art school in Groningen - was the first modernist building in Holland, erected in 1923. It was like an ocean liner. It lay there with long rows of windows and its concrete and steel structure. Our school was on the top floor of this building. So this school made an enormous impression on me. But on the other hand, the teaching was still the old arts and crafts method, very much in contrast to the building. This contrast was intriguing to me; at the time, I didn't know what to make of it - the contrast between the architecture of the school and what we were taught.
When did the transition to becoming a designer happen?
That happened much later. I finished art school in 1949. Back then, we still had to do military service - for two and a half years - so I had plenty of time to think about what I wanted to do with my life. This was an awful period for me; absolutely the lowest point in my life. But when I left military service in 1952, I decided to go to Amsterdam immediately, because I thought every-thing happened in Amsterdam. So I went with a friend to Amsterdam and tried to find a job in an advertising agency, or anything like that. But there were no jobs. It was an awful time, so soon after the war.
Did you think about becoming an artist?
I did do a lot of painting, and I carried on painting for quite a few years. But I had to earn money, and I couldn't earn money with my paintings. I had a few exhibitions, but they didn't bring me any money, so I had to apply for a job. But I didn't succeed in finding a job in an advertising agency because the portfolio I showed was the portfolio from an art school - absolutely unsuited to an ad agency. Then I decided to phone two famous artists whose work I knew. I knew the posters of Dick Offers and Otto Treumani they were shown to us at art school. I phoned them and they were very friendly, and both invited me for a talk. I had a wonderful time with them. I was most influenced by Treumann, because he was a very precise and very imaginative poster designer. Elffers was a painter who designed a lot of exhibitions, and he gave me a job. He said, I know an exhibition company and they are looking fora designer. I said, but I am not a designer yet. That doesn't matter, he said, you can work on my jobs. So I accepted. It was a wonderful time. I stayed there for about two years, and that gave me a crash course in exhibition design. But first of all I worked with Dick Elffers on his jobs. It was a small company, but very specialized in all sorts of techniques. That's where I also met the first Swiss designers.
Would it be true to say that, at this time, you still hadn't done any graphic design as such?
None at all, except some posters I had done for the school club, which were very amateurish because I didn't know anything about type, and I knew nothing about drawing. But the commissioners of exhibitions asked me if I could also do folders, as handouts for the exhibitions. So I made very small folders and leaflets for these companies, and that's how the process started. Then I found out that I didn't know anything about typography. I decided to go to evening classes at the Rietveld Academy here in Amsterdam (then called IVKNO - lnstituut Voor Kunstnijverheids Onderwijs.) For two years, I went to evening classes and that helped me enormously. I had very good teachers; fantastic teachers in the modernist sense. At the same time, the exhibition company got a large commission from the Marshall Plan to make an exhibition about very large barges.
You have a nice story about working with sans serif fonts and the difficulties in getting hold of them. I wonder if you can talk about that?
These Swiss designers brought with them large type cases with mainly the Akzidenz Grotesk typeface, as you would expect from Swiss designers. I was intrigued by that typeface, but when we wanted to use it in our exhibitions we had to cut out the letters in plywood and glue them onto the walls, all by hand. I tried to find out more about the typeface, so I went to the printers to ask them if they could give me this face for my graphic work. They didn't have it, because Akzidenz Grotesk was not available in Holland. I could have Futura, and one or two other sans serif typefaces, but these were all I could use in Holland at that time. When I did my first larger graphic design commissions, and I wanted to use Akzidenz Grotesk, I would buy Swiss newspapers and cut the letters out and glue them in place, and then take photographs to use as artwork. It involved a lot of handcraft.
Can you name some of the designers who influenced you and excited you at this point?
At that time I was very interested in modern architecture, and I read a lot of books about it. Every Wednesday afternoon when we had no school, I went to the library and looked through the architecture and interiors magazines. There was a librarian who knew me by then, and she sorted out books especially for me. Every Wednesday afternoon she came to me with new books on architecture and design. I learned a lot from books. Then, in the early 1950s, I bought my first camera, and I photographed a lot of architecture. With Gerad Ifert, and Ernst Scheidegger I made some trips to Paris, and there I saw the work of Le Corbusier. for the first time. So I have always been influenced by architecture, even more than by graphic design in the beginning.
How did you meet the architect and interior designer - and your first business partner - Kho Liang le?
That was through Emy, my late first wife. We were married in 1952, and she was a pupil at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam, doing pottery. A friend of hers, who also did pottery, was a friend of Kho Liang le, and it was through her that I met him. He was still at art school and a year later, in 1955, when he finished, we decided to start an office. It was a small office, just the two of us, both doing exhibitions - he was doing interior architecture, and I did my graphic design work. It was a brave thing to do, but quite natural; we didn't think about it for long. Kho Liang le, a Chinese man, coming from Indonesia, had very Eastern ideas about atmosphere, and you could always see this in his work. He influenced me to make very quiet things, things with not much going on. We made wonderful exhibitions together.
When did you start working for the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum?
That is a story in itself. A friend of ours lived near our studio. He was the director of a very small museum and he was an art historian. His brother was the director of the art school in ',Hertogenbosch, in the south of Holland, and that brother asked him if he knew an Amsterdam designer who could set up a design course at his art school, because he didn't have a design course. And he proposed me. So, in 1953, at the age of 25, and not having done any teaching before, I became a teacher. I set up a design course, and we got a commission as a school, from the city of 's-Hertogenbosch, to do an exhibition on the tenth anniversary of the liberation of 's-Hertogenbosch. With my students I made a large tent - so again a tent construction - and within the tent we made a structure out of scaffolding material. And in that scaffolding material we did an exhibition. That was the beginning of the school course. Then a friend of the director - Edy de Wilde, director of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven - asked the director of the school if he knew someone who could do his catalogues and posters. And again, he proposed me. You need some luck in your life. I worked for the Van Abbemuseum from 1955 or '56 onwards.
I'd like to ask you about the posters that you were designing for De Wilde. There seems to be a conceptual element to them; for instance, the famous Hiroshima poster - it is type and colour only.
I looked at the work in each exhibition that I had to design a poster for, and I drew a 'sideways' influence from the subject matter. For instance, the Hiroshima exhibition consisted of paintings and drawings about the horror of Hiroshima by a Japanese artist. So I thought I should make it bright orange, or red, with very heavy black type to give an impression of the horror of the bombing of Hiroshima. I always used one word to make an image - a kind of image-based typography - so that's how this poster came about.
When De Wilde went to the Stedeliik Museum you went with him and your poster work for the museum is some of your best-known work. What was your creative process when you were working for the Museum, and what kind of briefs did you get?
I worked with various curators on the exhibitions, so I worked with staff from all departments; the briefing depended on which curator you worked with. Some were very precise and prepared the work very well; some had only a vague idea about what they wanted, and discussed how to do it with me. There were also curators who liked to do it themselves. They thought they were much better designers - that's always the case when you work for a museum. But still, they were all good friends of mine, so it was a fantastic period. It was always a question of discussion with the curator - never with the artist, only ever with the curator.
Did you research the artist's life and work?
Yes. As soon as you knew the subject, you got material from the curator to read, or you knew about it already - some of the artists were very famous. Sometimes I researched the artist myself to get an impression of the work. But for the Stedelijk I decided to do it differently from the Van Abbemuseum. This was a period of searching for me, a time to develop myself and to find a way to do posters and catalogues. In the catalogues for the Van Abbemuseum, I didn't use a fixed grid or anything like that; it was still about a 'feeling' and trying to use sans serif typefaces. I couldn't always get Akzidenz Grotesk, so I used Gill Sans or Noble. I experimented with everything and my idea of good typography was to make a good composition on the page. When I started working for Edy de Wilde at the Stedelijk, I said to myself - now this is a different situation, because at the Stedelijk there was the history of Willem Sandberg, the former director of the museum, who was his own typographer and his own graphic designer. He did all the posters and the catalogues. Sandberg was a graphic designer who worked like a painter. I always saw him looking through his eyelashes at the distance, always using natural colours and so on. He was such a different person from me.
Was this when you first started working with grids?
Right from the start, I said to Edy de Wilde that we were going to do things differently from Van Abbemuseum, and he accepted. So I decided on the size of the catalogues - more or less the same size as the catalogues from Sandberg's time, but my sizes were a little different because of my grid. The size of the posters came from the multiplication of the grid, which was more or less the size of the posters that Sandberg had used, but also a little different. I couldn't be too different, because we used the same noticeboards for gluing the posters onto. For the design of the posters, I more or less did it the same way as I had done the Van Abbemuseum posters: I always used the main word - or name - as the focus of the poster, and then tried to use that word to translate the idea of the exhibition. The work was always done by hand, always by doing a lot of drawing.
Can you talk about the importance of grids in graphic design in general, and in your work?
The use of grids in graphic design was more or less developed by the Swiss designers - Max Bill, Karl Gerstner and, of course, Josef-Muller Brockmann, who wrote a book on the subject of grids. They influenced me a lot. The grid is a way to structure typography, and I couldn't work without one. Even today, with the latest book I have designed (Gerrit Rietveld, Phaidon, 2010), I designed the grid after carefully considering the text, and the illustrations, the number of pages, and so on. For me, a catalogue or a book is a kind of three-dimensional grid. Everything that's on a certain page relates to something on another page. So, a grid is a method to bring structure into your work, and it's just a question of lines [makes up-and-down hand gesture] that follow the typographic system, and the 'point system' that you want to use. For instance, for the Stedelijk Museum, I always used 8-point type with 4-point line space. So you place your typography within this grid. You have the possibility of two columns, three columns or five columns. This means that you could be very flexible so that one catalogue is not like another, but you could see they are a family, and related to each other. Especially when you use the same typeface, and your illustrations fit into the grid, which relates to sizes within the grid, either the height or the width.
Did you often have to make compromises?
Every now and then I had to make compromises, but always within my system. If the remarks were logical then I would think, why not? You have to compromise. There is another thing - if you are so strict in your vision about how typography should be done - that it should always be done within these grids and with all these specific typefaces - you come to a moment when you think, well, this page fits into my system, but it could be much nicer if I shifted it a little bit visually. Aesthetically, it could be better if I didn't stick to my grid. But the grid was number one for me. So I never let myself go for aesthetic reason - and sometimes that was difficult. Sometimes I thought, why not cheat this thing a little bit, and shift it a little bit and then it becomes nicer. Then I always prevented myself from doing that. Often, Edy de Wilde would say, 'I can see sometimes you do it on automatic pilot - it's not well thought out.' He always saw when something was done within the system - too much system and not enough aesthetics. We had some interesting discussions on this subject.
Could You talk about some of the specific posters you designed - Vormaevers (from 1868), for example?
Well, that was an exception. For Stedelijk posters, I mostly used Univers as the typeface, except for the main words or titles. But with the Vormgevers poster, I used a completely different typeface, because I thought - Vorrngevers - it's about form; it's about an industrial design exhibition. That gave me the idea of making the grid visible for the first time. I did this to show my way of designing, and that fitted into the whole idea behind the exhibition. Then I made a typeface that fitted directly into the grid system: it came - as it were - from the grid. That's more or less the only exception I did for the museum - the other exceptions were the posters for exhibitions not related to the museum. For instance, the exhibition of the Art Directors Club...
Do you mean the Visuele communicatie poster from 1969?
Yes, but that was not a commission from the Stedelijk. It was for an exhibition held in the Stedelijk, and commissioned by the Art Directors Club. I deliberately made it different from the Stedelijk style to make it clear that it didn't belong to the Stedelijk series.
Let's talk about Total Design. You're one of the founder members of Total Design - one of the great design studios of the world - how did this come about?
Well, it's a nice story. It's all the fault of a friend of ours - Benno premsela. He was a designer, a consultant designer, and a great friend of a lot of designers and artists. His group of friends included Paul and Dick Schwarz, whose family business merged with another company, and who were looking for another future for themselves. They were talking to Benno, and said, well, we'd like to do something in the field of design because we want to move away from our business and do something that interests us.
You're talking about the Schwarz brothers. What was their business before Total Design?
That was a fragrance company - a large international company. When they left the company, Benno said to the brothers, well, I know people who might be interested in forming a design studio. So he called Frlso Kramer, Benno Wissing and me. At that time, there was an idea to involve other designers. Kho Liang le, for instance. I thought Charles Jongleans - my teacher from evening classes - would be one of the founding members. But he decided to remain a teacher and he didn't want to go in with us. Kho Liang le had his contacts within the furniture industry, and also decided not to join us. But Benno Wissing, Friso Kramer and I joined, and immediately we contacted Ben Bos to join us. He was important for the further development of TD. So it was Benno Premsela who brought us together, and It clicked right from the beginning.
Did you have a model in mind for Total Design?
We went to England because we wanted to know why we should start a studio. For instance, we saw that FHK Henrion did the work for KLM - the Dutch national airline. By the time we met him, Henrion had already done the second house style for KLM. So we asked him, why do you think KLM goes to you and not to Dutch designers? Well, he said, there are no studios in Holland - there are all these single designers with one or two assistants. He pointed out that institutions like to talk to institutions. He said it was a good idea for us to start a studio. Next, we went to Fletcher/Forbes/Gill, they had started the year before us, and each designer had an assistant. They gave us the structure of the studio. They explained that each of the designers had their own clients; they were three separate groups - three small groups in a small studio - all with the same philosophy, but retaining different personalities. That's what we had in mind, too. So we said, let's set it up like that - different teams in one studio. It was an experiment, but as soon as we started we found out it worked because large clients suddenly came to us. Immediately we got the largest clients we could think of. From 1963 to around 1970, it was absolutely magnificent. We did everything; it was a lucky moment.
Could you tell me about the design principles behind Total Design? Was it something that was ever articulated?
We wrote articles about it. We produced booklets to show what we wanted. It was a kind of no-nonsense idea - straightforward typography; sans serif typefaces; grids to make the projects solid and to give continuity. We introduced grids for all the clients. We believed everything should be straight-forward and informative - information was number one. For instance, if we worked on a corporate identity programme, the main aim was to differentiate that company from their competitors. We did this by very simple means: no artistry, just clear photography, bold typefaces and good logotypes. We were very good at logotypes - we were very strong in that area. Each team had its own signature. That was a strength, because when a new client came to us we would discuss which team should do the work. Sometimes the client came to the team, because the team was known, but clients also came to Total Design, and then we decided in board meetings which team was going to do the work. When it came to deciding, it all depended on the type of commission.
One of your most enduring legacies is your typographic work. Can I ask you about New Alphabet? What drove you to create this futuristic typeface?
Well, it's a long story. In 1964, or '65, I went with my father to a large exhibition on printing and paper in Dusseldorf, Germany. I think it was a bi-annual event. I was very impressed with all these new types of printing machines and typesetting machines. There I saw for the first time the Hell-Digiset, a new invention from the company Hell, from Kiel in Germany. They demonstrated their digitized typefaces, and they used Garamond as an example. When you used a magnifying glass, you saw the difference between the various sizes - especially the small sizes, which used a programme of digital dots. So, for 6-point type, you need, say, five or six dots to make a curve; if you have double the size, you have to use twice as many dots to make the curve. So the curves of the larger sizes were more precise than the curves of the smaller sizes. I thought this was strange. The digital system is a grid system; the dots are all arranged logically in a grid. When I saw the result, I thought there might be possibilities for this machine, because I thought we'd need to work with these machines for at least 20 years before they improved. That was my idea at that time; a childish idea. I thought I needed to make a typeface that was suited to this particular digital system.
So New Alphabet was a direct response to the role of the computer in type generation?
Yes. I noticed that only straight lines remained unchanged, no matter what the point size. Diagonal lines always retained the same pattern, too. That was why I decided to make a typeface that only used straight lines and diagonals. That's how I started thinking, and it took me about two years to work on it. I discussed it with Pieter Brattinga, my friend from the printing company, who produced a square format magazine (Kwadraatbladen] on various subjects to do with art and print and design. He said to me, why not finish that idea of yours? So, we produced a booklet on it, and I was very happy with that. New Alphabet went through various stages before it was finished. I had it first with rounded corners, but I switched to diagonal corners, and then finally I produced the whole alphabet, and the numerals, and made a story about it. Then I said, if we produce the story about why and how I did it, the text should all be typeset in that typeface, too. But digital outputting was not yet available in Holland, so I had to do it all by hand. That's when I asked the people at Mecanorma - the rub-down lettering system - to produce sheets of my typeface. We glued all the columns of type by hand - it was my father who did that. He went with me to that exhibition and I asked him to do that work because he was a very fine draftsman; he loved to do that sort of work. He made my column of text and we produced that typeface. Then I thought I should produce some images for the book. The images were produced by line screen, and I fitted my typeface within the line screen. About this time, the first astronaut went into space. I said. I'll use that image - it was the most advanced thing I could think of. So I used a picture of an astronaut in space, and one image of a computer from that time - it was a large machine from IBM. I introduced them into the book magazine to give it a kind of futuristic look. Then Gerard Unger, who worked with me at Total Design, proposed a way to make New Alphabet into a more readable type-face, because, as he said, this typeface of yours can't be read.
Did it bother you that you had created a typeface that couldn't be very easily read? It seems to contradict the Total Design philosophy of clarity.
This didn't matter to me. I loved the whole abstract feeling of it, and I wanted to make all the letters the same width so that they don't only line up in one direction, but in all directions, which made it completely unreadable. Anyhow, Gerard Unger designed a typeface with the same straight lines, but it was now a good, readable typeface. A few years later, Anthon Beeke, who is a good friend of mine, said, I have an idea for an alphabet of naked ladies. He went to Pieter Brattinga with that idea, and Pieter decided immediately to print it. There were also two English guys who were doing experiments with typefaces; Pieter found out about them, and decided to print their work in that series, too. So suddenly there were four booklets that were offspring from my New Alphabet.
Were you surprised to see New Alphabet used on the cover of a Joy Division record cover (Substance 1977-1980), designed by Peter Saville and Brett Wickens?
I discovered this at the end of the 1990s, and I was flattered that people had used it. I have seen it in pop magazines - mostly as headlines, and sometimes made a little more readable. They always made it by hand and didn't always follow my strict rules and guidelines. Suddenly, at the end of the 1990s, there was interest in this thing that had been developed 25 years before. That was also the time The Foundry came to me and asked if they could digitize my typefaces for their series of experimental type-faces by people like Jan Tschichold, I was greatly flattered. I immediately gave them permission, and I worked on the project with David Quay from The Foundry.
You created many other distinctive letterforms, but You didn't always create the entire alphabet - I'm thinking of the lettering you used for the Claes Oldenburg poster, for example. Did you ever envisage that these would one day be turned into working fonts?
Never. I thought it was useless to make them into fonts because nobody could ever use them. But the strange thing is, New Alphabet sold well as a digital font. I don't understand it, but it sold. Gridnik is a completely different thing. It was a logical follow-on from New Alphabet. In 1973, I got a commission from Olivetti - the Italian typewriter manufacturer - to create a new typeface for an electric typewriter. Josef Muller-Brockmann and Herten Lindinger were also commissioned. I decided to make my typeface a kind of shadow version of New Alphabet, using the same diagonals but with rounded corners, because by that time the machinery was capable of higher resolution. The Hell machine that I saw in 1965 was a basic thing, but by 1973 they had developed it so much that my whole philosophy no longer made sense. But I still thought it would be nice to have a typeface with diagonal corners. I designed a typeface that was restricted to the possibilities of the electric typewriter, so you only had the option, if I remember rightly, of four or five different widths of typefaces to fit in the machine. When it was finished, and when Olivetti had made the proofs, they decided not to go ahead with the typewriter because a new generation of electronic typewriters had arrived, which meant that they could use any typeface they wanted. We were paid and we were given our typefaces back.
Didn't you use this typeface on some postage stamps?
Yes. When I got a commission a year later to design some stamps for the Dutch post office, I decided to use that typeface for the word 'Nederland', and for the numerals. That was the first and only time that I used the typeface, because I didn't have the possibility of turning it into a font. I had to draw it by hand until the end of the 1990s, when David Quay at The Foundry came and asked me if they could develop it as a digital font. When they asked me what they should call the typeface, I said, let's call it Gridnik. This was a nickname given to me and my friends in the 1970s for using grids all the time.
Was it an interesting process working with David Quay at The Foundry to create digital fonts out of your typefaces?
David did the work. ! didn't know anything about making typefaces the digital way; I didn't know the software programs. But he knew the programs, so I sat next to him and we developed the typefaces together. We made a bolder typeface and a thinner version of Gridnik, because I had only made one weight for the typewriter.
Can we talk about your calendars for the printing firm Van de Geer? They have become legendary among designers.
That takes us back to the 1950s. It was a very small printing company with two presses doing letterpress printing. Towards the end of the 1950s, I did a calendar for them using a variety of ingredients from the company, including illustrations that they used once a year in a traditional festival for printers called Kopper maandag (Copper Monday). The printer also had a collection of 19th-century prints, which, along with enlarged typefaces and all sorts of other things, I combined to make a lively calendar. The following year he asked me to do another calendar, because the first one had been so successful. I ended up making 25 of these calendars. They became a kind of system for me; first of all, I decided to make them all the same size - a square - and then, for many years afterwards, I always used the same size. In between, I sometimes made a deviation and used a narrower size. It depended on what idea I had in mind. It was always an experiment.
Life after Total Design
You decided to leave Total Design in 1985 - what were your reasons for doing this?
Since the 1950s I had always done a lot of teaching - always one day a week. When Total Design started, I stopped teaching and gave TD my full attention. But in 1965, the Delft University asked me to give a course in typography for their industrial designers. It was only half a day each week. In 1972, I became Associate Professor for two days a week. This meant that I had two full-time jobs - two days at Delft and the rest at Total Design. I also did a lot of work in the evenings, so it was crazy. In 1978, I decided to stop university and go back to Total Design full-time because I couldn't handle it anymore. Two years later, in 1980, the university asked me to come back as a full Professor. Then I had to make a decision whether to leave Total Design or stay. I decided to leave and accept a new challenge in Delft. I became a full Professor and Dean of the Faculty. They allowed me to stay on as an advisor to Total Design, because then I could bring students to Total Design. So every now and then we had students from the course doing apprenticeships at TD. I did this for five years and then they asked me to become director of the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum. So after five years working full-time at the university, I had to make another decision. That was quite difficult because I loved the work in Delft - I was Dean of the Faculty. I had my own course in a growing faculty with a good future. Then suddenly this opportunity to become director of the Boijmans Museum appeared. I thought it over for a full month - they gave me time to think about it. In the end, it was my wife who said, you should do it, you have only one more chance to change your life. I never regretted the decision for one moment.
During your time at Boijmans Museum you started working with the renowned English design group 8vo how did that come about?
Well, I first asked the designer from the Boijmans Museum, who was my former assistant Daphne Duyvelshoff, to do the design of the catalogues and posters. She still worked at Total Design and she had been commissioned by Wim Beeren, my predecessor. She introduced the Futura typeface. But she said no. She had agreed to go with Wim to the Stedelijk Museum. He was a good friend of mine. He was director of the Boijmans and I was on their supervising committee. But he became director of the Stedelijk and Daphne went with him. Then I asked two young Dutch designers who had just started a new group to do my catalogues. I said, do your thing, but the result should be a recognizable series from the museum. I gave them full freedom; I didn't really know how to handle it as a commissioner. They did a few catalogues and posters, and I said, let's have a discussion. l lined up all the work and it turned out that one designer did one catalogue and the other did the next one, so they were all different. It was not recognizable as an ongoing series. So, after a year or so, we decided to say farewell. They were good friends of mine, and they accepted my decision.
In the meantime, I was invited by 8vo to do an article on lower-case typography for their magazine, Octavo. By doing this I got to know the three of them - Hamish Muir, Mark Holt and Simon Johnston - and I was impressed by their work. Hamish and Simon had trained in Basel and there was a strong influence from Swiss design, but different from what the Swiss did. I was impressed by their work, and also by the magazine, the layout of the Octavo magazine. In Holland during the 1980s, nothing of that direction was visible. I was so impressed that I immediately invited them to do the posters and catalogues for the museum. That was quite difficult, because we had a production manager in Holland, and a printing company in Belgium, and they were in London. We didn't have enough money to have them travelling back and forth all the time, so they invented a way to do it all by fax machine - we didn't have email at that point, so it was all done by fax and telephone.
Working like that must have been difficult. What did 8vo do that was so different?
8vo developed a direction for each department in the museum, and if you see the whole range of catalogues, you will see that they created a very recognizable series. It was difficult for me to be a commissioner, but when I started with them I said, the only thing you have to do is use Futura, because that was the museum's typeface. The size of the catalogue and the size of the posters was more or less fixed. The biggest difficulty they had was with Futura - they were really Helvetica people. For them it was a shock to have to work with Future. But I think what they did was fantastic. I was very happy with that period. For about five years, they did all my catalogues and posters.
Could you tell me about the exhibition - celebrating the year 1928 that was held on your retirement?
When I had to retire in 1993, the staff said, why don't you do an exhibition of your choosing - pick a subject and we'll make an exhibition for you. It was a nice offer. I said I'd like to make an exhibition about the beginnings of modernism in design at the end of the 1920s and beginning of the 1930s. I said, let's do some research into that period and see if we can make an exhibition out of it, and call museums for loans. We found out that there was too much, it was too large a period, so we came to the conclusion that it would be enough to pick just one year and concentrate on that. I said, okay then, let's make it the year of my birth - 1928. We found out that this was a very good year. All the furniture of Le Corbusier was designed in 1928; the famous designs of Marcel Breuer were all from 1928; Futura was designed in 1928. So there was already an enormous amount of work, but we collected original material from museums in France and Germany. To show my dedication to technology, I wanted the Zeppelin - the Hindenburg - in my show. I remembered it from my youth flying over the town of my birth. And I wanted to have the Bugatti racing car, because Bugatti had its greatest triumphs in 1928 with the famous blue racing machine. For the Hindenburg, we made a large photograph, but we had a lot of difficulty getting the Bugatti. We first went to the large Bugatti museum in France, but they wouldn't lend us one. Then we found that there was a collector in England. Nick Mason, the drummer from Pink Floyd, collected Bugattis, and he loaned us a beautiful example of the car.
What about graphic material from that year - was there much?
In one room - a very dark room - we had all the typography and graphic design. We had the other exhibits in the new wing that I had created during my time as director. I designed the whole exhibition with a lot of glass in it to make it a very transparent exhibition. 8vo made their last catalogue with articles from people who had something to say about the year 1928. It was a fantastic exhibition and experience.
What effect have computers had on design?
You can't think of design without them. I only learnt how to work with a computer in 1993.I bought my first computer when I retired from Boijmans. I was already familiar with computers because during my time in Delft I was also head of the computer department. Unfortunately, I never asked anybody to teach me anything. So it was new for me. But it was a wonder - the time that you saved. In the early days, if I did a poster, it took me three days to draw the poster, to make the final artwork, to go to the printer and so on. Now, you can do it within an hour - five variations if you want to, and you make your PDF and send it to the printer and it's done. So for me, it's absolutely magic. Of course, the influence on design is great. It had some negative influences, because people think that software programs mean that everyone is a designer. There's a lot of rubbish produced by the computer, but also a lot of very good stuff; I always say that the percentage of good work hasn't changed over the years. So percentage-wise, it's no different from before. But the computer is a great tool. I couldn't think of design without it.
Do you start with your designs on computer, or do you start with pencil and paper and then move to the computer?
In the beginning I always started with pencil and paper. Every now and then I still do that; I can't resist first making sketches on paper before I go to the computer. But I found that gradually I go more and more to the computer first, because you learn to sketch on the computer - you have drawing tablets now, and you can do sketches. Especially for me, it's an easy way to do it because most of my designs are completely ready in my head before I start. Even when I did it on paper, everything was thought out almost to the end before I started my design process. The design process starts in my head, and now with the computer it's so easy to switch from the head to the computer. Now I use paper less and less; I go straight to the computer and work with the mouse and the tablet.
How do you feel about contemporary design and architecture?
Architecture is still a source of inspiration. But there is a type of architecture that becomes sculpture, and I'm not so fond of that direction. I'm interested in it, because sometimes it's magic, but it's not my cup of tea. I like function in buildings. I like straightforward well-designed buildings that fulfil their purpose in a restrained way. And graphic design - well, as I said before, the percentage of good graphic design is still the same. I see a lot of good work, but I also see an enormous amount of rubbish. Especially in new media, where they bring a crossing of borders that is sometimes heaven, and sometimes a disaster.
I'm very jealous of young designers with all their possibilities, and their knowledge of all this machinery. I can never do that; I can't learn this anymore. But at the same time, I think, well, maybe it was easier in my time to find your own specific way; maybe it was easier to differentiate yourself from others. Now that everything has been done, it is difficult for young designers to create their own voice, to make work that is recognizable as coming from one person. The best design is always 'recognizable' design - design where you can see where it comes from. At least, that's how I look at design. I am glad when I see something and think, oh, that must come from so and so. When I'm right, that's always a good moment for me.
Are you still designing today?
I'm still designing, but I'm thinking about stopping, because it gives me sleepless nights. In the past few years, I've had more and more sleepless nights. I am always thinking things over. I never stop, so I lose sleep. In the early days I'd always go to bed and fall asleep instantly, but in recent years I've found that I never stop thinking, and that makes me nervous. So maybe I have to stop. Maybe this exhibition in London, maybe that's the end, I don't know. You never know what happens next.
1 Dick Eiffers (1910-1990) designer, painter and sculptor.
2 Otto Trumann (1919-2001) a pioneer in the modernization of Dutch graph, design.
3 The Marshall Plan was a large-scale economic rebuilding programme sponsored by the USA for rebuilding Europe post-WWII.
4 Gerard Inert (b.1929) Swiss graphic designer
5 Ersnt Scheideger (b.1923) Swiss designer and photographer. Studied with Max Bill and taught at Ulm.
6 Le Corbusier (1887-1965) Swiss architect, designer, urbanist, writer and painter. Real name Charles-Edouard Leanneret
7 William Sandberg (1897-1984) Dutch typographer and Stedelijk museum director.
8 Max Bill (1908-1994) Swiss architect, artist painter, typeface designer, designer; co-founder of Ulm.
9 Karl Gerstner (b.1930) Swiss graphic designer, studied under Emil Ruder and Armin Hofmann.
10 Joseph Muller-Brockmann(1914-1996) Swiss graphic designer, teacher and pioneer of the grid in graphic design.
11 Benno Premsela (1920-1997) Dutch designer and central figure in the postwar Dutch art world and champion of gay rights.
12 Paul Schwarz (1927-2006) and Dick Schwarz (b. 1931) Brothers and founding partners of Total Design.
13 Friso Kramer (b.1922) Dutch product and furniture designer. Best known for his work with Ahrend.
14 Benno Wissing (1923-2008) Dutch graphic and industrial designer, architect and founding partner of Total Design.
15 Charles Jongejans (1918-1995), Dutch graphic and industrial designer, teacher. Born in Indonesia.
16 FHK Henrion (1914-1990) Born in Germany, immigrated to England in 1939. A pioneer of Corporate Identity.
17 Fletcher/Forbes/Gill formed in 1965 by Alan Fletcher (1931-2006) Colin Forbes (b. 1928); Bob Gill (b.1931). Forerunners of Pentagram.
18 Pieter Brattinga (1931-2004) Dutch graphic designer and publisher, professor.
19 Gerard Unger (b.1942) Dutch graphic designer, typographer and type designer, professor.
20 Anthon Beeke (b.1940) Dutch graphic designer.
21 The ‘two English guys’ were Timothy Epps and Dr. Christopher Evans of the National Physical Laboratory in Middlesex.
22 Peter Saville (b.1955) English art director and graphic designer. Designed many record sleeves for Factory Records.
23 Brett Wickens Canadian born designer and creative director living and working in the USA. Worked with Peter Saville.
24 The Foundry, formed 1990 by David Quay and Freda Sack to design to manufacture and market their own exclusive typefaces.
25 JanTschichold (1902-1974) Swiss typographer, book designer, teacher and writer.
26 David Quay (b.1948) British graphic designer and typographer. Lives in Amsterdam, mainly designing typefaces.
27 Claes Oldenburg (b.1929) Swedish sculptor, best known for his soft sculpture versions of everyday objects.
28 Herbert Lindinger (b.1933) German industrial designer known for designing several famous trains and trams.
29 8vo British design group, founded by Hamish Muir, Mark Holt and Simon Johnston. Disbanded in 2001. Published the magazine Octavo.
30 Daphne Duyvelshoff (b.1942) Dutch graphic designer.
31 Wim Beeren (1928-2000) art critic, lecturer and chief curator of the Stedelijk tMuseum.
32 Hamlsh Muir (b.1957) British graphic designer. Studied in Basel (1980-1981) where he was taught by Armin Hofmann and Wolfgang Weingart. Founding partner 8vo.
33 Mark Holt (b.1958) British graphic designer and collector. Founding partner 8vo.
34 Simon Johnston British graphic designer. Studied with Hamish Muir in Basle. Founding partner 8vo.
35 Marcel Breuer (1902-1981) German architect and furniture designer.
36 Nick Mason (b.1944) English drummer with Pink Floyd.