‘Fascist!’ yelled a voice from the floor. It was 1979 and Wim Crouwel had just delivered a defence of modernism to a full house at the Paradiso in Amsterdam. “I was shocked,” he said. “But I didn’t react, just swallowed it and moved on.”

By then, Crouwel was already an icon of Dutch typography and was accustomed to criticism. As head of Holland’s first multidisciplinary design studio, Total Design, his work and aesthetic had become a visual mainstay. “We worked for everyone from the museums to the post office,” he said, “so I can understand why some people disapproved of that. Their issue was probably more a feeling against our influence than anything else.”

Photo by Reinier RVDA
A few years before the fascist taunt, Crouwel and arch-opponent (but good friend) Jan van Toorn had gone head-to-head in a very public debate over style. Van Toorn the humanist versus Crouwel the modernist, a conflict that came to symbolise more than just different aesthetics, but different and clashing world views. It was an era when people still believed in the power of political and social ideals.

During the debate, Crouwel argued that designers had to be neutral, professional, and always trying to rise above the trends of the zeitgeist. The message was the essence, meaning the design had to be clear and functional. Van Toorn’s counter-argument was that such neutrality does not exist. To him, a designer needed to show something honest and raw that could reflect the chaotic reality of the world.

Wim Crouwel, Designers, 1968. Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
From early in his career in the 50s, Crouwel embraced modernism as a movement that could work for the people – a beautiful and yet very Dutch ideal. “After the war, Europe was looking for ways to build better societies,” he explained. “Of course I’m left-wing, like most creative people are, and wherever I looked, I found the best solutions in the visionary principles of modernism. I really did believe that design was a way of helping people, a way of guiding them through their lives.”

When I interviewed him, Crouwel shook his head at the irony of this – that such a movement flourished during the harsh and ugly intellectual environment of the inter-war years; a time when a disastrous financial crisis spawned the rise of Nazism, which lead to war. “It was a very strange period,” he said. “It’s like design was moving against the tide.”

Wim Crouwel, Visual communications in the Netherlands, 1969. Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
Wim Crouwel, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 1971. Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
Crouwel’s designs between 1956 and 1972 for the Van Abbemuseum and the Stedelijk Museum became renowned for their experimental typesetting. His grid-based work was always resolutely systematic, which gave the posters a very clean and modern look even before the introduction of digital typesetting.

Those techniques, although borne in the early 60s, are still hailed as applicable. Without getting too technical, Crouwel’s method was to develop a ‘grammar of form’, which could be used to create all necessary ‘form conjugations’ in precisely the same way as today’s blog software provides internet users with a basic grammar for self-publishing. His self-imposed challenge then was to think through the fundamentals of how such a system could work and then realise it.

That era came to an end though, when a new museum director at the Stedelijk decided to divert limited budgets away from posters and into newspaper advertising. “It was a smart thing to do,” Crouwel said. “The posters were very abstract and probably not helping to really sell tickets.”

Crouwel’s next step was as Director of the Boijmans Van Beuningen museum in Rotterdam. The highlight of that period was an exhibition he curated of objects designed in 1928, the year of his birth.

“The feelings and intentions of designers working particularly between 1927 and 1932 were so influential on me,” he said. “That was the real crystallisation of modernism and functionalism, and the aesthetic I always found most moral.”

In the exhibition, furniture by Marcel Breuer and Le Corbusier stood along side a Bugatti Type 35B GP. There were architectural photographs by Jan Kamman, building models by Johannes Duiker and Mies van der Rohe, and graphic design by Piet Zwart. ‘It turns out that this year was a very important year,” Crouwel said.

Perhaps least saddened by his decision to leave designing for the museum world was his harshest and most vocal critic, the well-known writer and feminist Renate Rubinstein. A few years earlier she had baptised his work ‘The New Ugly’ in a column for the left-wing weekly, Vrij Nederland.

Crouwel had just shrugged. “I hadn’t even met her until that awkward evening at the Paradiso when I was called a fascist,” he said. “We were introduced afterwards in the foyer and we both behaved graciously, like human beings.”

Crouwel’s poise under attack was unsurprising. When I first met him, he was just over 80 and retained all the grace of a proper, old-school gentleman. He picked his lean and elegant body up off his favourite Rietveld chair and moved forward to pour coffee.

“You see I was never a romantic,” he said. “I think that is what really bothered my detractors the most. That I could remain so cool, if you’ll permit me to use such a modern word.”

To illustrate his point, Crouwel picked out a book that juxtaposes his and Jan van Toorn’s designs. “It’s easy to see how differently we worked,” he said. Images of various posters, stamps and exhibitions lie side by side to maximise the contrast – Crouwel’s work was ordered, neutral and honest; Van Toorns’ dynamic, passionate and messy. A stamp by Crouwel depicted graphics from Holland’s famous De Stijl movement. Van Toorn had chosen to use overblown faces of prominent politicians. Even the atmosphere of the exhibition photography was enough to pick up on their wildly opposing mindsets.

“We were both very much influenced by what was going on in the world,” Crouwel said. “We were both children of our times, but how we indicated that was quite different.”

To commemorate the discovery and subsequent publication of a long-lost transcript of the original 1972 debate between Crouwel and Van Toorn, both designers were invited back in 2009 to readdress their differences. ‘Nothing had changed,’ Crouwel said. “He still believed in his work, which was always very politically engaged, and I still believed in mine. I never wanted people to see my work and to think immediately of me. The message had to be number one.”

Some things, however, had changed. Crouwel might still have been a modernist but the crumbling of his chosen ism had forced him, albeit reluctantly, to soften his perspective. “I don’t think I got it wrong,” he said. “But maybe I’m a bit milder now. I think I understand a little better why people do their work differently and I can see why many designers like to be influenced by the past rather than my preference for the future.”

Different countries grappled with modernism in different ways depending on culture and context: in Russia it was expressive, in Italy it was more futuristic and in Germany, by way of the Bauhaus, it was more restrained. Its essence everywhere, however, concerned dreams about a better world via design that stood for utopian universalism, objectivity, and timelessness.

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 said. “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 pointed to the sorts of details in his work that date it. “Liberal politics, man walking on the moon, the introduction of digital typesetting,” he said. “You can see the influences quite clearly.”

One of Crouwel’s favourite examples was 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 said. “But my point was that for the next 20 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 said. “It was unreadable.” But to his great surprise, the script made a comeback decades later in 1988 when Factory Records released a compilation album, Substance, of legendary British band Joy Division.

“I look at it now and see it as something very typically 60s,” Crouwel said. “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 broke into passionate German as he aligned the ideas inside his New Alphabet with those of the Bauhaus. “German is a very difficult language,” he said. “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,” said 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 personalised approach to learning. “It started with Joop Hardy, director at AKI in Enschede,” Crouwel said, “and soon spread throughout the country.

“Design education was no longer about producing professionals who were ready to do real commercial work,” Crouwel continued. “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 said. “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 explained. “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 thought 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 said. “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 was not all grim, however. About others Crouwel was happy to heap on the praise. “I’m a big fan of Rem Koolhaas,” he said. “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, was reserved for Li Edelkoort, who at the time had recently departed as head of the Design Academy Eindhoven. “She is the wonder woman of Dutch design,’ Crouwel said. “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 picked out Experimental Jetset as the operation doing the most interesting work: “Clear, strong and one-track minded,” he said. But his enthusiasm stopped there.

“I like designers who think about their work,” he said. “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 pointed 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 said. “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 waited for a signal of a new beginning. “Something that belongs to the times,” he said. “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 was a Dutch cultural icon, and perhaps the country’s most important graphic designer. Frederike Huygen had described his work as a poetic form of cold art. “But I’m not an artist,” he said, 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.”

‘Kwadraatblad ‘New Alphabet’, Steendrukkerij de Jong & Co, Hilversum, 1967
Wim Crouwel, Bazaine, 1958. Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
Author of the original text: Paul Mertz, November 2008
Opening studio Anthon Beeke, 2001
Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 1967 / Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 1969
Van Abbemuseum Eindhoven, 1957 / Van Abbemuseum Eindhoven, 1958
Wim Crouwel in his Morgan, photo Steye Raviez, 1960s (photo Steye Raviez)
Associate professor of industrial design at TU Delft, 1972