On 19 September 2019, Wim Crouwel – the globally influential Dutch graphic design legend and ardent pioneer of modernist design – died aged 90. Tributes poured out from the design world as his impact was celebrated, while at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, where he was the designer of all its visual communications for 22 years, and where a large portion of his archive still lives, a team mourned a friend and collaborator. One of this team was Carolien Glazenburg, a longstanding and soon-to-retire curator at the museum, who had met Crouwel back in 1976, working closely with him over her 17 years as graphic design curator. In that time, he became a close friend, seeing a side to the renowned designer that many of his followers did not.
“He was always on time, always neatly dressed,” she remembers of Crouwel. “He was always looking for structures. He always said, ‘I have a bad habit, I always have to put things straight’” she says, before he carefully rearranged items on a table to fit an imagined grid.
“His whole life he was curious about new things,” she continues. One of a number of insightful and personal memories she shares is a trip to Miami with Crouwel. While working on an exhibition, he suddenly asked to make a pit stop. “He said, ‘I’m sorry but do you mind if we stop by the Apple Store, I would like to go and see the new iPhone.’ He was always interested in what new things were happening in the world of design.”
At the core of his design mentality was the grid. Strongly influenced by Swiss design when it wasn’t a popular approach – “influential people called it ‘the new ugliness,’” remembers Glazenburg – he was obsessed with the grid. She says they fondly referred to him as Mr Gridnik for this reason, while it was also the name of one of his most renowned typefaces – created in 1974 for Olivetti. “It was originally for an electric typewriter, but then the computer came out,” Glazenburg explains. Hence The Dutch PTT used it for its stamps. “A magazine for stamp collectors described it as the most ugly type they’d ever seen, but we used it for 25 years,” she chuckles. Despite his adversaries, Crouwel was adamant.
I ask Glazenburg how she thinks his work changed over the years, and after pondering for a few moments, she answers, “I wonder if it changed. He was extremely consistent in his approach. Even when people were against him, he always said ‘I will stay myself and I’ll keep on doing this.’ It wasn’t stubbornness, he was just utterly convinced of this method of design. He never wavered and he never gave up.”
According to Glazenburg, Crouwel showed similar loyalty to efficiency and personality within type design. From his iconic typeface, New Alphabet (1967) which Peter Saville used on the cover of Joy Division’s Substance album, to a typeface for Claes Oldenburg’s show at the Stedelijk, he was always searching for new innovations in typography, often hand-drawing them on gridded paper. The Claes Oldenburg type, Glazenburg says, was part of Crouwel’s lifelong endeavour to find the “perfect type” for everyone – its soft, cloud-like, pillowy forms mirroring the sculptor’s work in type form.
Despite his absolute confidence in his design ideology (and with very good reason), in person, Glazenburg says Crouwel was quite the opposite. “He was very approachable, always answering students’ questions. He didn’t have any pretences. Once, a visitor was stood in the gallery looking at one of his posters and said ‘Isn’t that just the most unreadable poster,’ and the person next to them just said, ‘yes’. The visitor didn’t realise it was Wim. He was like that. He was kind and wise, with no delusions of grandeur.”
Having curated shows of Crouwel’s work numerous times and knowing his nature, Glazenburg admits she was constantly worried that he wouldn’t say if he disagreed on her presentation of the work. “The beautiful thing about Wim was that he always loved to collaborate and he was very kind to the people he worked with,” she adds. “When I worked with him on an exhibition of his work at DDD gallery in Kyoto, he couldn’t walk very easily so I made a huge mock-up of the show and brought it to his house to go through. Afterwards, all he said was ‘I would put that book on the left and the other one on the right’. I thought, oh my god he’s too polite to say to me, it’s not good!” Later, when the Stedelijk team decided to bring the show home to Amsterdam, it was a few days before the opening that Crouwel passed away.
“That was extremely sad because he really wanted to attend,” Carolien says. “We opened the exhibition and had a big farewell, and his wife spoke in the auditorium. She said that Wim had asked her to say that he was so happy with the way I had treated his work, and trusted me 100% with it. It brought tears to my eyes. I hesitated to tell you that story, but, you asked what it was like to collaborate with him, and that’s the only answer I can give. When I thought he was too polite to say anything about my ideas for how to display his work, all along we had the same ideas. That was wonderful, and a big relief as well actually.”
“I loved to install his work. It always invited a certain approach, a really gridded and serene approach, modernist like his work with Total Design. When you install his work, it asks that you don’t mess it up, you treat it in a severe way. It needed careful and precise presentation, because it’s so beautiful, strong and clear. He brought that type of design to Holland. He believed in himself, he had a clear and bright message, and that’s one of the reasons you still see young designers dedicated to his work today.”
The Stedelijk have set up a memorial page in remembrance of Wim Crouwel here, where fans can share photos, memories and condolences.
An exhibition dedicated to his work, Wim Crouwel: Mr Gridnik, is open at the Stedelijk, Amsterdam, until 22 March 2020.