Alphabet Soup: Going on a Wim

Wim Crouwel at the Design Museum, until 3 July

‘Like all best designers, Wim’s work is not simply a career option, rather it is intrinsic to his way of life.’ Mason Wells.

Ever wondered who created the fonts on Word? Until recently, me either. Wim Crouwel didn’t invent Times New Roman or Arial (way too straight-laced and uninteresting for Crouwel), though he certainly mixed things up alphabetically. For those unfamiliar with the Dutch designer, Crouwel is renowned, among his many other design accomplishments, for his innovative typographies. Forged out of straight lines and a love for diagonals, the Futuristic style of Crouwel’s various “alphabets” set his designs very much apart from the popular Modernist aesthetic at the time of their creation in the 1960s.

Alphabets, of course, formed an integral part of the Crouwel retrospective (surprisingly, his first in the UK) at the Design Museum. Sterile white walls were lined with his posters for museum exhibitions – usually brightly colour-coded commissions for Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum – while a screen virtually demonstrated the processes by which Crouwel achieved his alphabetic designs. Alphabets aside, Crouwel is much more than a man of letters. Nor is he simply a designer; in the 1960s, Crouwel tried his hand at lecturing then, discovering he was rather good at it, became a professor by the late 1970s. In 1985, he became a museum director. Crouwel is, without doubt, very much the career man; immersed in every detail of his work, every aspect of his field. It is fitting then that the exhibition itself was career-focused; Crouwel’s material was, for the most part, laid out on spacious white tables that resembled workspaces. With Crouwel’s designs displayed on flat surfaces, viewers were compelled to lean on the tables as they pored over their contents, often with focused, concentrated frowns developing on their faces, adopting the postures and expressions one imagines were adopted by Crouwel himself, and his many colleagues and clients, as they reviewed his work on its completion. The career-oriented theme of the exhibition, with the space as one big designer’s workroom successfully performs Wells’ idea of Crouwel as a man whose work is not purely his career but integral to his life. Though just one room was taken up by the installation, its space was used economically and efficiently as viewers weren’t restricted to a linear route through the exhibition but wandered freely through its mindfully-distanced displays. Despite the exhibition’s loosely chronological sequence, viewers were encouraged to create independent walking journeys through Crouwel’s work – much like the journey that Crouwel himself embarked upon in his career which follows a similar combination of the personal (making his own mark, so to speak) and the collective (following a designated route and allowing others to influence him).

As a career man, Crouwel is evidently a natural networker and as much a collaborator as he is a designer, curator, teacher or director. Working with a mixture of people in the industry, at sporadic points of his career which alternated with periods dedicated to his own autonomous practice, Crouwel joined creative forces with a number of interior designers and architects, each of whom came to respectively shape and alter his own creative vision. In an interview, screened as part of the exhibition, Crouwel discusses the particular influence of interior designer friend, Kho Liang Le whose ideas of space and atmosphere he soon inherited as he aimed to attain clarity in his work. Looking over the fruits of Crouwel’s career – at the many prints and posters, calendars, typefaces, stamps and logos he designed in the course of his longstanding career (one that covers over six decades) – these images and texts, colours and shapes seem to form their own visual vernacular; a mesh of conflicting words and pictures that somehow made profound sense. In their varied assortment of tone and style, Crouwel’s designs didn’t bombard the viewer, nor were they quiet masterpieces that faded into the white background. Prints with similar geometrical designs reproduced in a variety of colours, for example, didn’t look monotonous or boring but sustained a fresh, balanced and vibrant ambience. Liang Le’s influence could be traced especially, with the atmosphere of the space itself, as a collective space for Crouwel’s designs to interact with one another, perhaps the main focal point of the exhibition.

Informative but never intrusive, the exhibition was a clean yet comprehensive, thoroughly researched and carefully engineered exploration of Wim Crouwel’s work. His designs were displayed in thoughtful, stimulating and subtle ways, through which the progression of the designer’s work could be charted at the many turning points in his ever-burgeoning yet grounded career.

2 Responses to “Alphabet Soup: Going on a Wim”
  1. Kalamaki says:


    This is brilliant – you’re definitely doing the right thing in life 🙂

    Very inspiring 🙂

    Kalamaki xx

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