In Memoriam: graphic designer Wim Crouwel, 90

Wim Crouwel. Image courtesy of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

AMSTERDAM – Wim Crouwel, one of the most important postwar graphic designers, of national and international fame, died Sept. 19 at the age of 90.

Wim Crouwel and the Stedelijk Museum enjoyed a long-standing relationship. In 1963, when Edy de Wilde exchanged the directorship of the Van Abbemuseum Museum in Eindhoven for that of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, he asked Wim Crouwel to join him as the sole designer of the museum’s graphic identity. The two worked together until De Wilde’s departure in 1985, throughout which time Crouwel not only created the Stedelijk’s visual communications but some 400 posters and over 300 catalogs.

Wim Crouwel (1928–2019) was trained by the graphic designer Dick Elffers, ran his own design agency between 1954 and 1957, and worked with interior designer Kho Liang Ie from 1956 to 1960. The oeuvre that cemented his fame, standing and reputation was his work for the Stedelijk Museum, that he considered the most notable client of his career. Although he believed that a graphic designer must defer to the message and not interpret its content, in his work for the Stedelijk, we see exceptional variety despite his systematic approach. He evoked the work of the artist, selected reciprocal colors and, with the aid of a sans-serif font, created a minimal, streamlined aesthetic.

He worked for the Stedelijk during his time at Total Design, the multidisciplinary design agency he co-founded in 1963, and the creative engine behind the house styles of countless organizations and corporations such as Rabobank, Teleac, De Doelen and Auping.

Throughout his life, he is a fervent believer in taking a rational approach to the subject and believes neutrality is integral to the task of the designer. Which routinely led to discussions within the profession. He never avoided debate but remained true to his principles. His experimental New Alphabet in 1967 and design of the new Dutch phone book in 1977, created with Jolijn van de Wouw, proved controversial. In 1979, Filatelie magazine dubbed Crouwel’s postage stamp – which incorporated his Gridnik font – the ugliest postal stamp ever designed. They remained in circulation for over 25 years.

Wim Crouwel often acted as spokesperson for the graphic design profession: as a committee member, jury member, professor, chairman and director. He joined the Industrial Design Department at the Technical University Delft as a lecturer in 1965 where he taught for 20 years, before serving as professor from 1982-1985. He was a professor at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam from 1987 to 1993. His last position was that of director of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam (1985-1993). Wim Crouwel was the recipient of numerous awards and distinctions, in the Netherlands and worldwide – last summer, he was honored by his professional peers in New York with the prestigious Award of the Type Directors Club Medal for lifetime achievement.

Two monographs on the oeuvre of Wim Crouwel have been published: Mode en Module in 1997, authored by Frederike Huygen and Hugues C. Boekraad, and, in 2015 Wim Crouwel Modernist by Frederike Huygen.

The Stedelijk Museum exhibited his work twice, in 1979 and in 2011. Crouwel curated and designed the exhibition concept of the first show, and also produced an extra bulletin. In 2011, the Design Museum in London and the Stedelijk Museum co-produce the exhibition “Wim Crouwel: A Graphic Odyssey” which opened in London before touring to the Stedelijk Museum.

Wim Crouwel’s work can be seen at the Stedelijk as part of the permanent collection exhibit “Stedelijk Base”