Bryan R. Monte
AQ26 Autumn 2019 Art Review
Wim Crouwel: Mr. Gridnik, 28 September 2019–28 March 2020,
Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum.
It seems as if the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum had read my mind, or maybe the AQ 2018 Yearbook and/or the AQ 2019 websites, because its Wim Crouwel: Mr. Gridnik exhibition, which opened this autumn just after AQ26 went online, is a perfect match for this issue’s Borderlands theme. Wim Crouwel, who unfortunately just passed away on 19 September, had the nickname of Mr Gridnik because he invented a simple, New Alphabet typeface based on grids and points, presaging the digital revolution’s display and print capabilities.
Without knowing it, I had become acquainted with Crouwel’s work in America as an amateur philatelist when I added his 5- and 25-cent postage stamps to my collection, years before I ever imagined emigrating to the Netherlands. These stamps’ monochrome backgrounds which fade in and out in intensity from top to bottom and their straight up and down san serif letters and numbers, certainly made them stand out from the other more exotic, flowery, or patriotic stamps featuring nations’ flags, colours, wildlife, fruit or flowers in my collection.
The exhibition includes Crouwel’s sketches for the New Alphabet. Its letters are formed using a square’s four sides and are composed of only lower case letters with a few short ascenders and descenders. There are no italics and no capital letters in this font and m’s and w’s are created by underlining n’s and u’s. In addition, Crouwel’s paper sketches of raster, letters made up of what most know as pixels, are also on view. Some might find Crouwel’s simple, clean, techno, democratic, signature style lettering and design a bit unimaginative, sterile, and restricted. Nonetheless, this style of signage was easily readable and reproducible in various media such as electronic stock market ticker tapes, train station and airport arrivals and destination boards, and early computer monitors.
In addition to typefonts, Crouwel also designed museum exhibition posters, catalogues, and books (dozens of which are on display in gallery 0.13). True to his minimalist tendencies, he abbreviated the Stedelijk Museum’s name to SM and used the same sort of monochrome backgrounds, lettering and numbers as on his stamps. In the collection of the dozens of Stedelijk posters he designed is one example of a concept board with measurements and notes for a 1970 Claes Oldenburg exhibition which features a sculpture, with a leather-like texture, of some sort of red fruit being juiced on an old-fashioned, hand juicer. Another is a Marlene Dumas exhibition poster from 2014. Posters for the Berlage’s Haagse Gemeente Museum are also included and feature architectural drawings and the type placed diagonally across the poster.
His love of drawing and typefonts, is described lovingly and in detail in Lex Rietsma’s 2019 video for the Dutch Broadcasting Corporation in gallery 0.11. The documentary tells of Crouwel’s years at Groningen’s Minerva Academy, where he studied fine arts and his years at Amsterdam’s Rietveld Academy. The film also mentions Crouwel’s houseboat in Amsterdam moored nearby the Olympic stadium, this house’s minimal Danish design, and its ’50s style furniture featuring a white formica-topped dining table, which Crouwel regularly covered with pencil drawings and then later scoured away. One of this son’s in the video also mentioned his father’s tendency towards graphiomania. He said that if they went out to eat in a restaurant and there was a paper tablecloth, the tablecloth would be covered with his father’s sketches by end of their meal. The video ends with nonagenarian Crouwel showing a woman of a similar age how to make his New Alphabet fonts with a stylus on a smartphone. On the facing wall of this gallery are examples of the more than dozen corporate logos Mr Grid created in his minimal, lineal style including those for Auping, the cities of Rotterdam and Groningen, the Rabobank, the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum, and Teleac.
The last gallery, 0.10 features one wall with articles about Crouwel in Dutch newspapers such as the Books section of de Volkskrant, and an NRC Handelsblad article about his work with London Design Museum. Included with these clippings is a photo of the man himself sitting in his library surrounded by floor-to-ceiling walls of books, where he looks happy and at home.
However, this is where the exhibition literally dead-ends. Crouwel’s New Alphabet could have provided an interesting, interactive activity for school children, (similar to the 2017 Amsterdam School’s ‘Build Your Own Clock’ activity), many of whom were present during my visit to the exhibit. These students could have spent time using Crouwel’s New Alphabet to write their names or brief phrases. A few might have considered (a few years later) a career in design as a result of such an exercise. In addition, what also was a bit disappointing was that there didn’t seem to be a catalogue for this exhibition available in the Stedelijk’s bookshop. Fortunately, there was one last copy of The Monocelli Press’s The Debate: The Legendary Contests of Two Giants of Typography by Crouwel and Jan van Toorn, which I purchased to help remember some of the artefacts in this remarkable exhibition about the design and the art of a remarkable man.