Dutch treat

Dutch master Wim Crouwel gets his long overdue tribute with a selection of posters from the Stedelijk Museum, says Clare Dowdy

Strange as it seems, but from tomorrow, graphic designers will be beating a trail to Clerkenwell’s St John Street to salivate over a few old posters.

They will stand back, move in close, gasp at the grid layout, and marvel at the typefaces. For Wim Crouwel has come to town, and surprisingly, this is the first time his celebrated posters have been on show in the capital.

This massive Dutch modernist is known for his car concepts, identities and annual reports as well as his fêted posters. Now in his 70s, his influence is still felt in London graphics studios.

The eight pieces on show at Sea Gallery were created for Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, where Crouwel was director between 1964-82.

Crouwel selected the ones on display, and they cover the period from 1959-71. He created the posters and catalogues for all the Stedelijk’s exhibitions, and seen together they tell a story of strict formula combined with strong imagination.

Each has the relevant information stripped down to the bare minimum – what’s on, when it’s on and where it’s on. There are no sponsors’ logos or other paraphernalia littering up the posters; any extra information would be found in the accompanying catalogue.

Many people will only have seen these works as reproductions in books. This is an opportunity to get up close to the real thing and pore over their perfections and imperfections.

For every Stedelijk show, Crouwel either hand-drew a new typeface or doctored an existing one. So the font for the Lucht/Kunst exhibition poster (above) was adapted from Akzidenz Grotesk. This was in the days before the Mac came into being.

As designer Mark Holt says in his introduction for the show’s catalogue: ‘It’s this evidence of “hand manufacture” coupled with bucket loads of attitude and self-belief that give Crouwel’s posters their vitality. Simply put, they define timelessness.’

None of these posters feature any images from the exhibitions, though it would be wrong to say that they do not refer to the objects on display. For the inflatable art exhibition, Lucht/Kunst, he rounded off the letterforms, giving them a bouncy, air-filled look. And for the sculpture show Beelden in het heden (left), the title runs vertically, making a reference to the pieces themselves. (This effect was lost at the time, however, as the posters were hung horizontally by mistake.)

Unsurprisingly, Sea’s own poster for the show is a graphic tribute to its subject. The poster is written in the typeface Soft Alphabet, which Crouwel designed for the 1970 Claes Oldenburg exhibition, and which typeface designer David Quay drew for the Mac.

It may be the show of the year for graphic designers, but the appeal is broader than that. Anyone with an eye for detail and a taste for simplicity cannot fail to get something out of Crouwel.

Wim Crouwel: Seen/Unseen runs at Sea Gallery, 70 St John Street, London EC1, 26 June to 30 July

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