The grandfathers of modernism, Wim Crouwel and Massimo Vignelli graced the AIGA/NY chapter last night, Thursday 25 October, with anecdotes of their personal lives their careers as designers—for them, one in the same. Each spoke about several projects selected by Alice Twemlow, chair of the MFA Design Criticism program at SVA, who moderated this historical evening. In fact, this is the first time that Wim Crouwel has spoken in New York since 1965.
Labeled as modernists, Mr. Vignelli and Mr. Crouwel embrace the same ideology, methods and approaches to design; however, their solutions are quite unique from another as are their personalities.
Alice first introduced the pair through personal accounts as to how she came to meet Mr. Crouwel and Mr. Vignelli. The two then reflected on their first encounters with one another and admiration for each others’ work. Both met in the early ‘60s, in awe of and inspired by one another. Vignelli was intrigued by Crouwel’s studio Total Design, established in 1963, and the idea of one studio engaged in all areas of design. However, Mr. Crouwel jokingly admitted that it never really worked out and his studio would often have to collaborate with other disciplines. At one point Massimo’s studio offered to merge with Total Design. Crouwel kindly declined, but they remained friends.
The first project Mr. Vignelli discussed was his series of brochures (shown below) for the Piccolo Teatro di Milano that showcased his love for the black rule and obsession with Helvetica. He recalled that at the time these were created in Milan, Helvetica did not exist, and he asked his printer to go to Switzerland to retrieve it. On the printer’s return trip, the type was confiscated by customs. The printer was not allowed to cross the boarder into Italy with the type. Shocked by this news Mr. Vignelli asked his printer what he was going to do. The printer replied, “I’ll go get some more!” On his second return trip, the printer used an alternate route and successfully smuggled Helvetica into Milan. Yes, they had to smuggle it into the country, which Mr. Vignelli cheerfully takes credit for, and with just cause. Mr. Crouwel chimed in with a comparison to his work for the Stedelijk Museum from 1964, “it looks exactly the same, except mine uses Univers!”
Mr. Vigenlli went on to talk about his masterfully crafted New York City MTA map and how it is “unrivaled” and “perfect.”
In his architectural work for Saint Peter’s church, he admited the inspiration for the pew design came from the toilet seat, because the pew backing can transform from a series of steps to seating by simply lifting the back.
Mr. Vignelli later talked about the idea of design “as a whole” rather than its many small distinctions. His body of work reflects this idea of design without boundaries. “Design is design. It doesn’t matter what it is, and it feels so good. Graphic design particularly is like a continual orgasm!” he added.
Mr. Crouwel first received recognition for his early poster work for the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. One poster in particular embraces his interpretive design process. He would interpret what he’d see in the exhibiting artists’ work. A poster for the Visuele Communicatie Nederland at the Stedelijk Musuem, is deemed by himself as his “most illegible poster.” Its inspiration was drawn from an article about experimental barcode systems. The concept of the barcode was then laid into a 1:4 grid constructed on Mr. Crouwel’s grid machine to produce the poster.
Visuele Communicatie Nederland, Crouwel’s “most illegible poster”His inventive spirit was not limited to poster design. His Neu Alphabet is evidence of Mr. Crouwel’s willingness to embrace and adapt to new technology. He realized the limitations of early digital devices, and turned the limitations into a grid-based design that reproduced consistently at all sizes on these early devices. Neu Alphabet was designed in 1967, had a resurgence in the 1990s, and is still in use today.
In response to a Proust questionnaire delivered by AIGA/NY, both men were asked which designer or designers they felt have embraced modernism today. Who is carrying the torch and continuing their lineage? Mr. Vignelli answered Alessandro Franchini from Crate & Barrel. Mr. Crouwel, identified Experimental Jetset from the Netherlands. Mr. Vignelli and Crouwel would collectively add, “Modernism is not style, it is a way of being that embraces progress, structure, content, and discipline. At the end of the day modernism accepts responsibility. This is what sets the good guys apart from the rest.” These two legends have fully embraced these ideals in their practice and daily lives, and it shows in their innovative, honest and truly inspired designs. They address the problem at hand and honor its content without fail.