Wim Crouwel + Jan van Toorn | Books

The Debate, Part 4

This month, The Monacelli Press publishes the first English translation of a famous 1972 debate between Dutch graphic designers Wim Crouwel and Jan van Toorn, a public clash of subjectivity versus objectivity at Amsterdam’s Museum Fodor that helped set the stage for bold philosophical showdowns to come in design culture.
Held in response to an exhibition of Van Toorn’s work at Stedelijk Museum, including student posters protesting the Vietnam War—in an era of youth culture and increasing resistance to authority, capitalism, and the power of media—the stakes were aesthetic, ethical, and politically charged. 

This week, Design Observer publishes four excerpts from The Debate, now available from Monacelli. 

Today's is the final installment. Read parts 12, and 3.  


Wim Crouwel and Jan van Toorn both designed postal stamps as well. In the 1970s Van Toorn did a few assignments for the national postal service, PTT. In 1971 he designed a stamp for the Prince Bernhard Foundation, while in 1975 he created three stamps on topics related to Amsterdam (together with Paul Mijksenaar): two commemorating the capital’s seventh centennial and one on the Portuguese-Israeli community that had been in the Netherlands for three centuries. The original idea had been to design a sheet of one hundred stamps featuring images of Amsterdam residents from the last seven hundred years, with the overall color of the sheet changing from red to yellow.

Above: Jan Van Toorn, 1975

Unfortunately, this idea was not feasible for technical reasons. The stamps Van Toorn ultimately designed are structured as a collage, showing a map, a procession of Amsterdam residents, and an image of the Portuguese Synagogue. Although the design of these stamps was a collaborative effort, they still look like typical Jan van Toorn designs. 

The next year, Crouwel designed two series of stamps: one on the occasion of the Amphilex stamp exhibition, and the other to replace the famous number stamps by Jan van Krimpen from 1946. Crouwel used a modified version of his own typeface, Gridnik, which he had originally designed for Olivetti for use in typewriters but was never implemented as such. The name refers to a nickname given to Crouwel, Mr. Gridnik. The series of eleven variants printed in two opposite gradients remained in circulation until 2002. 

Above: Wim Crouwel, 1976 

The stamps concisely illustrate the preferences of both designers: while Van Toorn mainly pursues the use of images, Crouwel prefers emplying purely typographical means. 

Jan Van Toorn, 1983

Wim Crouwel, 1978 

Jan Van Toorn, 1991

Wim Crouwel, 1968

Posted in: Media

Wim Crouwel + Jan van Toorn
Wim Crouwel is recognized for the creation of radical, modular letterforms. Pushing the boundaries of legibility, Crouwel’s innovative type was often supported by easily read sans serif typefaces within a carefully structured framework. His typefaces were digitised by the Foundry in the late nineties and are available for designers to use digitially from the type library. 

Crouwel famously established a grid-based methodology for the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, a system which he applied rigorously from 1963 to 1985. 

Crouwel was one of the five founders of Total Design, a multidisciplinary design studio set up to work on major design commissions. The studio’s diverse experience enables them to execute both complex and wide-ranging projects for a variety of clients, from industry, trade, government and cultural sectors. 

From 1985 to 1993, Crouwel was a director at the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam, where he commissioned the British studio 8vo to fulfil the design requirements of the museum. Crouwel continues to design intermittently on a diverse range of projects for both graphic and exhibition design commissions. 

Jan van Toorn is one of the most influential Dutch graphic designers to have emerged since the early 1960s. His designs persistently call attention to their status as visual contrivances, obliging the viewer to make an effort to process their complexities. Van Toorn wants the public to measure the motives of both the client and the designer who mediates the client's message against their own experiences of the world. His work has stimulated a more active and skeptical view of art, communication, media ownership and society. As director of the Jan van Eyck Academy, Van Toorn drew together all the strands of his critical practice into a multi-level educational initiative that urged designers to think harder about design's role in shaping contemporary reality. 

Jobs | July 12