The Gerrit Noordzij Prize, Part 2: Incoming

Typeface: Gotham

Type designers are accustomed to approaching the line between homage and parody with great care. It’s especially daunting when its subject is a living colleague, as was the case last Friday when Tobias presented an award of his own design to Wim Crouwel, winner of the 2009 Gerrit Noordzij Prize. (In keeping with the tradition, the current holder of the prize designs the award given to its next recipient.) To design an award for Crouwel, a Dutch icon who is indelibly associated with a strong and recognizable personal style, takes great sensitivity: imagine having to design a business card for Piet Mondrian, or select a ringtone for Igor Stravinsky.

If there is anyone able to see past the obvious, it is Wim Crouwel. In the 1960s, Crouwel’s fresh yet doctrinaire approach to graphic design earned him the pejorative nickname “gridnik,” which Crouwel, with typical flare, adopted as a moniker, and later chose as the name for his best known typeface. In his acceptance speech on Friday, Crouwel described his decades-long disagreements with his friend Gerrit Noordzij — in whose name the award is given — and both men reflected gleefully on their continuing philosophical differences. This fruitful synthesis has colored both the study and the practice of graphic design, and it’s satisfying to see it recognized. This is what awards should be for.

In keeping with the custom, Tobias designed an award that uses his own work but includes a nod to Crouwel’s. In celebration of the pre-history of the Gotham typeface, Tobias arranged for the fabrication of a traditional enamel sign, featuring an abundant grid of Gotham’s many styles (64 out of 66, to be precise.) Hearing Crouwel speak with such good humor at the presentation ceremony, I was almost tempted to reveal Tobias’s original idea, which was to find a way to bridge the Dutch tradition of chocolate letter-making with Crouwel’s arresting new alphabet of 1967. (“I probably could have done it with Kit-Kat bars,” Tobias mused.) I am certain Crouwel would approve. —JH

Tobias Frere-Jones: An Exhibit at the Royal Academy of Art

Tobias is the fourth and current holder of the Gerrit Noordzij Prize, which was presented to him in 2006. Every few years, the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague celebrates an individual for his “unique contributions to type design, typography, and type education,” qualities which honor both the recipient and the prize’s namesake: Gerrit Noordzij, as an instructor, a designer, and a type designer, has influenced generations of typographers, and has been singularly instrumental in establishing typography as a realm for disciplined, critical thinking.

This Friday, the prize passes to the next recipient, an occasion marked by two festivities: Wim Crouwel will receive the 2009 prize, and the Royal Academy will open an exhibit of Tobias’s work. If it’s any indication of the scope of the show’s contents, let me just say that even I was surprised by some of the things Tobias pulled from the files; it is an exhibit not to be missed.

The exhibit opens this Friday, March 6, and runs through Saturday, March 28, in the KABK Galerie. —JH

Letterror at the Graphic Design Museum

Photo: Erik van Blokland

When we first met at the ATypI conference in 1989, Erik van Blokland, Just van Rossum and I were branded the “young turks” of typography, presumably because we were fifteen years younger than ATypI’s next-youngest member. Erik and Just were already notorious for their Beowolf project, which hacked the PostScript format in order to produce self-randomizing letterforms; this mischievous bit of culture jamming was enough to endear them to me, and to a generation of designers who have followed their work ever since.

Beowolf (and its sister font, BeoSans) are now an established part of typographic lore, and both rightfully received attention in the opening exhibit of the world’s first Graphic Design Museum in Breda. The place is swimming in typography (like the Netherlands in general), but it’s especially gratifying to see that in this new installation, visitors can experience BeoSans’ two-dimensional letterforms with the benefit of the fourth dimension as well. The addition of a timeline makes the faces’ randomness seem as natural an attribute as size, color, weight, or width, hinting at a future in which our screen-driven civilization could come to regard mutability as an integral part of the typographic experience. As always, I’m curious to see where Erik and Just’s original thinking will ultimately take us. —JH

The World’s First Graphic Design Museum

On my first trip to Amsterdam in 1992, I spent a couple of hours having lunch at a pleasant café on Willemsparkweg. I’d come from seeing an exhibit of the year’s best book covers, and planned to spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the city’s many graphic design bookshops. A passing waiter, noticing my open sketchbook, idly asked me what I was designing. I took note that he’d said “designing” rather than “drawing,” and on his return trip he surprised me further: “are you designing a typeface?”

A nation whose visual literacy is such that the lay public is familiar with the concept of typeface design is surely a designer’s paradise. And if there were any doubt that Holland is the world’s preeminant design capital, tomorrow will see the opening of the world’s first graphic design museum in Breda. There’ll be live coverage on the museum’s website, emceed by none other than Queen Beatrix! I love the Dutch. —JH

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