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 our own Tobias Frere-Jones 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 one of our typefaces, but includes a nod to Crouwel’s own work. 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