Thursday, 4:13pm
28 June 2012

What’s the (under) score?

Did you realise that there is an ‘invisible’ typo on the celebrated cover for Joy Division’s Substance (1988)? I didn’t, until reading Wim Crouwel: Typographic Architectures Typographiques (Galerie Anatome / Editions F7, Euros 18), a modest, bilingual (English-French) catalogue for last year’s Paris exhibition.

Co-curator Emmanuel Bérard concentrates on the designer’s (pre-computer) significance for the computer age, encapsulated by his experimental New Alphabet (1967, digitised and released by Foundry in 1997). The book includes a generous selection of specimens, book spreads, covers, identities, posters and other projects, plus several pages of sketches (above) for the New Alphabet, which show that Crouwel considered and then eliminated the use of diagonals.

As for that album cover, shown but not discussed in this book, the New Alphabet distinguishes between ‘n’ and ‘m’ – and ‘u’ and ‘w’ – by adding an underscore to the latter character. Writing on about the Joy Division commission, which involved drawing Crouwel’s characters by hand, Brett Wickens explained that he used the ‘m’ instead of the ‘n’ simply ‘for aesthetic reasons ... if you were to translate it according the actual font, I guess you would get SUBSTAMCE, though nobody saw it that way.’

Catherine de Smet, the other curator, notes in her essay ‘The Astronaut’ that ‘Objectivity and legibility, the twin pillars of applied modernism that Crouwel mentioned here and there in his rhetoric, are nevertheless regularly manhandled by the designer.’ This assertion is supported by examples of what she calls a ‘radical, inventive and fanciful drive that dodged unequivocal definition’.

Experimental Jetset’s book design manhandles Crouwel’s materials between noisy section dividers set in compressed Helvetica, but the man’s personality and work still rings loud and (relatively) clear – he’s the urbane spaceman.