swiss poster history
The Grisons, 1924
|Most people are surprised to learn that there are more 20th century poster masterpieces from Switzerland than any other country. There are many reasons: an international tradition which absorbed and often mimicked the best of its neighbors; a vigorous national program to promote the poster and its printers; and a series of great teachers who advanced the art of the poster. Yet most collectors have missed out on this rich tradition. What appears to be an elegant French poster or an unabashedly direct German one could very well be Swiss.|
|Early 20th Century [View Posters]|
Roots of the Swiss Poster
Set in the middle of Europe and having three national languages, Switzerland absorbed much from its neighbors. This was true in the poster field, where Switzerlands two most celebrated Art Nouveau posterists, Steinlen and Grasset, built their reputations working in France. Most of the first generation of home-based Swiss poster artists - Cardinaux, Mangold, Baumberger, Morach and Stoecklin - studied in Paris and Munich.
Travel and the Rise of the Swiss Poster
The Swiss poster had its roots in the travel poster. As Switzerland became a popular travel destination at the turn of the century, the need for promotion arose. Emil Cardinaux created the first "modern" poster, his 1908 Matterhorn, and it stunned the public with its rich coloring and grand simplicity. For two decades, the Swiss continued to create beautiful illustrated posters for their ski resorts, thermal spas, and outdoor wonders.
In the thirties, Herbert Matter - who studied and worked in Paris with Leger, Ozenfant and Cassandre - came home to Switzerland to create a breakthrough series of photomontage posters for the Swiss tourist office. Despite the brilliant work of Matter and Walter Herdeg, the Swiss travel poster generally declined with the growing predominance of photography in the 40s.
The Design Poster
After World War I, the Swiss came to the fore in graphic design, a new discipline required to meet the needs of the machine age. The Swiss readily absorbed its principles from the Russian Constructivists, the Dutch De Stijl movement, and the experiments at the Bauhaus.
The key figure in Switzerland was Ernst Keller, who began teaching at the Design School in Zurich in 1918, and mentored the generation of artists who would create the world leading International Typographic Style after World War II. Other key figures were Jan Tschichold, formulator of The New Typography, who emigrated to Basel in 1933 and began teaching at the Design School there; and Theo Ballmer, a pupil of Kellers who studied briefly at the Bauhaus and taught at the Basel Design School beginning in 1931.
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|Switzerland at Mid-Century [View Posters]|
and the Product Poster
The Swiss developed an early passion for the sachplakat, or Object Poster, introduced in Germany by Lucien Bernhard in 1905. In 1923 Otto Baumberger completed an object poster masterpiece for PKZ. The poster was a drawing of a life-size coat with wool fibers, silk lining and PKZ label so realistic that most viewers assumed it was a photograph. Aside from the label, the poster had no text. In 1934, Peter Birkhäusers PKZ poster of a hyper-realistic button took the sachplakat to its minimalist extreme.
Appealing to the Swiss sense of precision, and perhaps due to its use of a universal language of symbols, the sachplakat became the leading style for Swiss product posters during and immediately following World War II. Four artists in Basel - Birckhauser, Stoecklin, Leupin and Brun - became leaders of a style both playful and elegant, with lithographic standards the envy of the world.
Unfortunately, the 50s brought the end of lithographic printing in favor of cheaper offset printing. Leupin, Brun and the other Basel sachplakat artists turned to a humorous style less reliant upon the rich color and textures of lithographic printing. Leupin in many ways was the successor to Cappiello in his ability to capture the essence of a selling proposition through a visual metaphor.
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|The Sixties and Seventies [View Posters]|
Based on the design advances of the 30s, a new graphic design style emerged in the 50s that would have an impact far beyond Switzerlands borders. Because of its strong reliance on typographic elements, the new style came to be known as the International Typographic Style. It became the predominant graphic design style in the world in the 70s, and continues to exert its influence today.
Its hallmarks were: the use of a mathematical grid to provide an overall orderly and unified structure; sans serif typefaces (especially Helvetica, introduced in 1961) in a flush left and ragged right format; and black and white photography in place of drawn illustration. The overall impression is simple and rational, tightly structured and serious, clear and objective, and harmonious. The style was refined at two design schools in Switzerland, one in Basel led by Armin Hofmann and Emil Ruder, and the other in Zurich under the leadership of Joseph Muller-Brockmann. All had studied with Keller at the Zurich school of design before WWII.
The new style became widely synonymous with the "look" of many Swiss cultural institutions which used posters as advertising vehicles. Hofmanns series for the Basel State Theater and Muller-Brockmanns for Zurichs Tonhalle are two of the most famous. Hofmanns accentuation of contrasts between various design elements and Muller-Brockmanns exploration of rhythm and tempo in visual form are high notes in the evolution of the style.
In addition, the new style was perfectly suited to the increasingly global postwar marketplace. The Swiss language problem became a world-wide problem, and there was a strong need for clarity in word and symbol. Corporations needed international identification, and global events such as the Olympics called for universal solutions which the Typographic Style could provide. With such good teachers and proselytizers, the use of the International Typographic Style spread rapidly throughout the world. In the US, Hofmanns Basel design school established a link with the Yale School of Design, which became the leading American center for the new style.
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|Eighties and Nineties [View Posters]|
|The Rise of
The International Style began to lose its energy in the 70s and early 80s. Many criticized it for being cold, formal and dogmatic. Wolfgang Weingart, teaching alongside Armin Hofmann in Basel, led the palace revolt which ushered in todays predominant style known loosely as Postmodern design.
A former pupil of Ruders in Basel, Weingart began in the late 60s to question the rules of the International Typographic Style. His experiments with type coincided with the shift from metal to photo typesetting, and he used this new freedom to reinvent the rules. By the mid-70s Weingart began to explore the process of offset printing. His work led him to a new technique of stacking film positives to create rich and complex textures and patterns of type and images, not unlike collage. Weingart reveled in his designs apparent complexity and chaos, playfulness and spontaneity--all in stark contrast to his predecessors. His work has had a profound impact on the direction of design throughout the world.
Another Postmodern direction was taken by the Zurich design team of Siegfried Odermatt and Rosmarie Tissi. Less revolutionary in spirit than Weingart, they chose to bend rules rather than break them. More intuitive and playful than their predecessors, they developed unique typographic and spatial solutions which enriched the vocabulary of the International Typographic Style.
A final direction of Postmodern design in Switzerland followed a path paved by American and German illustrators. The work of Paul Brühwiler for the Filmpodium film festival in Zurich is more closely aligned to the conceptual imagery and aggressiveness of Germanys Gunter Rambow than other Swiss designers. Niklaus Troxler, creator of the Willisau Jazz Festival and its promotional posters, delights in visual puns reminiscent of Milton Glaser.
Other leading designers working in the Postmodern idiom are Werner Jeker of Lausanne, who combines German-style illustration with tight Swiss graphics, and Ralph Schraivogel of Zurich, whose work reveals a richness of texture and image evocative of Weingart.
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