Book Reviews: Swiss Graphic Design

Courtesy Lars Mueller Publishers

Courtesy Lars Mueller Publishers

Michael Webb

100 Years of Swiss Graphic Design. Museum für Gestaltung Zürich. Lars Müller Publishers.  €55.

Over the past century, Swiss designers have excelled in the graphic arts, creating memorable posters, signage, advertising, and books—of which this anthology is a shining exemplar. Helvetica has achieved international acceptance in logos for American Airlines, Knoll, Letraset, Panasonic and other corporations—and the font was named for its country of origin. Though globalization has begun to erode national characteristics, the Swiss tradition of crisp, lucid, and inventive graphic design continues to flourish.

That achievement is based on a close link between Zurich’s Design Museum and the school that is now known as the Zurich University of the Arts. Students and teachers are immersed in the finest work of past and present, and this book will inspire graphic designers around the world to follow their lead. It ranges far beyond the familiar photo- graphics of Herbert Matter and the reductive typography of Max Bill, tracing the origins of the modern movement in the Dada movement of the 1910s and its enrichment in the 1930s by refugees from Nazi Germany. A small, innately conservative country proved fertile ground for innovation and a deep-rooted commitment to modern aesthetics. In the 1960s, rigor gave way to anarchy, as the Swiss joined their neighbors in protesting against militarism (a resurgence of Dada) and celebrating flower power. But overall, there’s a remarkable consistency in graphic design, allied to a richness of expression.

Lars Müller, who published this book, is himself a noted graphic designer, and enlisted many of his peers to write about key movements and individuals. They discuss the impact of tourism, the need for signage to unify a country speaking four languages, and the regional movements—notably in Basel and Geneva—that challenged the preeminence of Zurich.  The titles of their essays—”Text as Image,” “What Gives a Campaign Cult Status?” and “How Theater Took to the Streets”—indicate the range of their concerns. And the 800 images, selected from the half-million held by the Zurich Design Museum are extraordinary in their quality and diversity. A single complaint: The captions provide no translation of the German texts. A pity; not every poster is self-explanatory.

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