The Swiss Poster: From New Haven to Zurich

Bez Ocko, Guest Contributor

Dates of Visits: 2001 & 2004
(All images copyrighted Bez Ocko, 2012)

I. New Haven, Connecticut
Tom Strong’s Swiss Poster Collection

II. Zurich, Switzerland
Museum für Gestaltung Zürich

III. Basel, Switzerland
Jean-Benoit Levy’s studio A•N•D (Trafic Grafic)
Basel School of Art
Swiss Poster Collection: Basel

Background: Switzerland has a long tradition of remarkable poster design (you can read about Swiss poster history here). This post, written by guest contributor, Bez Ocko, focuses on her research for an exhibition of contemporary Swiss posters from collections in the United States and in Switzerland.

I. Tom Strong’s Swiss Poster Collection
When I was an MFA student in the Yale Graphic Design program in the 1980s, I’d heard tales of Tom Strong’s wondrous Swiss poster collection. I also learned that Strong, another graduate of the Yale program (1962) and a partner in Strong Cohen Graphic Design in New Haven, was keen to share his collection. I was finally able to showcase some of Strong’s holdings in “The Swiss Poster: Art of Ten Masters”, an exhibition I curated for the Hofstra University Museum. Link to Hofstra Show, Link to NY Times Review

I began preparing for the exhibition by viewing Strong’s collection in a small third floor attic-type room at his New Haven home. Many new posters have been added since my visit, but in 2001 he already had hundreds that he kept piled neatly in stacks. Our one-by-one look through method necessitated beginning a new stack of posters and transferring each viewed poster from one stack to the other. The posters are of nearly uniform dimensions—conforming to the Swiss Weltformat (world format) of 90.5 x 128 cm (approximately 35.5 x 50.5 inches)—so with care we managed to keep the new stack neat and square.

Tom Strong and his posters

Strong knows each poster, who designed it, when it was designed, what city and institution it came from. He remembers how each was acquired. If it promoted a cultural event or a literary work, he’s researched it. If it publicizes an orchestra or an opera, he knows the music. He relishes the small detail while embracing the big picture. For Strong, these posters are stories and friends and new horizons.

Strong credits his friend Chris Pullman for infecting him with this passion in the 1960s. “Chris went on a smoking expedition to Switzerland to check out where the fire was coming from…” So begins the saga of Strong’s collection. Alvin Eisenman, founder of the Graphic Design department at Yale, sent Chris to Switzerland with entrée to the likes of Josef Müller-Brockmann and Armin Hoffmann who, in turn, directed him to free poster sources like the Opera, etc. Chris began gathering samples to bring home with him while also scouting for new design faculty for the Yale program. When he returned to New Haven, Pullman gave a couple of posters to Strong. The following year, Strong himself made the trip to Switzerland, beginning a pattern of travel and poster collecting that went on for many years. Though he no longer travels to Switzerland on a regular basis, he still tends to the growing collection.

In addition to collecting Swiss posters, Strong collects HO scale model trains of Swiss and German types, Braun products (radios, shavers, lighters, small home appliances), National Park Service folders (template by Vignelli), posters designed for Yale musical group performances and Otl Aicher’s Olympic and Lufthansa posters. When I visited Strong he was eager to share all of these with me and to tell me exactly what excites him about each collection. As for Swiss posters, he is thrilled that there are many great posters to continually add to the collection. According to Strong, there are usually at least 150 wonderful posters published each year out of a total of 5,000 annual commissions. He loves the scale of these posters, which though large, are not billboards but of human scale in synch with the scale of European walking cities. He also cites the uniformity of their format, enabling interchangeability in mounting exhibitions, and the affordability of acquisition even today.

Josef Müller-Brockmann, 1972 / Cornel Windlin, 1998
Rosemarie Tissi, 1996
Jean Benoît Lévy, 1997 / Ralph Schraivogel, 1994
Wolfgang Weingart, 1983

After viewing Strong’s collection I decided that the exhibition would focus on individual Swiss designers who brought a unique graphic approach to their work. Fortunately Strong’s collection included great pieces by Armin Hofmann, Melchior Imboden, Jean Benoît Lévy, Bruno Monguzzi, Josef Müller-Brockmann, Ralph Schraivogel, Rosemarie Tissi, Niklaus Troxler, Wolfgang Weingart and Cornel Windlin; the ten masters of the exhibition.

I began the research that would result in the final selection of posters for the exhibit and the catalog essays I wrote. The designers who were contacted answered my questions and provided missing biographical information. Jean Benoît Lévy was especially responsive, providing thoughtful and extensive replies, which went even beyond the scope of my inquiries, enough so that I added a separate catalog article, “Can the Swiss Poster find its way in the American Streets?” It brought another perspective and addressed the contrasts between the poster context in the two countries, as well as voicing the frustration of the poster-interested American designer’s lack of public poster venues. At the time Lévy had design studios both in San Francisco and Basel. He was a generous and enthusiastic supporter of my project with his time and materials, plus he contributed several new posters to both the exhibition and my own nascent collection.

II. Switzerland
A. In Zurich
Museum für Gestaltung: Ralph Schraivogel Posters & Ladislav Sutnar: Design in Action

In the spring of 2004 I was off to Switzerland to continue my poster research. I had been living in Amsterdam at the time and the short trip to Switzerland was convenient; the flight to Zurich was under an hour and a half. Scheduled to give a conference talk on the subject, I was also going to the source to see what else I would uncover. Jean Benoît Lévy had suggested the visit because a Ralph Schraivogel exhibition was opening at the in mid-March at the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich (The Museum of Design, Zurich). After discovering Schraivogel’s work in Tom Strong’s poster collection, I had become a big fan and even purchased two of his works; one, a stunning exhibit poster for the Henry Van de Velde show with its almost dizzying confluence of vibrating lines, an image of a chair and levitating type and the second, a poster for an exhibition of photography’s precursors displaying Schraivogel’s implausible overlapping and interventions of bold type upon subtler imagery in a graphic space containing alternating colored rays and soft edged lens-like circles enclosing the various elements.

The Ladislav Sutnar: Design in Action exhibit was on display in the main building of the Museum für Gestaltung. It was a thorough, top of the line presentation of his work in the design field. Yet what remains memorable from this show is the surprise of his so-called erotic paintings and prints from the sixties and seventies. Exiting through the gift shop, I picked up a couple of the available exhibition posters on offer. If you are not already there, you can add to your poster collection by ordering these directly from the museum’s on-line store.

Schraivogel Posters, on photography and Van de Velde

The Schraivogel exhibition opening in the poster gallery of the museum was relaxed and elegant in style. A glass bowl packed with yellow and orange tulips sat atop the central exhibition case, which that night also acted as a tabletop for liquid refreshments. The intriguing activity and vibrating intensity of Ralph’s posters surrounded us; two facing walls flush with Weltformat posters hung two-deep and side-by-side. A back wall carried his large posters and smaller posters were hung on the inside of the front windowed wall. Many of the posters were familiar such as those for the Zürich Filmpodium series and the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich. (Filmpodium is a non-commercial art house cinema that specializes in retrospectives of film history). Robert Massin, the legendary French designer, gave the introductory speech. His essay is included in the wonderful publication of the Museum’s Schraivogel Poster Collection. Jean Benoît Lévy’s easy sociability helped me feel comfortable among the poster design luminaries at the celebratory dinner held afterwards at a local restaurant.

B. In Basel
Jean Benoit Levy’s Studio A•N•D
Basler Plakatsammlung (Basel Poster Collection)
Basel School of Design

Benoit Levy’s Studio

I took an early morning train to Basel, to meet up again with JB and partake in the day of activity that he had arranged. First stop was his design studio called A•N•D (Trafic Graphic), a beautiful two-story space whose walls showcased his elegant posters. I still have postcards of his poster images that he gave me that day. He also showed me the lenticular postcards he was then working on. These word-based messages, published by Chronicle Books in 2004, use a vintage printing technique that transforms one word into another as the cards are angled back and forth. At that time JB was working both in the Basel studio and in San Francisco; since 2006 he is headquartered solely in California. Studio Link

More from inside the A•N•D Studio

The studio staff was deeply focused on their work and JB had me on a tight schedule, so off I went down the street to visit the Basler Plakatsammlung (Basel Poster Collection) and its then director, Rolf Thalmann. The collection, a repository of over 50,000 Swiss posters dating from 1880, contains posters for services, tourism, public transport, consumer goods, politics, social communication and events. According to Thalmann “The Basel Poster Collection sees its function as that of a mirror and an archive of everyday visual culture in Switzerland.”

Rolf showed me select posters and the vast poster storage. He also agreed to find some specific images for my upcoming talk. [The poster collection is now part of the School fur Gestaltung Basel (Basel School of Design) and is directed by curator Kurt Würmli.]

Weingart’s typography students in Basel

Another stop was the Basel School of Design, where I was given a tour and visited with several faculty members in their classrooms. The last room was the typography studio, under the direction of the legendary Wolfgang Weingart. Students were setting type on laptop computers and manipulating the output, slicing the text line by line and arranging these as I had done years before when I was a student in graduate school. Weingart was present, round and about in a low-keyed way, but he was not lecturing. Old films from his posters were taped to a glass enclosed office separating two classrooms.

C. Back to Zurich for the Schraivogel Opening

Wolfgang Weingart (left) & Ralph Schraivogel

Weingart returned with me to Zurich and the Schraivogel exhibition. A student group was there to view the exhibit and meet Ralph who came prepared to speak about his work and answer questions. Weingart was there to introduce Ralph. Bedecked by backpacked laden students and encircled by Schraiogel’s buzzy works, Weingart began by contrasted the style of hanging of this exhibition to the Armin Hofmann exhibit in the same space earlier this year. Schraivogel’s installation looked to him like a “wallpaper wall” whereas Hoffman’s posters were hung with a conventional amount of space between them. He spoke of Schraivogel’s “interesting visual language,” the work which is related “like a family,” and Ralph’s unique visual style. He mentioned the similarity between Ralph’s working process and his own when he was creating posters —using film, chemicals and repro cameras—how this method, which involves transparency, informs the work.

Schraivogel granted that the hanging was a bit chaotic and agreed about the relatedness of his works. His fascination with poster making corresponded to an initial interest in becoming a painter. A slow worker, he only designs two posters a year—using the time to find new ways to approach design.

Schraivogel learned film montage while working in magazine design and production. Using film “sketches” unwrapped from neat kraft paper packages, he discussed his method of integrating typography and image, explaining his preference for beginning the design with the type (usually the only given from the client). This allows him more freedom with the image. If he begins with the image it can be difficult to make the typography work. He likes to either meld or separate them, but most importantly, the type and image need to interfere with each other in some way.

Schraivogel discussed some difficulties he has encountered. The issues inherent during the scale change from a sketch to the Weltformat size are dealt with by allowing for a certain amount of variance in the final piece. The loss of methods and materials he has used in the past, repro cameras and film positives, compelled his switch to computers. Current printing technology goes straight from the computer to plate making, eliminating film altogether.

Schraivogel with sketches of the Van de Velde poster
Filmpodium matrix and final poster

We also saw the matrix that he used to create the type for the Shakespeare in Film poster for Filmpodium Zürich. With sketches for his superb John Ford poster, he explained how playing with the orientation of the film positives inspired his use of the type.

I was thoroughly jazzed up by my visits to Ralph’s exhibit and I really wanted to find a way to acquire a few more of his posters before I left Switzerland. With only an hour before I needed to leave for the airport, I made an ambitious dash into the heart of downtown in search of the Filmpodium shop. Luckily the theater had a number of wonderful posters on offer at the time. I narrowly made my flight but left Switzerland with a number of Swiss Weltformat posters including the four fantastic Schraivogel posters I purchased at the eleventh hour.

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