Summer 2006

The birth of Swiss graphic design

Swiss Graphic Design: The Origins

By Richard Hollis.
Laurence King, £35

It was in an attempt to clarify the meaning of language as arising from its use, that Ludwig Wittgenstein famously asked the question: ‘how many kinds of sentence are there?’ His response was that ‘there are countless kinds: countless different kinds of use of what we call “symbols”, “words”, “sentences”.’ Furthermore, ‘this multiplicity is not something fixed, given once for all; but new types of language, new language games, as we may say, come into existence, and others become obsolete and get forgotten.’ The same could equally be said of graphic design. We use graphics to communicate orders, to impart information, to entertain, to promote and publicise. As with all languages, as new forms of design come into being, earlier forms are perceived as outdated. Ultimately, there is no one rule applicable to all forms of design. Obviously, to carry Wittgenstein’s analysis further, this does not mean there can be a ‘private’ design language. To understand what a particular symbol or word means is to be part of a shared practice of meaning, however small. Thus, in design, the exact significance of a particular graphic object has to be defined by a certain type of community to be intelligible to those actively using it. Furthermore, the meaning of that community is often contingent upon economic, social, political and ideological shifts in which the language evolves.

Yet, to be too embedded in this language ‘community’ can often make the symbols and sentences appear limited and parochial; what’s more, to transcend this community will only result in a language that is, quite simply, meaningless. Graphic design is an idiom especially shaped by this dialectic. It responds to the exigencies of the moment, but often aspires toward the production of all-encompassing modes of visual communication. It was a desire to shake off this impasse that characterised what came to be known as ‘Swiss Graphic Design’ or the ‘Swiss Style’. While originally conceived in response to very specific localised demands, the underlying philosophy always strove in the direction of ‘universality’. In Swiss Graphic Design: The Origins and Growth of an International Style 1920-1965, Richard Hollis has made one of the first attempts in English to map the development and application of this language.

Hollis’s work begins by charting the broader development of Modernism throughout Europe and how this affected the emergence of modern design in Switzerland. As this book seeks to chart the emergence of a constructive design form – and not the illustrative approach equally prevalent in this country – the influences examined are primarily those from the north (Germany) and east (Soviet Union). Therefore, Hollis outlines the effect of the Bauhaus upon Switzerland; the influence of modern (concrete) art on Swiss design; the emergence and principles of the New Typography; the importance of architecture etc. The wealth of information is at times staggering. This book has clearly been a labour of love for Hollis over many years, and one can sense the author’s desire to expand each point by drawing upon additional research from the wings. Fortunately, Hollis has brought his informed eye to the organisation of this mass of material. A four-column grid used throughout the book allows parallel commentary on the key designers, photographers and works. Such an approach allows the reader to follow a variety of threads. Consequently, a picture forms that is more than just scene-setting. What arises is a detailed insight into the intellectual and commercial atmosphere that inspired the debates central to this aesthetic.

Hollis’s writing then charts the important wartime and the postwar periods that witnessed both conflicts over the future direction of Swiss design (most famously with the Bill / Tschichold debate) and the growing self-consciousness among the designers of an identifiable ‘Swiss Style’. He goes on to examine the increasing promotion of this language through magazines such as Neue Grafik, Werk and Typographische Monatsblätter. It speaks volumes of Hollis’ approach that one is continually discovering new ground unearthed within these discussions. For example, one area that Hollis has gone some way to establishing a broader understanding of is the history of photography in design, or ‘photo-graphics’. He correctly identifies Herbert Matter as one of the central figures in this area and offers a detailed appraisal of his groundbreaking posters.

As much of the work here is of a first-order nature, it is often necessary for Hollis to adopt a purely descriptive tone, one that leaves no room for a more critical and distanced interpretation of the material. However, that does not mean that Hollis has no specific preferences for the differing strands that make up the Swiss design topography. For example, in the second half of the book one can detect a preference in Hollis for the Basel-based designs of Karl Gerstner, Armin Hofmann and Emil Ruder etc. over the more ‘doctrinaire’ work of their counterparts in Zurich.

In the closing section of Swiss Graphic Design, Hollis examines how the ‘Swiss style’ was exported around the world in the 1960s and 1970s. With this development one needs to ask: what were the conditions that enabled an expansion of the community wise to the ‘rules’ of this particular ‘language game’? How did a form native to northern Switzerland manage to become relevant to countries around the world? Hollis does pinpoint how many of the founders of this form exported this approach through lectures and overseas commissions. However, he does not examine in any depth the contingent factors (globalisation, advanced capitalism etc.) upon which this language flourished. But, such an analysis is not the purpose of Swiss Graphic Design. Hollis has set out to provide us with an authoritative and scholarly examination of the birth and growth of a modern graphic idiom. In this task he has more than succeeded.