Summer 2007

Embedded within design’s DNA

Josef Müller-Brockmann

By Kerry William Purcell
Phaidon, £45, €75
Reviewed by Kenneth FitzGerald

The lives of creative people are not conducive to dramatic biographies. If the artist is at all dedicated, much of their time is spent working. Pretty thin stuff. Any spectacle occurs during off-hours. This is typically drinking, philandering, wrangling with clients, browbeating students, giving innumerable far-flung lectures extolling the supremacy of one’s concepts.

With an ascetic such as Josef Müller-Brockmann (1914-96) the going is even tougher. Perhaps there are bacchanalian excesses that go undocumented here, but it seems unlikely; the latter three spectacles are, however, well represented. A more fitting chronicler of this subject might be U and I author Nicholson Baker: a writer obsessed by and eloquent about minutiae.

But Kerry William Purcell turns in a well researched and respectful product. Properly, the volume is geared toward the design neophyte, so many details will seem obvious or repetitive to a design-aware reader. This is unavoidable, as Müller-Brockmann’s ideas are embedded within design’s DNA. His doctrine, as with his posters, was honed through years of rigorous explication, and, unable to improve upon the artist’s concision, Purcell quotes extensively from his autobiography.

Purcell’s role is then to provide historical and professional context, in addition to broadening Müller-Brockmann’s own self-abridged personal and creative narrative. With the expanded portfolio, it is illuminating to find rarely seen illustration, exhibition and set design works. Unsurprisingly, things that the artist dismissed as unskilled or unacceptably subjective are lively and deserving. While no patch on the marvels to follow, they warranted salvage as more than curiosities . . . [EXTRACT]

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