Winter 2005

Handmade graphics refuse to go quietly

Poster Collection 11: Handmade

Essay by Claude Lichtenstein, Felix Studinka and others. Lars Müller Publishers, £14

What is the enduring allure of the visibly handmade poster? In spite of the huge progressions made by mechanical and digital technologies on graphics and printing throughout the twentieth century, the handmade graphic just refuses to go away quietly and bow to the authoritative precision of works mediated through metal type or digital bitmaps. The answers may lie in that assumed authoritative precision which edits out all the imperfections, the unfiltered emotions, the unpredictabilities and the vagaries of the human touch.

The eleventh book in the Poster Collection series features posters from the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich, all selected for their handmade creation process. In terms of content this is an inspirational snapshot of the Museum’s collection of mainly European work produced over the past seven years.

The ‘truth’ offered through homogenous consumer aesthetics is rapidly becoming less believable. The stranglehold of the computer program in flattening out the texture of imagery and its physical, material presence creates something quite different in experience from the image created by materials manipulated by hand. From childhood onwards everyone has the ability to connect to the inventiveness, danger and downright fun of directly applied experimentation: what happens when you mix this with that? How will this paint react with that material? With computers much of the magic has all been worked out by programmers a long time ago.

Claude Lichtenstein’s essay ‘Tangible facts’ articulates the age-old problem for designers about the importance of playfulness with material craft in keeping their work fresh, alive and open to possibilities, and hints at the potential gains to be explored in working in the space between the manual and the Mac. Will this become another stylistic fashion, or will designers take up the challenge to reconstruct the fundamental methods of mark-making to create something new with their computers?

Some readers might begin to feel as if they have seen a lot of this kind of work before, from the protest graphics of the Atelier Populaire in Paris 1968 or the Vietnam era. Lichtenstein admits that this may be a sign that some designers are content to rehash a more romantic period of graphical history. Studinka’s essay ‘Handmade as a political figure’ looks at the motivation, meaning and value of the hand-drawn protest in twentieth-century politics and concludes that today such forms are no longer so potent but have become a well recognised code for the disenfranchised.

On the downside, some of the techniques displayed are not new or original (the woodblock typography genre is well established) though there are a few striking examples from designers such as Cornel Windlin and Martin Woodtli, where materials are explored in three-dimensional space. The lack of context in describing the posters is frustrating, and while a focus on materials and printing techniques is interesting, some more information about why and how individual poster designs came about might have yielded more interesting insights. Swiss designers also dominate the collection.

Readers looking for a sizeable and explorative text will be disappointed – the German / English bilingual essays total only five of its 90-odd pages – but those who enjoy looking at pictures rather than dealing with words will appreciate the brevity. This may actually be a blessing since the readability of the essays is somewhat impaired, possibly as a result of the style of the writer themselves or (more likely) in the losses incurred from an awkward translation. Those who can read German may have more success.

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