Autumn 2006

Missing Brits in Poland

20th International Poster Biennale in Warsaw


The Poster Museum, Wilanów, until
17 September 2006

I have to confess that in twenty years of writing about design I have never, until this year, attended the Warsaw poster biennale – the most famous of all poster festivals. If you are a British designer, you are likely to be in the same position. In the past couple of years, I have heard the same bemused question from festival organisers: why won’t the British enter their posters?

The twentieth biennale, presented in the Poster Museum at Wilanów, proved to be no exception when it came to the British ‘boycott’. Five hundred and two accepted entries from around the world graced the walls. Only four of these designers were based in Britain: Andrzej Klimowski (hardly a surprise, given his Polish connections); Henrik Kubel (Danish background, and his former teacher, Finn Nygaard, always enters); Jonathan Barnbrook (who regularly sends posters to festivals); and Andrew Mockett (whose work was unfamiliar to me).

When the Polish Cultural Institute invited me to the event, I welcomed the chance to correct my oversight, but I was not expecting to see anything that blew me away. What I found in Warsaw obliged me to think again. The poster, far from being dead as a means of modern communication, shows every sign of thriving. There were superb examples from Switzerland, Germany, France and Iran, where the posters are stunningly beautiful and inventive, and many fine pieces from Russia, Japan and China. Portugal today produces better posters than the British have in many years.

The biggest revelation came from changes in the Polish poster. In the hands of young designers, the poster is emotional and expressive, often angular and dramatic, but produced with digital tools rather than the paintbrush. The show also confirmed that Swiss designers, for so long masters of the poster, remain its masters. Bruno Monguzzi’s innovations continue to surprise, and the designs by Martin Woodtli and Ralph Schraivogel are in a class of their own.

So why does Britain not enter poster festivals such as Warsaw’s? First, perhaps, because we are insular. But the larger truth is that the British poster went into decline several decades ago. It is dispiriting sometimes, in London, to wonder whether expressive graphic design as we knew it is over. In reality, the medium is alive and flourishing – it is just happening elsewhere.

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