Autumn 2002

The essence of graphic design?

100 + 3 Swiss Posters

The Odermatt Collection
The London Institute
6 June–8 August 2002
Reviewed by Quentin Newark

Siegfried Odermatt has collected posters by Swiss designers since 1942. Sigi (as he likes to be known) is half of the duo Odermatt & Tissi, two Swiss designers who have worked in the same Zurich loft for over 30 years, producing an impressive body of work. This exhibition consisted of 100 of his favourites, with three of his own design. His criterion for adding posters has been very simple: ‘things I like. Nothing else.’ He has built an enviable collection.

The poster has always been thought of as the very essence of graphic design. Massimo Vignelli said that the poster was ‘the epitome of visual synthesis . . . the place where word and image come together in perfect symbiosis’. (Vignelli was perhaps practising for soirées at The Museum of Modern Art in New York: MoMA has a substantial poster collection; to my knowledge the Tate in Britain has none.)

But is the poster really a superior form of design, or is it that designers like posters because they are relatively simple to make, are really big, and look great on their studio walls? There is a question to answer: if the graphic designer’s poster is really such a successful form of communication, why is it so rare? And getting rarer? The beauty of the posters themselves provides the answer; they are exercises in formal play and inventiveness – the true source of satisfaction for most designers – an obsession meaningless to almost all non-designers. A smattering of the posters in the exhibition are for cultural events, most are out-and-out advertisements for unedifying products such as bouillon cubes, Biros and skiing holidays. Today’s advertising agencies – with their weaponry of brand strategy and consumer profiling – now make most posters we see in our streets, and they do this without the aid of any of the clever typographic and pictorial innovations on display in this show.

The one story these posters do tell is of the eclipse of drawing and its replacement by mechanical methods: what we see now as modern graphic design. The two posters that make the contrast most starkly were designed for the Swiss government to draw attention to the vulnerability of old age. The first is by Hans Falk, with whom Odermatt started his career as an assistant. Drawn in 1945, it is a loose ink and charcoal rendering of a stooping old lady, seen from the back. The second is by Carlo Vivarelli, a classic of the most confident and reductive period of Swiss Modernism: a line of fierce, vertical, white sans serif type squashes a photographed face of a old woman into the lower left of a bleakly black poster. Its date is a mere four years later: 1949.

Wolfgang Weingart has long been held up as the source of the ‘return’ to self-expressiveness after the aridity of high Modernism. The three beautiful posters by him are a long way from the hand-made, the genuinely self-made. Their rich combinations of dot screens, type, photos and other mechanical marks fit happily alongside the simpler montages of Müller-Brockmann, compared to, say, the poster by Walter Käch – a hammer and pincers made from closely drawn letters, each drawn painstakingly by hand – which stands as a quiet testament to the expressive power of his particular hand and eye.

The exhibition was disappointingly mounted. The frames hid the edges of every poster, and they were all tightly shoe-horned into an undeservedly small space. You could not see any poster from the sort of distance it was designed for. Markus Raetz’s poster of giant dots, which ought to become his self-portrait at a distance, remained a poster of giant dots. The space also obliged Imagination, the exhibition designers, to mount every poster low on the wall. I am a tall man, and I was forced to go round like Groucho Marx.