Autumn 2002

What do you do with 300,000 posters?

Poster Collection 01, 02, 03, 04

Museum für Gestaltung Zürich
Lars Müller Publishers
Euro23/19.50 each

The Museum für Gestaltung Zürich has solved the difficult ‘what do we do with our 300,000 strong international poster collection’ dilemma with a sly series of four paperbacks aimed at reappraising methods of design history. Each book groups selections from the collection along a single theme, time period or designer. Rather than attempting an encyclopedic overview, the museum decided to take micro-looks at the collection in order to reveal larger ideas and themes. The well reproduced images are complemented by highly focused essays and annotations in German and English. The slim volumes are each edited by a different curator but are designed as a set, complete with matching spines, covers and layouts.

The first collection demonstrates the strength of the Museum’s approach: borrowing from Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s In 1926, Living at the Edge of Time, this volume is limited to 1926, a year of little significance. Writing about Gumbrecht’s book, editor Felix Studinka notes that the aim was not to narrate history as a significant, logical chain of events, ‘but to lay it open to experience as a confused accumulation of simultaneous events.’ An early spread features Herbert Bayer’s poster for Kandinsky’s 60th birthday celebration facing an anonymous labour poster, screaming in bold Egyptian-style type ‘Down With The Sweaters! Strike’ It’s not an ironic juxtaposition, but rather coincidental, illuminating Gumbrecht’s thesis and also injecting a flash of humour into the proceedings. Contrasts continue as styles one imagined long dead by 1926 rear up – a Victorian circus poster beneath a type-dominated Futurist piece, both across from a series of product posters. The sheer density of graphic history is well demonstrated; it is, as this book shows, neither linear nor orderly, but rather a mess of styles, eras, and ideas clashing simultaneously.

The other, less inspired volumes are nevertheless remarkable peeks into the collection. Donald Brun covers the diverse career of the Swiss designer. Brun lacked an easily recognisable look, producing instead a market-driven body of work that crosses three decades of popular styles, each thoroughly absorbed and executed. The work and the volume itself is instructive as a design style history, if not on its own merits – another odd tour through design history. For Posters for Exhibitions 1980-2000 the series turns inward, collecting posters made for exhibitions at the museum. There are examples by Max Bill, Wolfgang Weingart and Cornel Windlin. Also included are younger, less well known practitioners, creating yet another cross-section of design and designers of the late twentieth century.

Moving into an area adjacent and relevant to design, volume 4, Hor-Sol: Poster Actions in Switzerland, gathers art posters from the 1960s through the 1990s. These posters are not produced for any specific purpose, product, event, or ideology, only for the sake of making public art on a mass scale. As such, editor Bettina Richter argues, they undermine the idea of what a poster is or can be. But they also bring up questions about the artists themselves, namely, since they’re using a traditional device of basic communication, can they in fact communicate with an unknowing public? The answer, based on the present book, is yes and no. In Otto Mittmannsgruber’s and Martin Strauss’s 1996 13 Tote Österreicher (Thirteen Dead Austrians) major Austrian figures from Ludwig Wittgenstein to Gustav Mahler were drawn in the style of police ‘wanted’ posters and posted on billboards. The stark black drawings on white paper are striking, and their placement and timing (the Austrian Millennium) impeccable. The posters communicate, poke fun, and confront all at once.

Stacked together the volumes make up a diverse vision of poster design in the twentieth century. Forthcoming volumes look equally promising. All told, the series is a remarkably successful set of conceptual conceits, a rare thing among history books – fully formed ideas demonstrated through eloquent prose and clever image selections.

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