Spring 1996

Form follows attitude

Lars Muller’s dissatisfaction with design’s service role led him to set up his own publishing house

Lars Müller is both a graphic designer and a publisher, balancing his energy between the two roles. From his base in Baden, Switzerland, he initiates his own projects and participates actively in the formulation of the programmes for his design commissions, each activity nourishing the other. A sense of social responsibility and a vision of the graphic designer as a maker are the keystones of his practice.

Born in 1955 in Oslo, Müller grew up in Switzerland. He began his career as a stage desing assistant in small theatres before deciding to become a graphic designer, which he saw as a good entry point into other professions. Before setting up his own studio he worked as an assistant to Wim Crouwel at Total Design in Amsterdam. He published his first book in 1983, driven by frustration at the idea of graphic design as simply a service profession. “I didn’t want to wait until someone came along with a message to transmit and ask me to visualise it,” he says. Die gute Form, written in collaborations with Peter Erni, looks at the Swiss design movement of 1952-68, which sought the ideal form for industrial and graphic products. “All those things were in my parents’ home and I wanted to explore where I came from,” says Müller. The book’s implicit conclusion is that design is more about attitude than form and this has become Müller’s credo.

Although Die gute Form was a commercial flop, Müller received enough encouragement from fellow designers and artists to make him want to continue to publish in parallel with his design practice. Today he produces between 12 and 15 titles a year, at least half of them based on his own ideas or put together with his editorial participation. The list covers art, architecture, photography and design and includes a recent publication on ECM sleeve designs (see Eye no.16 vol.4) and a forthcoming volume by Wolfgang Weingart as well as reprints of avant-garde magazines and artists’ books. Publishing has not so far been a profit-making activity and 1995 was the first year the business broke even. But the knowledge and freedom it provides, together with the fun of planning and making, are more important to Müller than money.

Müller has an idealistic view of the publisher’s role. “I want to discover and explore ideas, not just react to projects,” he says. His book Equilibre, which explores utopian notions of balance and harmony in art, is based on a theme he suggested to the director of the art museum at Aargau, resulting in an exhibition and the book. A project for 1996 is a series of artists’ books for children for which he has commissioned artists such as Gloria Freidman, Louise Bourgeois and Markus Raetz. The brief reads like a manifesto: “We realise that the autonomy and naïve creativity with which a child assimilates and adapts to reality is threatened by the norms and rules of urban civilisation… art calls upon children to be imaginative and unreasonable in order to counteract the standardised, rational, intolerant value system of that adult world.”

Many award-winning contemporary publications limit themselves to impressing visually through the virtuosity of their production. The result is coldness and sterility: the reader stops at the surface – the cover, the layout – and is not drawn into the content. Müller’s books have a simplicity and warmth which entice the reader to be interested. Easy to hold (no heavy coffee-table tomes), solid and hard-wearing, they are designed to be read and looked at again and again – and each has a story to tell. “We live in a world with far too much of everything,” says Müller. “I am aware of this, so with each book I make sure I add something. I don’t want just to produce more desert sand.” Müller also recognises that it is style which goes out of fashion, not content, and style which can be copied, not an attitude or a concept. As a result, his publications age well – 12 years on, even his first title is still in print.

The implicit aim of each book is to increase our perception and provoke independent thinking. This is epitomised in the series on visual phenomena, which playfully stretches the limits of the medium so that each volume literally becomes a tool for questioning perception. Reading is transformed into a matter of staring, squinting, and turning or shaking the book. “In a world full of visual pollution, it makes sense to go back to elementary visual phenomena and relearn how to see,” says Müller. This attitude also informs the posters he produces to advertise some of his titles in Zurich and Baden. Instead of enticing the viewer with slogans and promises, the posters raise questions using pictures from the books themselves: an extension of the book beyond its covers into the urban environment.

A major theme of Müller’s publishing programme is design history. His ambition is not to be encyclopaedic, but rather to focus on areas he regards as particularly significant for our understanding of the present, in particular the avant-garde of the 1920s and the post-war period of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. “We can only understand and influence our present when we know where we come from,” he says. A book he authored looks at the post-war philosophy and work of Swiss rationalist Josef Müller-Brockmann in the context of contemporary and subsequent Swiss design. Müller does not hide his admiration, declaring Müller-Brockmann’s output exemplary “in a period where empty aestheticism tires the eye”.

The magazine reprint series engages in a direct dialogue with history through an accompanying volume of commentary created as a tool to facilitate a contextual understanding of the original. The design of the book of Vesc’ Objet Gegenstand – typically of the series – is a contemporary interpretation of Russian Constructivism, not an imitation. Müller’s aim is not to romanticise history – the reprint does away with the feeling of awe at handling a rare original, giving the reader a more authentic relationship with the content – but to bring it closer. “I wanted to transmit my fascination with how much the avant-garde had to say to one another, and the urgency with which they communicated,” he says. “To deal critically with history means to emancipate oneself from it.”

There is often a symbiotic relationship between Müller’s publishing and graphic design. The experience and knowledge gained from editorial and design discussions with authors and artists feed into the concepts for design projects. An ongoing interest in museum space and the relationship between art and architecture is reflected in his book Denkraum Museum (1992) as well as in a poster for the Kunstmuseum Winterthur which shows the museum as a three-dimensional space and “welcomes” the spectator to a physical encounter with the art. Müller’s experience of historical publishing led him to be commissioned to design the visual identity of the Forum of Swiss History in the canton of Schwyz, while in a further linking of the two parts of his practice clients sometimes become sponsors for books – for instance, the optician Götte for See saw and face to Face and the engineering office Rothpletz & Lienhard for Eqilibre.

When it comes to design communications, Müller expects to participate in mapping out the programme. On receiving a commission for a brochure from the Federation of Swiss Architects, he proposed the establishment of an editorial team of members to define with him a way of communicating the federation’s new aims. “The content had to come from the inside out, from the members themselves,” he explains. “As they were in crisis, they saw only the bad thins. My job was to transform the problems and questions into qualities. It was an extremely long process. They no longer knew how to define architecture.” The cover and opening page of the brochure reflect this dilemma in a playful w ay through a series of anagrams of the word “architecture” by the poet Klaus Merz, a friend of Müller whom he asked to contribute a text. A photograph of “fake” buildings by the artists Bernard Voïta similarly challenges the reader to question the nature of architectural practice.

Does Müller act as an art director, an editor, or simply part of a larger team of specialists?” “The Federation of Swiss Architects project was a nearly ideal working process,” he says. “Because I participated in defining the content and the attitude, their confidence in my work as a graphic designer was unlimited. It was never a hierarchical relationship between the commissioner and the commissioned designer.”

To recognise graphic design as part of a more comprehensive project also sometimes means subordinating graphic effects to the purpose of the whole. “Subtractive design means taking away every disturbing element and setting free existing qualities,” says Müller. “You need only to strengthen the elements, to back them up, or to reveal a relationship to the surroundings. This makes sense in a visually cluttered environment. We don’t necessarily like the idea, because we use production to justify our existence: I live therefore I produce. And, of course, it presents design professionals with a dilemma, because we are paid to solve design problems through production, not reduction.” Perhaps the question of how the designer can act as an author becomes less important if one considers the designer as an active part of a team of specialists.

Müller has been asked to prepare an exhibition of his work for the Moscow Museum of Architecture in summer 1996. His theme will be the responsibility of the graphic designe. The exhibited work will be introduced by a series of posters giving statements by famous designers and theorists, each of which will be qualified by a “yes, but” critique. The aim is to stimulate a critical consciousness and provoke contextual thinking. “Design has to do with the intuitive and local as well as the rational and universal,” he says. “You have to work with a concern for and knowledge of your environment – its society, culture and manner of communication. This cannot be conveyed through e-mail and the Internet. It is unfashionable today to promote the idea of working n your own environment, but I don’t see why a Swiss designer should be commissioned for a project in San Francisco, or an American agency in Moscow. As everything becomes more and more alike, it is the small difference that count.”

Müller insists that designers must develop a stronger sense of social responsibility and pay more attention to ethics than to aesthetic self-indulgence or money-making. “You might wait so long for a commission that you don’t reflect on the content any more. The thicker the brochure, the more money comes in. it is quite pragmatic: for a certain amount of money you have this to offer and for a bit more money you can do a bit more – like prostitution. The profession does not speak of responsibility or ethics: the designer is not the hunter, but the victim.”

First published in Eye no. 20 vol. 5, 1996