Autumn 1997

Reputations: Gunter Rambow

One of the few remaining poster designers with political edge now teaches his students to reflect more than just Zeitgeist.

Gunter Rambow is a man of two worlds. Born in 1938 in the Prussian town of Neustrelitz in Mecklenburg, Germany, he grew up in the postwar communist German Democratic Republic. In 1954, a few years before the Berlin wall was built, he moved to the West, where he was trained as a glass painter prior to entering the graphic department of the Hochshule für bildende Kunste [Academy of Art and Design] in Kassel. In the same city he would later teach for almost two decades at the university as professor graphic design and visual communication. Currently he is teaching visual communication at the new Hochschule für Gestaltung [Academy of Design] in Karlsruhe. At twenty-two, while still a student, Gunter Rambow started his own design studio in Kassel, together with his fellow student Gerhard Lienemeyer. They moved to Stutggart in 1964 and four years later to Frankfurt am Main. In 1972 they were joined by Michael van de Sand. Lienemeyer left in 1986. Rambow has always been the ‘creative member of the team’ and the main person responsible for the designers. In his posters he tackles the social and political problems of his time, making no secret of his ideological bearings: to the left. His theatre posters contain caustic comments on the plays, interpreted in the topical context of everyday life. Rambow’s use of documentary-style photography actualises the often abstract ideas behind his designs. It has become a defining feature of his work: to confront the imagery of myths and fantasy with the problems and contradictions of contemporary society.

Yvonne Schwemer-Scheddin: You have hardly changed at all. You are still wearing your old trademarks, the black peaked cap. They recall Bertolt Brecht, the ideology of 1968, the Frankfurt School. How far to the left do you stand these days?

Gunter Rambow: I still stand on my own two feet. They possibly stand somewhat to the left. I inherited from my father a passion: a straightforward sense of justice and a feeling for dialogue and the insight that results from it.

Y S-S: Brecht sees theatre as a political institution. By way of analogy, is design a political institution?

GR: Absolutely. I believe that everything I have done in my life has been a response to my environment: to socio-political concerns but also to simple matters with which I have placed myself in a dialogue or a context. Individual communication can only take place when it has a socially meaningful basis. Otherwise it is just decoration and tinsel.

Y S-S: One of your posters carries the words “points of intersection become points of view”. Today there are a lot of interfaces but very few points of views. You are one of the few prominent designers in Germany who use poster design a medium for social and political pronouncements.

GR: The social context is always present. There is no such thing as apolitical theatre, an apolitical novel.

Y S-S: What about apolitical design?

GR: Yes, that exists.

Y S-S: But any statement is political in some way.

GR: Design itself is not actively political but an expression of a political situation. Take Berlin’s new logo, for example, the Brandenburg Gate cut in half through the middle – the black and white – and next to it the word Berlin in a new home-made font. The Berlin Senate, together with a graphic designer whom we all know [Erik Spiekermann], has succeeded in making this logo into Berlin’s new symbol. All Prussia’s victory marches and the marches proclaiming the outbreak of World War I and World War II passed through Brandenburg Gate! And they have turned it into a logo – it looks like a comb that Hitler combed his moustache with. I am outraged! The Berlin bear, by contrast, was always held in deep affection by Berliners, and when Berlin was a world-ranking cultural capital it did its job well. Why is this Prussian imperial gate being made into the most important symbol of Berlin and (indirectly) into the representative for the newly strengthened, unified Germany? If people outside Germany are fearful, well, rightly so, because we have such state-supported graphic designers as Erik Spiekermann.

Y S-S: We cannot deny our history.

GR: But they do not have to turn it into a logo!

Y S-S: You never give up on questions of meaning.

GR: I have been lucky in that I have encountered clients who have come to like my ideologically charged visual language …

First published in Eye no. 26 vol. 7, 1997