Summer 2007

Swiss radical

Whether commercial or political, the work of Theo Ballmer was underpinned by craft, precision and passion

Theo Ballmer (1902-65) is known as one of the heroes of Modernist design. His posters of the 1920s and 30s are famous, leaving his work as a photographer, lettering designer, teacher and jobbing typographer almost unrecorded. The shortest accounts of his career mention that he was a student at the Bauhaus. In fact, when he went to the Bauhaus he was already an established designer.

Born in Basel, and apprenticed as a lithographic draughtsman in that city, Ballmer received part of his training at the Zurich Kunstgewerbeschule, where one of his teachers was Ernst Keller, the ‘father of Swiss graphic design’. Ballmer’s sketchbooks at the age of seventeen reveal him as astonishingly precocious and aware of the avant-garde. Drawings show the influence of George Grosz; an exercise in organising different elements in a given space has hints of Mondrian, another of Kandinsky.

In 1926 Ballmer began work as graphic designer for one of Basel’s largest pharmaceutical companies, Hoffmann-La Roche. Here he employed Modernist ingredients – flat areas of colour and geometrical lettering drawn with ruler and compasses on a grid – which remained a continuing speciality and part of a personal style. The earliest published example of this lettering is in the design of a shop-window display of watches, made in collaboration with the architects Ernst Mumenthaler and Otto Meier, partners in a leading progressive architectural practice. Mumenthaler’s posters have lettering indistinguishable from Ballmer’s – and were most likely executed by Ballmer. Connections to avant-garde movements – aesthetic and political – were to run through Ballmer’s career until the late 1930s.

His youthful attraction to the political left is betrayed by the choice of words in some of his early lettering experiments, with fragments of Marxist doctrine: ‘der Produktionsprozess wird propagandistisch nicht genug’ (‘the process of production is not enough in propaganda terms’).

At this time Basel’s architects were receptive to Constructivist ideas, promoted by foreign visitors to Switzerland, notably the German typographer Jan Tschichold, the Russian artist-designer-engineer El Lissitzky and the Dutch architect Mart Stam. All three contributed to the journal ABC, launched in Basel in 1924. Among Ballmer’s avant-garde friends was the architect Hannes Meyer. His hymn to mechanisation, a Utopian manifesto describing ‘The New World’, took up almost a whole issue of the Swiss Werkbund magazine Werk. Among its demands in a section on publicity was: ‘instead of black charcoal line, the precise straight-edge drawn line.’ This could well have been a description of Ballmer’s work.

When Meyer succeeded Gropius as director of the Bauhaus in 1928, Ballmer enrolled as a student in the school’s new photography department. Two pioneers of graphic design and photography at the Bauhaus had just left: Herbert Bayer and Lazlo Moholy-Nagy. With them went much of the excited experiment with the camera and in the darkroom. Bauhaus practice is often associated with their intuitive methods; Meyer’s were the opposite. Believing that science and technology were essential not only to social progress but fundamental to all design activity, he insisted on discipline, rationality and a science-based attitude. Typically, he had engaged a professional photographer, Walter Peterhans, to run the new department. Ballmer’s notes on the courses he took in three-dimensional geometry and photography are theoretical and objective: dense pages of formulae and equations record practical effects of optical laws and the chemistry of photographic emulsions and film development.

In the summer of 1930, Meyer’s political radicalism led to his resignation from the Bauhaus. Ballmer returned home. Two years later he joined the staff at the Allgemeine Gewerbeschule Basel, where the records he made of the Bauhaus course, elaborated into diagrams, formed the basis of his own photography teaching. Photography remained central to his work: first, as part of his design practice, to produce images of objects for advertisements, and to document what he had designed, posters especially (including Communist party election posters on street hoardings, now daubed over with swastikas); second, as a medium to record his homeland. Made using a plate camera, these landscape photographs are remarkable for their technical perfection. Their depth of focus – needles on pine trees in the foreground are as sharp as outlines of distant mountain peaks – is as great as their tonal range, from the white of the sunlit glacier, through the greys of the grassland, to the deep foreground shadows. All are composed in the viewfinder and printed from the whole negative, uncropped.

In 1936 Ballmer made a photomontage poster for the Swiss Tourist Board. Similar to Herbert Matter’s famous designs, it differs in technique: where Matter’s are collaged from several prints, Ballmer’s is printed from separate negatives but as one photographic image. The technical perfection of his photography was acknowledged by the commission to produce huge photomurals for the Swiss National Exhibition in 1939.

After the Bauhaus and for the next few years Ballmer’s most recorded works were political posters. In Meyer’s ‘New World’, photomontage was to replace the drawn cartoon. He was most likely thinking of John Heartfield’s work for left-wing publications in Germany. But for posters, photomontage was expensive, and only became economically and technically practical after the mid-1930s. It was a drawing by Heartfield’s colleague George Grosz that provided the image in Ballmer’s first political poster – for the 1929 canton elections. Crossed out in red, Grosz’s seated ‘capitalist’ gathers coins to his chest, labelled ‘all for one’, backed by a contrasting crowd of identical heads in profile, white line on black.

The typical Ballmer poster technique of the 1930s is linocut silhouette combined with type, printed in black only or black and red. An arresting image catches the eye and sets the tone of the message, completed and given detail by the words. Sometimes words alone do the job.

His only political poster to use photography (‘Struggle or Misery’, 1931) reinforces the meaning of the Soviet hammer and sickle – the united power of workers in industry and the countryside – by reconnecting the abstract symbol to everyday experience. The hands holding the tools – almost the raised fists of the Communist salute – could be the hands of those workers who might vote Communist. The poster’s dynamic realism makes the hammer and sickle in Heartfield’s election poster of the following year an uninspiring still life by comparison.

The sense of movement and energy in Ballmer’s poster derives from its diagonals. Type set at an angle was almost a convention of the progressive designers. This was easy to do with litho printing, as here, but less easy with letterpress, where type and images were on a rectangular base and locked up in a rectangular frame. Photographic images were also easier with litho: letterpress needed photoengraved blocks, which were expensive and more limited in size. In Ballmer’s letterpress posters the rectangularity is broken by obliquely angled silhouette images, always bleeding off the edge of the sheet. This makes it clear that the images, although representational rather than abstract, are signs, not pictures. And their technique is austere, technical: large flat black areas contrasted with fine lines of white.

The syringe in the 1932 poster for a lecture on abortion and contraception, and the helmets in the anti-fascist posters of the period 1934-36 can be seen as forerunners both of the refined silhouettes under Armin Hofmann’s instruction at the Allgemeine Gewerbeschule from the 1950s, and also of the technical drawing as practised in the ‘Swiss style’.

The celebrity of Ballmer’s posters has overshadowed his work as a freelance designer and typographer for business clients. On his return from the Bauhaus he undertook the comprehensive design of graphics for the Swiss building exhibition Wohnbau Ausstellung (WOBA). This included a logo, press pack, leaflets, and a newssheet. He drew the symbol for the Basel municipal authority, and designed stationery for the city’s administrative departments. For his father-in-law’s engineering firm, which made metal furniture and store fittings, he designed not only a company logo and lettering for several shop façades but a long-running series of advertisements. Other commercial work included a logo for Bally shoes and a stationery range for Giger carpets.

The typography of forms and stationery he carried out for the Gewerbeschule is not easy to distinguish from that done at the same time by Jan Tschichold, who arrived in Basel as a refugee from Nazi Germany in 1933 and soon was a colleague at the school.

Unlike Tschichold, whose inspirational writings appeared regularly throughout his lifetime, we have little idea of Ballmer’s ideas. We know that, like Tschichold, he became disillusioned by Soviet promises of Utopia. He was a craftsman. ‘Breaking a system at the right point,’ he said, ‘is a way to make something exciting.’ Precision is the essence of Ballmer’s work, a discipline underpinned with passion.