Summer 2003

A refreshing shock to the system [extract]

Jean Widmer, A Devotion to Modernism: Itinerary of a Designer from Zurich to Paris

The design media has been so successful in its campaign to locate and laud today’s ‘young guns’ that we have come almost to the point of celebrating ‘freshness’ and ‘emergence’ as virtues in themselves. Novelty is seductive, but the necessarily slight oeuvres of the young designers in the spotlight rarely leave a lasting impression. When one is confronted with the output of a whole lifetime in design it comes as a refreshing shock to the system.

Jean Widmer’s body of design work – on show in New York last spring – spans a large portion of the twentieth century and crosses the national border between Switzerland and France as well as the notional divide between these two countries’ approaches to graphic design practice. (See Eye no. 34 vol. 9)

Widmer (b.1929) began his studies at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Zurich and continued them at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Between the mid-1950s and early 1970s Widmer worked primarily in magazine design and advertising. He was an art director at the advertising agency SNIP, the department store Galeries Lafayette and at the women’s magazine Jardin des Modes. During this period, Widmer’s work, while still underpinned by the organisational principles of his exacting Swiss training, was dominated by an impulse derived from the practice of American art directors such as Brodovitch, Wolf, Lubalin and Liberman, most of whom he met on a pivotal trip to New York in 1959. Their influence is evident both in Widmer’s ebullient engagement with the potential of type as a pictorial element in composition and in his sophisticated integration of photography (including his own), exemplified in a series of press ads for Galeries Lafayettes and spreads in Jardin des Modes . . .

Jean Widmer, A Devotion to Modernism: Itinerary of a Designer from Zurich to Paris, The Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography, New York (February-April 2003)