Precision and rigor: the unchanging hallmarks of Swiss Style

Out of favor for a while, the Swiss Style in graphic design is now coming back in force. François Rappo, Professor at ECAL, explains this phenomenon.

François Rappo studies signposts – even those out in the far-flung reaches of forests and mountains. “Recently, I was cycling near Sanetsch in Switzerland, and I was amazed when I came across some signposts which indicated the bus stops”, he says. “They were better maintained than those you see in the center of town, and yet they indicate places almost lost out in the country, vague local spots. Their names had perhaps never even been written down until they were transcribed onto these metal boards, which scrupulously make use of Adrian Frutiger’s typeface. That’s typically Swiss attention to detail! No other country in the world manages its landscape so minutely”.

Professor of typography, and Head of the Master’s program in Art Direction at the ECAL (University of Art and Design in Lausanne), François Rappo is well-placed to talk about Swiss Style, the strict adherence to which placed the country in the forefront of graphic design after the Second World War. He is passionate about teaching it to his students, convinced that this systematic approach, developed back when lead type was still in use, is nevertheless still relevant in this era of interactive design and data visualisation.

The Swiss Style has become known the world over for its precision. How did it acquire this reputation?

During the Second World War, Switzerland benefited from its position as a protected island, an island which pursued modernism, while the rest of Europe crumbled. It was this that allowed it to build a culture of advanced techniques and superior know-how. Typographers fleeing their own lands sought refuge here to continue their research, to such an extent that by 1945, the Swiss graphics industry was much further advanced than that of its neighbors. The same thing had already happened before in the 16th century, when Protestant Geneva welcomed master typographers such as Robert Estienne. In both instances, the political situation in the rest of Europe led to a concentration of skills in Switzerland.

What was so special about the Swiss Style?

Whereas in the neighboring countries the graphics culture was mainly focused around books, the Swiss made a great deal of effort to carry it over into other areas, most notably into industry and the arts. Multi-talented individuals, such as Max Bill, Richard Paul Lohse and others, created mutually beneficial links between graphic design, art, architecture, lighting and furniture design, etc. At the same time, associations such as the Werkbund (association of craftsmen) were set up always with the objective of promoting quality. It’s thanks to both of these phenomena that Swiss Style acquired such a strong identity.

Did industry play a role?

Yes, because they needed to compete with the industrial giants in neighboring countries. For them, the quality of the graphic design was a point of difference: they developed very coherent visual communications through their packaging, brochures and signage, etc. All of this created a huge demand for graphics. The companies themselves became involved in design projects: Globus shops supported Max Bill’s exhibition “Die gute Form”, in 1949. In another example, Zenith watches was one of the world’s first brands to develop a cohesive visual identity.

What about public institutions?

They also put a lot of effort into signage, like the Swiss Federal Railways, who employed Josef Müller-Brockmann to develop their visual communication. Switzerland was able to spend a great deal of money on perfecting designs, with the result that in our visual environment today there is a graphic coherence that few other countries in the world enjoy. This know-how has been internalized by companies; for example, when the Swiss supermarket chain Coop revised their logo in 2001, they changed everything within two weeks!

Is the Modernist tradition linked primarily to the Swiss-German culture?

Halfway through the 20th century, the French-speaking Swiss designers were developing a more art-based craft, which created a division in the Werkbund. The German-speaking Swiss, however, concentrated their efforts on modernism. They trained in specialist schools, where strong personalities such as Johannes Itten ensured that the know-how was passed on. For example, Professor Hans Finsler played a fundamental role in Zurich by integrating photography into the study of graphic arts. With Emile Ruder, the Schule für Gestaltung Basel (Basel School of Design) developed highly advanced teaching methods. All of this was highly organized, and it was only in the 1960’s that French-speaking Switzerland came on the scene, principally after the National Exhibition in 1964.

Was it a homogeneous graphic design landscape?

No, it was frequently beset by controversy. The most spectacular saw Max Bill pitted against Jan Tschichold. Bill favored a modern, generalist approach to design, while Tschichold, who was more closely connected to the publishing world, had returned to a more classical model. These two characters battled it out through vicious articles which appeared in specialist revues. Their debate has enriched the typographic culture of this country, because it has forced professional designers to take a stance and to come up with new fusions of ideas.

Typographer François Rappo

Typographer François Rappo
© Bertrand Rey

Swiss Style is linked to the use of a sans serif typeface like the celebrated Helvetica. These characters are called “grotesk” in Germany, and even “Gothic” in the US. Why are such bizarre adjectives applied to a style which aims to be so precise?

The French called this family of fonts “antique”, which seems to me to be far more logical, because their appearance is directly linked to the rise of the neo-classical style in architecture at the end of the 18th century, with its references to Greek temples and primitivism. In the 20th century, modern graphic designers, who were looking for a plainer style, opted overwhelmingly for these sans serif characters. The most notable of these was Akzidenz Grotesk, which was very widely used, and many of whose characteristics can be found in Helvetica.

Through your research you have been able to uncover the true origin of this family of characters. In what sense?

Popular legend had it that Akzidenz Grotesk was created by the German printing house Berthold, who commercialized it in 1896. However, whilst reading an interview with that company’s last creative director, I learned that in fact the character came from a lesser-known foundry, Ferdinand Theinhardt’s Königliche Giesserei, which had been purchased by Berthold. This well-known font character, which was originally called Royal Grotesk, was thus even older than we realized.

Who was Ferdinand Theinhardt?

He was an extraordinarily open-minded typographer who collaborated with Richard Lepsis, the Egyptologist responsible for coining the phrase “Book of the Dead.” Together, they created the German hieroglyphic type, as well as the first Sanskrit typeface. The discovery that Akzidenz Grotesk came from a foundry belonging to someone of his standing completely changed the way we view this family of characters and the cultural environment which gave birth to them.

So the Helvetica font shares some of this DNA. Today it has attained cult status, and numerous books have been written and a film made about it. How do you explain its success?

Helvetica is a very versatile typeface, which means it works well in an infinite number of different contexts. By that I don’t mean that it is “neutral”, because that term has been used pejoratively by post-modernists. I prefer to call it “objective.”

Bloomberg Business week magazine recently created a stir by using it in its original 1957 version in their new layout. Isn’t that somewhat purist?

This recent return to popularity of Helvetica is significant. The Swiss Style enjoyed huge success in the 1950’s and 1960’s; it was taught in American art schools, and it was a time when Massimo Vignelli was able to work simultaneously for The Piccolo Teatro in Milan and the New York subway. And then it went out of fashion. It became hugely criticized, first by the pop movement, and later by the post-modernists. It was forced to change, but it remained true to its roots, its precision and rigor. And undoubtedly it is exactly this precision, this rigor, that today’s young graphic designers are seeking. I see here one of the effects of the Subprime crisis; the need to rebuild something using a more stable framework, whilst at the same time embracing the extraordinary versatility of today’s communication platforms. Back to basics, in a way.

This is an electronic version of an article published in Hémisphères Magazine.

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