Even those unfamiliar with Swiss Style graphic design will recognize its visual hallmarks: clear visual language; sans serif type; a reverence for the grid; and a penchant for the objective lens of photography. Founded by the Swiss designer Ernst Keller in 1918, and made popular by graphic design heavyweights like Josef Müller-Brockmann and Adrian Frutiger in the ’50s and ’60s, elements of the crisp, unadorned style can still be seen everywhere today.
In fact, its rules and aesthetic have become so entrenched in many designers’ practices, that elements of the Swiss Style are sometimes just considered “design.” So where does that leave actual Swiss designers?
As a new exhibition at the Cooper Union’s Herb Lubalin Center in New York shows, contemporary Swiss designers have carried on the legacy on their own terms. Swiss Style Now now pulls together 120 designs–mainly posters, printed ephemera, and books–from designers of a variety of different ages who have created work within the last five years, showcasing design coming out of every region of Switzerland in this moment. In an adjacent gallery space, historical artifacts from the archives of the Lubalin Center will also be on view, highlighting how Swiss designers today are both influenced by and have diverged from the classic Swiss Style.
The designers in the show have their roots in the rigid grid system and minimalistic values of classic Swiss Style, but have pushed it in a new direction for the new century, creating works that experiment, subvert, and convey humor and emotion.
When classic Swiss design came about in the middle of the 20th century, it was in response to industrialization and a need for a clear, simple visual language that could be understood across cultures. By using photography instead of illustrations, and placing an emphasis on the mathematics of the grid, designers created a style that was grounded in logic and organization.
By contrast, the works in Swiss Style Now are full of personality and emotion–while also alluding to traditions of the past. “One of the things that I noticed was that there is a much looser dialogue,” says the Lubalin Center’s Alexander Tochilovsky, one of the curators of the show. “There’s a lot of influence coming from lots of different places in the contemporary work.”
As an example, he points toward a poster designed by Grotesk.cc, a Swiss studio run by designers Reto Moser and Tobias Rechsteiner, that makes reference to a historic 1938 poster by Viktor Rutz advertising Swiss cheese. The contemporary poster uses the shapes of the food but covers them in a red-and-white-checkered pattern that adorns table clothes throughout the country. “It’s a new way of looking at something much older and playing up a kitschiness in a way,” he says. It’s classic Swiss Style, reinterpreted.
Xavier Erni, a cofounder of the Swiss graphic design studio Neo Neo and a curator of the show along with designer Lucerne-based designer Erich Brechbühl and Grilli Type foundry’s Noël Leu, says the other thing that stands out in the show is a dedication to print and the design object. “What’s important for Swiss designers right now is print and materiality and attention to details,” he says. “The object is something that is really important to the projects that are shown here. There’s a lot of experimenting with printing, and reusing old techniques, like using letterpress in a different ways.”
Swiss design has long had a preference for print, and the country’s wealth and dedication to art and cultural funding has made it a tradition that’s feasible to maintain. That cultural investment and socioeconomic underpinning has also made it possible for Swiss designers to experiment–to take on personal projects rather than commercial work.
That’s the prominent through line in a show with a wide variety of work that departs from the rigidity of the classic style, says Erni. “It’s a mix between passion and work. A lot of the designers now really like the artistic part of the work, and that shows through.”