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A Snapshot of Switzerland’s Rich Poster-craft History

As the reopening of the Museum fur Gestaltung Zürich proves, it’s not all about grids

The vaults of Zurich may be renowned their gold. But beyond the banks lies another, hidden, source of riches—one of the world’s largest poster collections. The Museum fur Gestaltung Zürich, currently preparing to reopen its flagship Ausstellungsstrasse location this month after an extensive three year renovation, houses more than 350,000 items in its expansive repositories.

For the relaunch, the first floor of the space will display a façade showcasing historic posters for the museum itself, all produced in the standard Swiss ‘Weltformat’ size (128 x 90.5cm). A further 220m2 of wall space will show the breadth of the collection, which extends to items from around the world, some dating back to the late 1800s and made up of donations from private collections, as well as acquisitions from contemporary studios. In the lower level of the museum visitors will be invited to open weighty display drawers to discover more graphic history; from original Wolfgang Weingart experiments to 1960s Czech film posters. The experience is also translated online with a new interactive website.

Poster collection curator Bettina Richter has spent 20 years collecting, maintaining, displaying, and educating on this extraordinary assemblage. Her selections for the opening exhibition will juxtapose illustration, photography and typography-led examples, creating connections in style across time, subject, and location.

Here, we’ve drawn together a selection of posters from the museum’s home nation; a collection of five images that aim to demonstrate that not only is Switzerland’s poster craft still some of the world’s finest, but that it varies in style, often depending where in the (small) country the designers hail from.

Emmanuel Excoffier (Exem), 1988 protest poster

Making work immediately (and deliberately) reminiscent of Tintin creator Hergé, Emmanuel Excoffier is Switzerland’s most notorious cartoonist. Working under the moniker Exem, he “exemplifies the political humour of the French part of Switzerland, which isn’t present in the German region,” Richter says. This example from 1988 protests the planned destruction of Geneva’s lakeside baths. The baths were instead renovated, and Exem’s octopus motif would go on to feature in his protest posters for the next 20 years.

Kurt Wirth, 1955 Swissair poster

Wirth’s 1955 Swissair poster is undoubtedly an example of the Swiss style we know and love, but look closely and there’s more to it. “I love this for its unusual, radical composition,” says Richter. The airplanes are graphical rather than photographic, and a core element, the logo, is oddly placed and obscured by a propeller. It’s a poster that demonstrates that the Swiss Style could produce unexpected results.

Niklaus Stoecklin, Binaca

A core tenet of mid-century Swiss design was the “object poster,” which featured household items depicted through detailed illustration. These posters eschewed slogans in favour of selling an aspirational lifestyle, with brand packaging center-stage. Richter, pointing to the black background and luminous pink toothbrush, declares Basel-based Stoecklin’s a favourite: “This poster gives an everyday product a magic sense.” Seeing it at full size is breathtaking.

Felix Pfaeffli, Südpol/Ghostpoet

Graphic artists coming out of Luzern’s Hochschule (University of Applied Sciences and Arts) show a propensity towards illustration, which forms a core part of the school’s curriculum. A shining example of the current breed of Swiss designers is Felix Pfaeffli’s, and his Studio Feixen. Its posters for the Südpol music venue mix photography, warped typography, illustration, and graphic elements, with a welcome dose of irreverence.

Gysin and Vanetti, 2011 gig series posters

This artist duo represents Switzerland’s Italian minority, from the more Mediterranean region of Ticino. These posters for a 2011 gig series bridge the traditional and progressive. Swiss style can be seen in the rigid grid system, sans serif type and in iterating the core idea – translating music into pattern. But these screen-printed posters subvert the standard Weltformat ratio, and innovate with color and paper stock. They embody the legacy of the Swiss style, and simultaneously the variety of execution within Switzerland, while pointing to how designers in the country will continue to build on its legacy.

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