Balancing a fine line between tradition and pastiche, Annik Troxler embodies the contemporary Swiss designer. Yet there’s something slightly unhinged about Troxler’s designs that forces you to look twice. Her posters for an obscure jazz festival in remote Switzerland exemplify her spirited, whimsical side. They’re as chaotic as a Charlie Parker solo, yet as harmonious as a Robert Glasper piano riff.
In Switzerland posters are heralded as the hero piece for any branding or promotional campaign. The reason for this comes down to their functionality; this is, after all, the country that gave us Helvetica, Univers, and Frutiger. As Troxler explains, “In poster design it’s possible to show a small amount of visual information with maximum impact.”
Pop art, constructivism, cubism, and minimalism have all influenced Troxler’s work, and she also has an interest in Dutch design and typography. But, she says, “My design is looking for something more playful.” Choose any one of her posters and this is evident. One may be grounded in cubism, but executed through collage, another may use pop art techniques in a formal setting. She’ll use a sans-serif font in all caps, then set it at an outrageous angle.
Troxler is dedicated to legibility, but she’s aware of her tendency to veer into the obscure. “I think that my posters sometimes get a bit too complex—the visual message should stay simple and direct to have an impact.”
The Willisau Jazz Festival is something of a Troxler family legacy. Taking place in a small town in the bucolic hills of Switzerland, it’s a mecca for fans of free-jazz. Artists like John Zorn, Ornette Coleman and Max Roach have played one of the 1,000-plus concerts in the town. Graphic designer Niklaus Troxler first began holding concerts in 1966, and founded the festival proper in 1975. He also designed the posters for the festival for 35 years before handing over to his daughter.
Having inherited the task of designing the festival’s posters, Troxler’s tenure has seen a marked change in style from that of her father, with a more restrained approach to color choice, greater use of space, and tighter constructions. The result is just as energetic.
These posters scream jazz: wild misshapen trumpets clash with amorphous blobs, which, upon closer inspection, are saxophone bells. Staves of musical notation become contours, evoking the countryside around Willisau. Meanwhile, beneath an apparently conservative grid are tiny characters breaking free and making their own rules. What appears to be hastily hung string turns out to be text, while a bird-like figure drips text characters from its wings. They’re a graphic ensemble.
When pushed to choose, Troxler’s personal preference is for her 2013 design. “I think there I discovered something new for me: how space can be designed by cutting and folding.” This thoughtful use of space is a common trope throughout her work, perhaps even more so in her corporate identity and book design projects.
The poster for this year’s festival is made up of a triptych of figures, referencing cubist form and pop art pattern. Troxler calls them “scenes/stages,” alluding to the jazz concerts they depict. The scenes were animated by Maja Gehrig for promotional films and GIFs, and each year elements of the poster are used as the stage setting at the festival, requiring extra consideration when coming up with the initial concept.
One imagines Troxler at work in her studio with Kamasi Washington blaring, but that’s not quite the case. “I am a jazz fan, although I don’t listen to much jazz music at home anymore. Maybe it’s because I have two kids and there is always some ‘sound.’”
With so much emphasis on family at Willisau, it’s perhaps no surprise that Annik occasionally works with her sister, illustrator Paula Troxler, on the posters. “When Paula and I started doing the posters for the Festival in 2010 we thought that it was a good method to express this abstract music with an abstract visual language.” This has opened up a limitless vernacular for future festival identities.
The creative approach and the close-knit community around Willisau is no doubt responsible for such a stunning visual legacy. Asked if this was down to it being kept within the family, Troxler is typically understated. “I don’t know if it is because it’s family affair, but for sure it’s a small business of creative and open people and that helps a lot to make things possible.” And with results like this, long may it continue.