“If you want to be a designer, you should draw well,” says Trix Barmettler, Swiss designer, “brand architect”, and artist in denial.
Barmettler’s portfolio is filled with textured posters, books, and websites that make you want to reach out and touch them. Her body of work has an underlying sensibility of logic and efficacy, and is the result of a career that has been characterized by a restless desire to learn new things, and a refusal to do things by the book.
Currently part of the design team at branding agency Martin et Karczinski, her career has seen her design posters for Zurich outdoor cinema Kino Xenix, develop the brand identity for interior design shop Architonic, and create books for architects and musicians. Her illustrative styles are wide ranging, and her problem-solving abilities appear effortless.
It was as a student at Switzerland’s Lucerne School of Art and Design that Barmettler refined her original craft of illustration for a graphic design context. The school’s reputation lies in an emphasis on the crafts of drawing and painting, which is what attracted Barmettler. She was identified as a talent early on by typographer Hans Rudolf Lutz, who admired the illustrative way she drew letters, which Barmettler calls her “specialism.” She found inspiration in luminaries such as Wolfgang Weingart, who approached lettering as an organic form, and, like her, emphasized process.
Barmettler later took a job at a Zurich newspaper supplement, Das Magazin, and in 1996 she gained attention with her creative take on the magazine’s first dedicated weekly internet column. With no precedent for such a section, the young Barmettler was allowed creative license with the section: “it was a thrill because of the free designs and illustrations I did. They just trusted me.” From there digital branding jobs followed, including a stint at digital agency Eyekon.
A working relationship with the artist Pipilotti Rist then proved to be formative. Rist identified with the organic elements of Barmettler’s work and the two collaborated on Rist’s website. “We were both the same. I’m not an artist, I make design services, but I understand artists very well,” says Barmettler. She drifts off when talking about artists, lost in musing over influences such as Björk and Yoko Ono.
The inner artist shines through in Barmettler’s posters most of all. Pattern and form are the basis of these designs, and the illustrative qualities of typography are emphasized over the communicative. Some of her posters demand to be framed and placed on your living room wall. “Graphic designers always want to be artists. And posters are a good chance to do your art,” she declares, as if it’s a universal truth.
But Barmettler makes a conscious distinction between art and advertising in poster design. “It’s not easy to do posters. You have an idea, and you should transport the idea very easily. But if it’s art, it should not transport information as easily.” And Barmettler’s work is very much communication, but the information often hides behind the aesthetic, a trait learned from Japanese poster design. “In Japanese culture actually it’s the second viewing that should show you the information. That’s why I love the Japanese aesthetic, they’re not easy to understand. It’s more intellectual.”
There’s a respect for the consumer who decodes meaning. Switching to her native German, she explains, “It’s not that ‘werbung’ [advertising], it’s more ‘verspielt’ [joyful, playful]. That’s why I like Japanese poster design, because you see it and then the second time you understand it: the hidden message.“
The climax of Barmettler’s love affair with art is her latest lead project, titled simply ‘Design by art’. Taking the theory that companies are at their most innovative when they’re being creative, ‘Design by art’ is a service offered by Martin et Karczinski. Participants, clients with a branding brief, are challenged to co-create, expressing themselves artistically to find a solution to their branding problem. The idea is to free clients up from restrictive thinking, and to embrace creativity through activities such as painting, printing or photography. Accordingly, the identity for ‘Design by art’ was a collaboration, featuring abstracted calligraphy from Barmettlerand a new Lettertype of Binnenland.ch, underpinned by photography from Beat Schweizer and Bruno Augsburger.
With hidden messages, artistic references and a huge variety of materials, one might expect finding solutions to briefs would be a complex process. But not for Barmettler. When asked about her response to a brief she leans back, and adjusts her oversized glasses, “You won’t believe me… but I have at the first moment always a picture, and an idea. I see their needs and requirements and I can very easily see inside…” she taps her head, “pictures of what can it be, and I try to make it real. I see the solution.” And that’s that.
So often, Barmettler’s solutions are a result of this complex art/design dialectic. They’re a conversation about how form and freedom can live side by side, at once informing and occluding each other. It feels like her nascent ‘Design by art’ project is an attempt to fuse these two disciplines. What remains to be seen is whether the results will be shown in a gallery, or on a billboard.