Sharks’ teeth grimace within a human face; a dustpan sweeps up bullets; a chimney twists into a corkscrew. These unnerving image combinations make up the posters for the Zurich Schauspielhaus theater in Switzerland, in which photographs are sliced open by a circular crop, resulting in a third, more uncertain image hinting at the ideas behind a play.
Zurich Schauspielhaus spreads across two locations in the city: one is high on a slope above the lake, the other within a renovated warehouse in the gentrified industrial district. This second, newer location attracts a younger audience, while the average age of attendees across both sites is 50 years-old. The branding needs to appeal to broad demographics, and reference the concept of connections across different times and spaces.
The Schauspielhaus has a long and visually beguiling commissioning history. German printmaker Heinrich Steiner creates a series of eclectic posters throughout the 1950s; while in the 1960s painter and designer Piatti Celestino created posters using mischievous drawings anchored with text in Akzidenz-Grotesk. For the next decade, designer and illustrator Thomas Leupin created dark, surreal posters throughout the 1970s.
Throughout the mid-20th century the theater used a logotype formed from a stretched derivative of Caslon. This was replaced by a sans-serif logo in the 1980s, incorporating an image of the building itself. During this period, the posters used distressed photography—often overlaid, blurred or collaged. Some stand-outs exist, but there is a certain inconsistency in the work of the posters’ designer Urs Husmann over this period.
Today, of course, the theater’s identity is shown not just on brochures and posters, but across digital platforms, too. But it’s still most prominently displayed on Zurich’s designated poster sites: large billboards in prime locations, used to promote the cultural organizations that much of the city’s tourism industry relies on, like theatres, museums, and galleries.
These unusual dedicated poster platforms naturally breed a healthy output from designers in Zurich, who treat poster designs as hero-pieces for the studio—their visibility makes them all the more lucrative as a sort of calling card. Many of these images are visibly influenced by the International Typographic Style with which Switzerland is synonymous, augmented by contemporary twists that reveal the designers’ unique style and approach.
Take Cornel Windlin, for instance, who developed the current Schauspielhaus corporate identity in 2009. Theater director Barbara Frey had begun her tenure, and a new look was needed. Windlin had a reputation for a brave, post-modern design style; honed both at his time at The Face magazine with Neville Brody, and his work co-founding type foundry Lineto.
Windlin’s concept for the Schauspielhaus was to take bold photographic images and distort them. A dramatic, empty circle was then placed over the image, removing part of the content. As such, viewers had to use their imaginations to fill in the gap, creating their own story as to what was going on behind the void.
The Windlin identity went on to win a Swiss Design Award in 2011, Switzerland’s top accolade. But the design for future seasons was passed on to other parties, including Lucerne-based Velvet and Büro Destruct from Bern. The core elements of the design remained, but these studios attempted to innovate with new elements. For many there was a sense of unease about a studio from outside of the home city designing for such a prestigious institution.
When Christine Ginsberg took over the marketing of the theater in 2014, she chose a local designer, Nadine Geissbühler of Studio Geissbühler. “You need to feel the spirit of the house, and the spirit of the city,” says Ginsberg. Studio Geissbühler’s pedigree in working with prestigious cultural identities, including the Zurich Opera House, we well as the fact Geissbühler is an enthusiastic theater-goer, likely helped win the studio the job.
Geissbühler is well aware of the legacy she’s building on. “Everyone knows Cornel Windlin, he’s a big star. I was a bit scared because if you respect someone’s work so much you don’t want to disturb it…” And so for the past three years, Studio Geissbühler has produced consistently challenging and darkly humorous posters.
With images created for 15 shows per season, the output is relentless. The posters are produced in bursts of five, ensuring consistency as well as differentiation. And the designs must continue to surprise and delight to attract audience. This year the identity picked up another prize, this time at a European level: a silver at the ADCE Awards.
Ginsberg’s delighted that the accolade justifies the continued investment in evolving this brand. “The initial design from Cornel Windlin was very reduced,” she says. The work by Velvet took a more playful approach, but Ginsberg made the decision to “go back again to the straightness, and consistency of the original design, but without copying.” In particular, Ginsberg admires the images become more than the sum of their parts: “I loved the idea of how one plus one makes three.”