Like the screeching bird that is his namesake, Ralph Schraivogel flies in the face of Swiss design tradition. His posters are intricate, his techniques complex, and the results provocative and challenging. He claims to find Swiss design dull, but there’s no doubt he’s one of the most influential figures among his peers.
Schraivogel himself has a thoughtful, intelligent demeanor, with a cutting, dry wit. Born in 1960, he was a natural graphic talent from a young age and, encouraged by his parents, he followed an artistic path and studied at Zurich’s School for Design.
His tenure at the school coincided with Zurich’s 1980 riots, which broke out over the decline of government cultural funding. An experimental and ambitious mood fell over artists in the city, and for Schraivogel it was infectious. “That was the thing that helped me not to be bored,” he says. “I thought it was completely normal to go out in the street and fight for things. It was very encouraging, and school was not encouraging. School was graphic design, and that was the most boring thing I could imagine at the time.”
In the anti-establishment sprit, Schraivogel’s work embodied a rejection of classic Swiss style. He relished the opportunities offered by going against the status quo in terms of technique, composition, and use of materials. But there was another more constructive influence for Schraivogel. “I found my satisfaction and inspiration in Japanese design. It was a door to escape.”
Schraivogel was aware that many Japanese designers visited the Warsaw Biennial, where he was exhibiting. So to get their attention he printed 5,000 copies of a brochure of his work translated into Japanese. The brochure opened the door to many conversations with Japanese designers, and these would directly inform his work. Many years later his connections paid off, as he held a solo exhibition at the ggg Gallery in Tokyo. The link continue to this day, and in 2013 he designed the Tokyo Type Directors Club exhibition poster for the same client. One gets the sense that when he has an idea, nothing will get in its way.
While he has produced corporate identities and editorial design, it’s posters that Schraivogel is best known. “The poster is the most powerful media we have, it’s the most brutal media,” he explains. “There is nothing as aggressive as a poster.”
One example of Schraivogel’s powerful poster output is a longstanding relationship with the art house cinema Filmpodium, which lasted from the mid-1980s to 2006. These posters demonstrate a triumphant use of photography, often using stills from films to staggering effect. Other collaborations with Kunsthaus Zurich and Neumarkt Theater were not so longstanding—Schraivogel’s unflinching conviction is not to every client’s taste.
For Schraivogel the essence of a poster comes from the process involved in creating it. “The pleasure is the process. Without the process it’s just a briefing and then printing. I’m not suffering and working to have just a poster at the end. There are 50,000 other posters that people do. There are enough posters,” he says, deadpan. I ask if it’s true that he produces just two posters a year; “No, I reduced it to one.” He’s not joking.
For many years Schraivogel’s dedication to physical technique meant he eschewed digital tools, but at the turn of the 21st century he began using Adobe Illustrator (he claims Photoshop is too complex). The decision to digitize was not his own, rather he was “forced” by a lack of skilled lithographers, and the declining quality in reproduction techniques.
Despite his varied techniques and ideas, there’s a remarkable consistency across his work. One wonders if he is immune to trends, and prefers to exist in isolation. His website suggests this is the case. Loathe to update it, he put just one piece of work on display. No contact details, no biography, no portfolio. It’s symptomatic of his grudging acceptance of technology, tolerance of clients, and uncompromising attitude.
The one poster on his website, “Evil / Live,” is enigmatic, challenging, and a dark linguistic joke. The poster allegedly took four months and 300 steps to produce, each of which he kept to demonstrate his process to his students.
Teaching has been Schraivogel’s main activity since his relationship with Filmpodium ended. It’s another area which exposes his world-weary nature. “I have a moral problem, I don’t know what they will do when they leave,” he says of the class he teaches, genuinely concerned. But if his students pick up any of his ability to communicate a strong idea with radical execution, they have little to worry about. Having a teacher like Schraivogel should stand them in good stead.