Every summer since 1975, crowds of jazz fanatics from across the world flock to the small Swiss town of Willisau for its annual music festival. Bright posters welcome them—some illustrative, some typographic. Homages to Keith Jarrett rendered in CMYK pink, blue, and yellow line the wooden market square; a typographic silhouette of Thelonious Monk boldly adorns the wall of an outdoor café.
Since he founded the Willisau Jazz Festival in the ’70s, graphic designer Niklaus Troxler has been behind the event’s iconic annual posters. Each print has always been the same size, produced at the very same workshop.
It was as early as ’66 that the designer began combining his passion for jazz with his own profession, creating the promotional material for all of the musicians he invited to play the area. “Chick Corea played his very first solo concern here in 1972,” says Troxler. “Keith Jarrett showed up four times, and on stage, he called Willisau ‘one of the best places for music in the world.’ By 1975, the time was ripe to start a festival.”
Troxler’s posters have garnered somewhat of a cult following for fans of design and jazz; many are included in renowned collections, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. For Troxler, the challenges behind creating these prints are much the same as any other job: “to design something competent for the event.” Though he adds, “The characteristics of jazz help. Its sense of improvisation, individualism, sound, and rhythm are all present and important in graphic design, too.”
Troxler studied design at the Lucerne School of Art in the ’60s, going on to work as an art director in Paris in 1972 before founding his own practice back home in Willisau. “Routine is the real killer,” he says, when asked about designing for the same festival for over 40 years. “Before I start designing a new print, I have to forget everything I know about poster design. I have to free my mind. I have to be open to start from the beginning. It’s only when I realize something new that I’m satisfied. That’s probably kind of my philosophy.”
Looking back through Troxler’s oeuvre, his embrace of newness is palpable; he’s never been afraid of experimentation, and continues to adapt with changing times and technologies. His overarching commitment stays the same though: Troxler continually attempts to express sound and movement, straying away from photography and other stereotypical visual cues associated with jazz communications. Today, the designer talks us through six of his memorable posters from the last four decades.
“The characteristics of jazz help. Its sense of improvisation, individualism, sound, and rhythm are all present and important in graphic design, too.”