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Since the 1960s, Niklaus Troxler Has Been Improvising with Letterforms Just Like a Jazz Musician

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.”

See Niklaus Troxler speak at AGI Open in Mexico City, September 28-29, 2018.

1
Jazz Festival Willisau

1978

“In my early years, I was often looking for a metaphor while designing. For this specific Jazz Festival poster, I was probably thinking (or feeling) that jazz is seductive. I used the snake to symbolize the archetype of the sinful and alluring.

“In terms of technique, I always wanted to create the posters by myself—without a lithographer. So I created a line drawing by hand in black, and then I copied the line four times, filling the sectors with specific colors. I created the color separations, color by color, without anyone else’s help. At the time, I also very much liked the Push Pin graphics, but also Polish posters, and pop art in general.”

2
OM hört auf

1982

“The idea behind this poster was quite simple. The electric-jazz group OM was giving its farewell concert. I settled on the image of a plug being pulled out, to designate the end of something. To create the print, I used the same technique as for the 1978 poster—outlines, and then color separation.

“What was special about this poster is perhaps the type. I set all the information in the same typeface size, which was very unusual at the time. I think that a ‘headline’ is not always necessary in a poster. For some, the image is strong enough to be the eye-catcher.”

3
Tribute to Monk

1986

“Before I arrived at this entirely typographic design, I made many sketches of Thelonious Monk’s face. I then tried putting all the text down around one of the drawings. I finally realized that maybe the text itself was enough, so I designed it with type alone.

“But in this homage to the great Thelonious Monk, I also wanted to visualize his composition of ‘Round About Midnight.’ The background color and also the haphazard change of the type’s color expresses the particular rhythm of the album.”

4
James Blood Ulmer

1991

“This group creates rough blues. Its music is very direct, very punky. So I decided to realize that feeling by creating a very spontaneous, hand-painted design. I created each letters with a brush, one color over the other. To finalize the print, I finished at the light table, adding black. Of course, I then produced the mixed-color effect by using the silkscreen printer.”

5
Der Rote Rereich

2009

“The name of the group gave me the idea for the design. ‘Der Rote Bereich’ means ‘The Red Sector.’ The group’s front man also plays guitar. I drew lines to represent guitar strings that also spelled out the group’s name. I wanted to create a dynamic rhythm by creating everything with lines.”

6
This is Pan

2018

“This poster shows how I experiment with type today. Conventionally in the west, we set words on a line, and read them from left to right. In this poster, I tried to ‘improvise’ with letters by changing up that convention. So just in the way a musician improvises with notes, I wanted to do the same with the words and information. Of course, it has to remain readable. I got great pleasure out of creating this composition. I wonder: Can you read it? Hopefully.” 

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