Today’s young Swiss designers have a lot to live up to. “I don’t know that there’s any other country that has history as such a significant player in its design as Switzerland,” says Alexander Tochilovsky, curator of The Cooper Union’s Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography. “I’d say there’s a New York aesthetic, for example, but it doesn’t weigh as heavily in the mind.”
Tochilovsky’s referring to the International Typographic Style, better known as the Swiss Style. The clean, minimalist approach to graphic design emerged in the 1950’s out of Switzerland and Germany. Unlike the flourishes of the Victorian era, or the splashy patriotism of the years surrounding World War I and World War II, the Swiss Style kept things neat and tidy, and used sans serif typefaces—Helvetica, mostly. To do that, it followed a mathematical grid—a radical philosophy, when you consider that the style predated personal computers and systems like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator by decades. The Swiss Style created a sea change in design, and helped earn designers a kind of professional status separate from artists.
It also spawned something of a reputation for all the Swiss designers who would follow. “I travel a lot and I’m always confronted with our design legacy,” says Erich Brechbühl, a graphic designer from Lucerne, Switzerland. “Swiss designers are still aware of that legacy, but they work differently than in the past.”
To prove that, Brechbühl, Tochilovsky, and Xavier Erni, of the graphic design studio Neo Neo, have collaborated on “Swiss Style Now,” an exhibit opening this week at The Cooper Union in New York. Like the name suggests, “Swiss Style Now” surveys the contemporary graphic design coming out of Switzerland. Around 100 working designers have pieces in the show, and most of the work was created in the past five years.
“The idea,” Tochilovsky says, “is to show that design is really eclectic, not like in the ’60s. It’s much more diverse, so we tried in this section to have all kinds of aesthetics that could be represented.”
That’s partly accomplished by a deliberate representation of all corners of Switzerland: the French part, the Italian part, and the German part. The curators also showcase work from different schools—and therefore, schools of thought—in Switzerland. For years, the Basel School of Design was the preeminent campus for studying the Swiss way of design. It remains an important institution today, but its curriculum has adhered firmly to its traditions. “That’s not to say it doesn’t work, but there are other ways of teaching design these days,” Tochilovsky says. “There’s a lot of different schools in Switzerland.”
The eclecticism shines through in the work on display. There’s a lot of clean and crisp design that still manages to flirt with breaking the rules of the International Typographic Style. Take It is all in the detail, a student and alumni zine from the Zurich University of the Arts. The sky blue cover features the publication’s title, set in a black serif font, with each letter a size smaller than one behind it. It’s perfectly legible and even a bit austere, but the stair step approach to lettering comes off a little crooked. In that way, it taunts the old grid-following guard.
To elaborate on this, Brechbühl talks through the thinking behind one of his pieces in the show, theater poster Anne Bäbi im Säli. A jagged red banner floats across the top, and most of the text appears below it in white over a black backdrop. Several typefaces are used, including one that looks like handwriting in chalk. The red and black is a nod to the clean and bold Swiss tradition, but “I had to ignore all the typography stuff I learned,” Brechbühl says. Besides the array of type styles, most of the text falls in the center—another rule broken, given that one of the hallmarks of the Swiss Style is asymmetry.
“Everyone has his own approach, and it’s really personal from each studio,” Brechbühl says. “That’s the point of the exhibition.”