Swiss watching

Yes, I am just now posting on this book, Corporate Diversity*: Swiss Graphic Design and Advertising by Geigy 1940–1970. Yes, I realize everyone else wrote of it back in the Spring but I only recently purchased it and it has taken me a while to finish reading (The book was published to accompany an exhibit of the chemical company Geigy's work at the Museum of Design, Zurich. See some nice images of the exhibit, including the one above, on Flickr by Arne Sanger.)

The story of Swiss design is intertwined with that of one of its prime movers– the chemical company Geigy. There are several reasons why Geigy became the face of what some called "International Style" of design: First, it was a very successful multinational company and had the resources to create graphics standards and, presciently, a corporate image that would carry its reputation to the rest of Europe and America. Second, Geigy’s products–dyes, pesticides, pharmaceuticals– were abstractions, and needed design to give form to essentially "invisible" entities. Lastly, much of Geigy's output was aimed at and marketed to a select– yes, elite (something that was to haunt Swiss design in later years)– educated market: scientists, doctors, engineers.

Starting in 1941 the Geigy "propaganda department" set about creating the first in-house corporate image team, producing advertising as well as package, product, and even exhibit design. The company saw design as an international representation of Swiss ideals, thereby injecting a sense of nationalism into the endeavor as well. Importantly, the company had close ties with the art school in Basel, becoming a training ground for graduates as it benefited from an influx of fresh academic thought.

European design had been drawing from avant garde movements such as deStijl, Bauhaus, and Constructivism for years. Geigy style-- and by extension Swiss style-- was categorically described by the company itself as, "grounded in the zeitgiest of modern art... function-dependent... [with] no borrowing from past styles." All of which makes a point brought up in passing so fascinating: the accusation (observation?) that Swiss style (by the 70s and 80s) had sold out its radical roots, that it began in avant garde modernity and ended in a corporate capitalist strait jacket. That of course is over-simplifying the matter, however, like modernist architecture, modernist design done on the cheap and without background knowledge, is soulless visual blight. And it was just about the time that designers were rejecting (or at least questioning) the dogmatic Swiss aesthetic that I started my design training, such as it was.

In the chapter on Swiss design's spread in the US, Yale, one of the earliest and more influential graphic design programs set up in this country, is talked about quite specifically. The program was completely allied with Swiss style, even instituting a summer course of study in Brissago, Switzerland. I was at Yale taking design courses in the 80s—but as an undergraduate, and I realize thats a pretty big qualifier. Still, several of the graduate school faculty taught undergraduate, and the few classes offered were a total immersion in grid systems and reductionism. I didn't have Paul Rand but I did have Alvin Eisenman who was head of the graduate program, and, unfortunately, my senior advisor as well. (I was surprised he was allowed to lead the design school through 1990 because, boy, as of 85/86 it seemed he should have been put out to pasture already.) Here is Jessica Helfand from Design Observer describing her discomfort with the retarditaire sensibility of the Yale program at just that time:

While I begrudgingly acknowledged the value of my formal education, such aesthetic orthodoxy was, frankly, anathema to me. How, after all, could you make design that communicated to human beings and deliberately drain it of all human content?...The general perspective was one that privileged rigor over voice, seeking the most reductivist solutions to life’s most complex problems.
I believe the Yale program was totally stagnating at that point, straddling the last gasp of a rote plaka-and-compass approach and the first computers, grid-based rigidity and the first inklings of expressive type. Swiss design, as it was taught to me there and then, didnt inspire me much but it made sense and did stick with me... 
I must say a lot of this work is looking very appealing to me now. So it was with great interest that I read Massimo Vignelli's ultimate pronouncement on Swiss modernism: it is "extendable"– its values are endless and open to future elaboration. That's an assessment I can get behind with enthusiasm.

*I believe the authors are quite earnest in their title but "diversity" is not a term that comes to my mind in describing either Swiss design or Geigy in particular. Leafing through this book reveals powerful design, supremely confident, inspiring in many ways, but monolithic might be the more apt adjective.

Addenda: Something I thought of-- not addressed at all in the book-- is the unappealing nature of these products and all the stereotypical evil that a chemical company has come to represent: poisons, drugs, pollutants. This was, I suppose, still the progressive/beneficent/paternal period in chemical-industrial history. Another related topic I'll throw out there is the ironic or meta use of modernist design prevalent in 90s british music design and American Apparel ads. Air quote modernism.


Liza said...

Things look different to us through the lens of time. I think that when we, or let me say I, look at swiss design from the 40's and up, it seems not only formal and possibly rigid, but because nostolgic and in it's own way, thrilling. I do have a strong emotional connection with it, but not with the message it originally intends. For me it resonates of my very early childhood, hence the nostolgia. As well a deep visual appreciation for the design.

That sytle, esthetic, philosophy, became dispersed, and widely received, and used both brilliantly and horrifically, as you say. It became part of the fabric of our visual experience. Now, seventy years, sixty ears later, on a subliminal level we respond to it as it invokes either our childhoods (me), or parents' chilhoods, or contemporary remakings of that era, like Mad Men.

Your point about the multi national chemical companies seeming benign in those days is, i thank, partly because their propaganda was so effective. That's what they wanted you to think, and you did. They could have been making soap or bombs, or both, you wouldn't know it from the ads because that the true nature of the business is in the shadow. Calm, smooth, surface...all's well, go back to sleep.

They still do it.

angela said...

Thanks Liza. It IS interesting to think about how, from early mid-century on, our lives were utterly saturated with the modernist aesthetic/ethos. So this modernity is now tinged with nostalgia. kind of fascinating/

Liza said...

Yes, and strangely, kitch has taken on a postmodern subversive allure: think of Paint By Numbers paintings which were abhorred by the gatekeepers of high modernist culture but now are considered hipster wink wink cool, and are written about and exhibited, both in tact and deconstructed, in contemporary art venues.

Time, as in the passage of time, really is an under theorized dimension of cultural perception. Or maybe I just haven't found much written about it.

PS: you should have an RSS tag.

angela said...

I dont know how to add RSS!

Liza said...

I don't know the blogspot backstage (I use typepad) but if there's a widget section somewhere, the RSS widget should be available under something like "publicity" or "SEO" Sorry i can't be more help. There should be a knowlege base to consult.


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