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Swiss Graphic Design: The Origins and Growth of an International Style 1920-1965

by Richard Hollis
Yale University Press, New Haven CT, 2006
272 pp., illus., 650 b/w, 100 col. Trade, $50.00
ISBN: 0-300-10676-9.

Reviewed by Roy R. Behrens
Department of Art, University of Northern Iowa


While reading this book, I was reminded of a lecture, some years ago, by American designer and illustrator Milton Glaser, whose work in some ways represents the opposite of "Swiss style" design. In that lecture, Glaser suggested that styles of art may have split up into two opposing philosophies at the beginning of the 20th century. One direction, associated with Art Nouveau and Expressionism, is almost always drawing-based. The second, allied with Cubism and Constructivism, is far more likely to rely on geometric abstraction, collage, and photography. The Bauhaus was a somewhat inadvertent mix of these two tendencies, while subsequent European designers and architects (who had been inspired by Constructivism, New Typography, Concrete art, and other innovations) were more exclusive in their quest for objective, efficient, and logical forms. Early in this book, the author describes a meeting he had in 1958 with Richard Paul Lohse, an important Swiss painter and designer, who "emptied a box of matches onto a table and exclaimed, ‘Abstract Expressionism!’–meaning Jackson Pollock–then rearranged the matches in a perfect rectangular pattern to the approving shout of ‘Mondrian!’" (Are these not the same two categories?).

This book is a rich and provocative look at the history of this second tradition (within the confines of design), which emerged in Switzerland in the 1920s and 30s, where there was an abundance of pharmaceutical and engineering clients, and eventually had an enormous effect on worldwide graphic design, with the result that it is often called "International Style." In this book, one learns about the widespread use in publication and advertising design of sans serif typefaces, grid-based page layouts, white space, diagonals, asymmetry, exaggerated linespacing, and so on. The author, who wrote an earlier valuable book called Graphic Design: A Concise History (2002), not only provides a sequential narrative with full-color illustrations (as one might expect of a serious book), he also "shows and tells" far more in the margins through concurrent, thought-provoking notes. For example, in the periphery of every spread are smaller subsidiary illustrations, biographical summaries, excerpted quotes, and unusually interesting captions about each artifact. There is no shortage of interesting books about Swiss design, but this is one is more comprehensive, more complete and perhaps more persuasive than any other I have seen. It is an invaluable resource for anyone with a serious interest in graphic design.

Reprinted by permission from Ballast Quarterly Review from Vol 21 No 3 (Spring 2006).



Updated 1st July 2006

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