Exhibition Explores An Edgier Side To Swiss Graphic Design

If I had to list Switzerland’s greatest contributions to mankind, I’d throw graphic design in there, somewhere between chocolate and Gruyère cheese. Swiss designers pioneered a crisp, clean style that’s been endlessly tweaked, riffed off of, and flat-out copied, its influence felt in everything from the design of the Walkman to the corporate identity of American Apparel.

A major new exhibit at Museum für Gestaltung Zürich surveys a century of Swiss graphic design. Through pamphlets, advertisements, posters, and other visual remnants of everyday life, 100 Years of Swiss Graphic Design “showcases the diversity of contemporary visual culture as well as revealing the fine lines of tradition that extend between works from different epochs.” The centerpiece is a colorful frieze of 100 posters from 1912 to 2012–a concise (and predictably tidy) way to trace the evolution of Switzerland’s graphic design legacy.

Today, we tend to think of Swiss graphic design as overly formal and somewhat bland. This is the nation, after all, that spawned Helvetica, whose biggest selling point is that it offends precisely no one. But as the exhibit reveals, Swiss graphic design was often much edgier, and funnier, than you’d expect. There are clever visual puns, like Aebi & Partner’s 1982 Toni yogurt ad, which shows an airplane window cut in the shape of a glass yogurt container under the phrase “First Glass.” There’s even some good old-fashioned mockery. In 1977, typographer Hans-Rudolf Lutz threw a bikini-clad model hugging a giant blow-up Playboy bunny on the cover of the Swiss magazine Typografische Monatsblätter, one of several issues that parodied other famous magazine covers. The execution is perfect, no surprise there. But bland? No way.

[Images via Museum für Gestaltung Zürich]