The notion of Swiss design is intrinsically linked to its 20th-century practitioners. Emil Cardinaux’s Zermatt poster is as iconic now as it was ground-breaking more than 100 years ago, and the graphic designs of Jan Tschichold, Josef Müller-Brockmann and Adrian Frütiger, with their adherence to system and order, are still ubiquitous and continue to influence designers across the world.
Swiss design is associated with a simple, functional minimalism that is so attractive to the Swiss, and an appreciation of simple forms. As one Swiss designer puts it, Switzerland is about the rigidity and ’punctuality’ of its trains as well as its graphic design – a background against which many contemporary designers have developed a looser, more playful graphic style.
This new breed of Swiss designers (many trained at Switzerland’s world-renowned schools of design, such as Écal in Lausanne and the Basel School of Design), though respectful of the design talent of the past, is cultivating its own blend of Swiss design that transcends the country’s borders, and where collaboration and experimentation are at the centre of a varied design aesthetic.
Many of those are drawn to London – in pursuit of the capital’s free mentality and vibrancy – and are coming together next week in the exhibition Switzerland: Designed for Life at London’s A Foundation, alongside some Switzerland-based cohorts.
Designer and art director Laurent Benner arrived in the UK 17 years ago, driven by his love of music and quirky record shops. He studied at Central St Martins College of Art and Design and the Royal College of Art, shares a studio with furniture designer Michael Marriott and Jonathan Hares, and founded Dreck Records, London.
As many of his contemporaries, he has a hands-on approach. Even though he might no longer print his work himself, Benner is always involved in the entire process, seeing the production as a creative element in itself.
Another example of London-based Swiss design mash-up is Loris & Livia. Founded by Livia Lauber and Loris Jaccard (who combine jewellery design, a four-year stint at Barber Osgerby, internships at Shin Azumi and Tom Dixon, and work at Established & Sons between them), the consultancy is keen to design pieces that are not used in a specified way or place. Its Alfred chair, for example, is a valid chair, but you can use it at home, in a hotel or a shop, says Jaccard.
Vanessa Norwood, head of exhibitions at the Architectural Association and who curated Switzerland: Design for Life, notes the passion all the designers have for a broad range of materials and disciplines. ’Their output is not limited in any way by traditional ideas of what a designer might produce,’ she says.
Jürg Lehni, for example, is a designer, developer and artist who works for the likes of Sony Set Lab in Tokyo, but has developed a series of self-initiated projects linked by his reflections on tools, the computer and the way we work with and adapt to technology. Most of the projects were collaborations with people from other backgrounds, such as graphic designers, artists, typographers and engineers.
The exhibition will reflect this spirit of collaboration, with Loris & Livia, Benner and Lehni showing work alongside, and intertwined with, other designers such as Régis Tosetti, Elena Rendina, Alexandre Bettler and Zak Kyes.
’These forward-thinking designers produce innovative, fresh ways of working, creating projects that move across disciplines by making furniture, designing books and organising events,’ says Norwood.
It is an approach that is not just confined to London. In Zürich, design consultancies such as Kueng Caputo and Lehni Trueb pursue commissioned work in addition to dedicating time to self-initiated projects, collaborations, installations and events. Lehni Trueb is a graphics consultancy with a portfolio of books and identities for different cultural institutions. But founder Urs Lehni (Jürg’s brother) also launched a small printing studio, Rollo Press, to ’produce printed matter with friends and accomplices in a way that includes all steps of the process’, and set up a shop for independent books and ’zines distribution company Motto Distribution.
The quirky shop is designed by Kueng Caputo, two designers with an ironic and playful approach. Sarah Kueng and Lovis Caputo like to come up with surprisingly simple outcomes to any given circumstance. They designed a cardboard hotel for the Milan furniture fair in 2007, for example. In the giant exhibition space, what visitors needed most was a calm place to relax, they argued.
Whether London or Swiss-based, all of the designers have a distinctly global outlook. As Norwood says, ’[The exhibitors’] work suggests that good design is not a geographical location or rigid national identity, but rather a way of thinking. Good design, like an inspirational country, is fluid – with people, ideas and things flowing freely through it.’
Switzerland: Design for Life, which includes work by contemporary designers and an exhibition of new posters inspired by iconic ones, ison at A Foundation, Rochelle School & Club Row, Arnold Circus,London E2 from 19 June to 1 July
For new posters inspired by Swiss design classics click here.