Willi Kunz

Poster Design, Yesterday and Today

Whenever I think about posters, I think back to a time in Zurich in the early 1960s when I was a student. Some of my favorite posters were designed by Josef Müller-Brockmann, Max Bill, Richard Paul Lohse, Hans Neuburg, Fridolin Müller and Siegfried Odermatt. They were displayed on billboards all over the city, promoting art and design exhibits and concerts.

On our field trips to museums in Basel, we also encountered posters by Armin Hofmann, Emil Ruder and Karl Gerstner, stimulating, strong designs which clearly resonated with the public. These posters measured 90.5 x 128 cm (35.6 x 50.4 in.), the standard Weltformat, but for us their size was impressive. We were used to working with much smaller formats: books, letterheads, business cards. The posters were on display for about a month and remained in pristine condition – graffiti was unknown at that time.

We spent a lot of time as young designers discussing the posters’ design and printing, speculating about the future of Swiss Modernism. We hoped to create a new visual language while also raising cultural awareness in the general public and contributing to the shaping of civilized society.

Today, Swiss posters from the 1950s and 60s have attained nearly mythical status. They were created to be displayed in the streets, part of Swiss daily life – but they have now become collectibles, preserved in museum archives and reproduced in art history books. Of course, the images as seen today no longer channel the unique spirit of the 1960s.

When I first moved to New York in 1970, Swiss graphic design and typography were popular and in demand. There were many enthusiastic proponents of the style, as well as naysayers who thought that Swiss style was inappropriate for America, given its vast cultural differences. Fortunately, a number of magazines such as Graphis, New Graphic Design, and Typografische Monatsblätter helped to inform American designers.

Rocco Piscatello’s posters for the FIT Visiting Artist lectures remind me of Swiss posters from the 1950s and 60s, in particular the iconic posters created by Armin Hofmann for the Kunsthalle Basel.

Piscatello’s poster design is often based on the initial letter of the lecturer’s last name. He explores the letter’s form, counter form and structure, as well as the composition of strokes which form it. He transforms the letter into an iconic image expressing some of the characteristic qualities of the lecturer’s work and making it the central element of the poster.

Piscatello is acutely aware of the creative potential inherent in typography and geometric elements: the square, circle, and triangle are key components in his designs. And in a world cluttered with information, with signs representing things which no one fully understands, Piscatello’s graphic design is clear and compelling.

Purity of form is important to him. It is expressed in his work in the interplay between ideological influence and conceptual intention; reduced to its essential components, the visual idea is always clear. His posters remind us that the principles of mid-twentieth century modernism are both valid and useful in contemporary graphic design.

Piscatello avoids the many pitfalls inherent in our ever more volatile technology. He is not seduced by fashion styles or trends but is willing to explore new optical territory as long as it does not compromise his creative integrity. His design solutions come to life through vigorous research and a long, deliberate working process. And with his controlled use of black and white he takes a considered stand against the profusion of color so often used in contemporary visual communication.

One of his most successful posters was created for a lecture by Ivan Chermayeff. The primary element was the large initial letter C, alluding to the corporate typeface created by Chermayeff and Geismar for Mobil Oil. Then he placed, on three lines, Cher May Eff inside the ‘C,’ highlighting in red the word May, to indicate the month in which the lecture took place.

Piscatello’s posters generally work very well on the macroaesthetic level, including the form and composition of key elements and the overall structure of the space. On the microaesthetic level, the typographic information is often used as an optical element supporting the design. In Piscatello’s hands, however, typography is never downgraded to mere decoration.

In New York City, posters generally do not survive without being overrun with graffiti, they are frequently torn up or are pasted over. But Piscatello’s posters always stand proudly alone, a breath of fresh air. His work is a refreshing antidote to the chaotic visual environment in which we now live.

One can only hope that Piscatello’s work will inspire young designers and students to continue exploring this graphic mode rooted in mid-twentieth century European modernism, still essential in design today.

In “Rocco Piscatello: Poster Works for FIT”