Graphic Design

Inside AUT – Austrian Graphic Design in the 20th Century

For centuries, Austria occupied a vast territory in the centre of Europe. After the country was reduced to its current size and became a democracy, the country gave birth to several inventive designers.

(An extended version of text by Marcus Sterz published in TYPO 41.)

The Jugendstil era was the first period when design developed independently. In Austria, Jugendstil – named after a magazine entitled Die Jugend (Youth) – was called Secession and especially thrived in Vienna. Countless artistic programs and manifestos were created with the aim of connecting daily life to art in all aspects, including areas such as product design and architecture.

Architects worked closely with painters and vice versa. This was one of Austria’s most productive periods, and names like Adolf Loos or Josef Hoffmann, Kolomann Moser and Fritz Wärndorfer – founders of the Wiener Werkstätte – became famous. These artists abandoned imperialistic mannerism in favour a new, clear and modern style. Figurative and landscape motifs and mathematics were used to create a new visual language. Hoffmann worked with painter and graphic designer Kolomann Moser to combine architecture, pictures and typography.

Design and designers

Due to expanding technology during the 1920s and 30s, a new profession appeared: graphic design. Herbert Bayer, born in 1900, studied applied arts, architecture and painting. In 1925 he became the director of a new printing and advertising workshop in the school of Bauhaus. He established the DIN-Norm for all printed matters and pushed the use of only lower-case letters, as he said mixing with upper-case letters was redundant. All of Bauhaus’ printed matter was designed by Bayer or his students. He was anxious to use the latest findings in advertising psychology. Bayer worked intensively on avant-garde letter types such as “unicase”, in which he reduced capital and lower-case letters to one unique alphabet – Universal. He also went on to create Archetype and Bayer Fonetik.

In 1938 Bayer fled to the United States, where he took up further projects such as writing and designing the World Geographic Atlas in 1953. For the Container Corporation of America, Bayer designed not only geographic but also economic and demographic contexts. Walter P. Paepke, Chairman of CCA, wrote in the foreword: “It is important that we know more about the geography and the conditions of life of our neighbours in the world so that we may have a better understanding of other peoples and nations.”

Bringing art and daily life together was still a crucial topic among artists at the time, and the Wiener Kreis (which met once a week for 15 years) discussed this matter. Its members included Otto Neurath, a philosopher, economist and mathematician who developed ISOTYPE (International System of Typographic Picture Education) together with Gerd Antz. Their idea was to create a highly simplified, systematic way of figurative presentation, a kind of universal language which uses simple signs and pictograms to depict very complex contents and contexts.

The cutting-edge profession of “graphic designer” became more and more important for advertising and was used very ambitiously the “new” national sport: skiing. The Nazis later used this new aesthetics for propaganda purposes. German photographer and future filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl starred in the 1931 movie Der weisse Rausch (The White Flame), which was shot in Austria.

World War II changed everything. Millions were killed. Some had the chance to emigrate and were able to build great careers abroad – such as Joseph Binder, who already founded his first design studio while he was a student and is one of the best-known Austrian graphic designers. His principles were based on the following guidelines: Every part of design has a function; the function of design is to display, communicate and motivate.

Binder developed a very strong, clear style of design in Austria and, after emigrating to the United States, was able to bring this to New York as well. Since 1996 the Austrian association Design Austria has held an annual international design competition named after Joseph Binder.

Icons and Issues

The idea of the homeland was abused by the Nazis, but at the end of the 1940s the film industry created a new style, the Heimatfilm: completely devoid of political statements, the plot was simple, naïve and usually humorous, allowing viewers to forget their recent tragic history. The same happened in advertising: The desire to forget the past and start a new, simple life led to designing brands like PEZ. In 1950, the famous cigarette-lighter shaped PEZ dispenser was invented. It soon became a raging success in Japan and the United States. After heads of Disney characters were put on the tops of the PEZ dispensers, they turned into a collector’s item. Half of the company’s annual production (4.2 billion candies) is consumed in the United States. Even a font has been designed based on the logo lettering. Another iconic design was developed for Mannerschnitten chocolate wafers, loved by children and adults alike in part for its unique aluminium packaging that can be ripped off by pulling a red string and the strange combination of pink and blue that has remained true through the decades.

In 1952 Othmar Motter founded a design office together with Hans Kaiser and Sylvester Licka in Vorarlberg. They got specialized in letter types and published in the early 1970s their first display-fonts: motter sparta, motter festival, motter factum, motter corpus, motter femina, motter forte. Well known is the motter tektura which was used for Reebok and — are you sitting? – an early version of the Apple logo. He is still active as a graphic and type designer.

In 1992 Austria’s broadcasting corporation ORF invited Neville Brody to design the new Corporate Design. Brody is not an Austrian, but his design and the exhibition around the design influenced Austrian designers. A little story behind: An Austrian boulevard-newspaper just proclaimed: “6 million schilling for a red square.”

Codes and Covers

In 1995 the first phonoTAKTIK festival brought the very productive Viennese electronic music scene to the international spotlight. Somehow, the avant-garde music pushed the graphic design scene to the avant-garde as well. Young designers simply found the soundtracks to their work and collaborated with them – like Dextro, the phantom of the Austrian graphic designers. No photos of him can be found and his real name is quite a mystery. In the early 1990s he used the computer to create advanced graphic design. His work showed lots of students that they can push their design forward with right use of computers. His illustrations are on the one hand very synthetic, but there is a very organic complexity contained inside them. In the 1990s Dextro designed a lot of flyers for techno raves or electronic music events – plus, of course, LP and CD covers (i.e. sofa surfers: transit).

Like Dextro, Tina Frank comes from the electronic music scene and accompanied the rise of the MEGO label. She designed the covers for some of the most important Austrian electronic musicians. Her design of the Austrian internet-provider Silver Server is still very prevalent. Her work was chosen for Charlotte J. Fiell’s Graphic Design for the 21st Century as amongst the world’s 100 best graphic designers.

Design today

In the field of advertising, the Büro X design office, founded by Lo Breier, Florian Fossel und Alexander Wiederin, had great influence on many contemporary graphic designers. Büro X has managed to combine a high level of aesthetics with the economic need to simply sell the product they advertise. Stefan Gandl is widely known for his bestselling book NEUBAUWELT, a compendium for vector-based graphics with a CD-ROM and the rights to all illustrations. Also remarkable are Gandl’s uncompromising letter types.

Designer Walter Bohatsch on the other hand convinced through using strong grids to structure the chaos of graphic design. Some of the latest works are the corporate designs of the Austrian National Library and the Arnold Schönberg Center as well as the orientation system for the AK Vienna.

One of the best known contemporary designers is Stefan Sagmeister. After his graduation in 1993 he moved to New York where he built up his own design office. Using his body as a display was something new in the New York art design scene and brought him a lot of attention. After two years of running Leo Burnett’s Hong Kong Design Group, he founded his Sagmeister, Inc. in 1993. Since then he has worked for remarkable clients like the Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, The Talking Heads, HBO, the Guggenheim Museum and Time Warner.

To promote a lecture he held in Detroit, he used his body as the display for the invitation text, which brought him a lot of attention. His work has been shown in Zurich, Vienna, New York, Berlin, Osaka, Prague, Brno, Cologne, and Seoul. He likes to go on year-long sabbaticals, where he refuses to work for clients. Instead he cultivates himself as a designer.

Since the beginning of the new millennium, a large number of talented designers did some great work that received a lot of international attention. The works of designers like Erwin Bauer, Günther Eder and Roman Breier, Büro Lichtwitz, Cordula Alessandri and others are shown in exhibitions and receive awards frequently. Some also work as curators, writers and editors.

To all the others not mentioned: please accept my apologies! Naming all of you would simply eat up too much space.

Research and original text version: Marcus Sterz and Barbara Wais

Images: Archive of Marcus Sterz and PEZ International AG

4. 11. 2010 Marcus Sterz
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Marcus Sterz

Marcus Sterz is an Austrian type designer. http://www.facetype.org/

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