Josef Müller-Brockmann: aged, wise, quiet

Herbert Fischer (WerbeWoche)

An acclaimed artist working onward quietly at an advanced age is still relentless in his rigorously high standards.

The Zurich Philharmonic, the Swiss Federal Railway, the Italian technology group Olivetti and the multinational IBM – just to name some of the clients he has worked for in an advising and executive capacity. Whole generations of designers idolize him. Questioning, analyzing, creating new perspectives, Josef Müller-Brockmann has given highly regarded impetus to the communications industry.

It would be endless to list all of his accomplishments in business and at higher institution of learning, his appearances at international conferences and the numerous awards and publications. His name alone speaks for itself. Josef Müller-Brockmann was celebrating his 80th birthday last year. The Seegalerie Rapperswil took this opportunity to honor its founder with a special exhibition from August to October. It was in this same town at the lake of Zurich where Müller-Brockmann was born as the son of a builder and where he spent most of his youth. He served his apprenticeship with the painter and designer Alex Walter Diggelmann in Zurich, where also he met Emil Schulthess, later to become world renowned, who was working in the same studio as a photographer.

At first rejected at the Zurich School of Design

Lacking an apprentice diploma, he at first was not admitted at the Zurich School of Design. In commemoration of his 80th birthday, the publisher and designer Lars Müller of Ennetbaden published a book on the life and work of Müller-Brockmann titled “Mein Leben: Spielerischer Ernst und ernsthaftes Spiel” (My life: playful ernest and ernest play). In this book Müller-Brockmann recalls: “ In spite of this apparently hopeless situation I just had to be accepted to the school. (…) I told the graphic design teacher Ernst Keller that nothing could keep me from becoming one of his students. My meeting with Alfred Willimann, who was teaching the photography class, was short but successful: this extremely helpful person accepted me on the spot. Now I was able to attend the courses of two great teachers for one year, half a day per week each class. More I could not afford.”

Ernst Keller and Alfred Willimann as teachers and examples

Both teachers had a lasting influence on the student. “In contrast to Keller, who was rather traditionally orientated, Willimann identified himself with the Bauhaus movement. He introduced me to the use of photography and typography. He was a follower of the pioneers of functional typography, photographics and objective photography and was searching for new forms of expression.”

The taboos

“I complied a list of products and ideas I did not want to get involved with, such as tobacco, alcohol, toys relating to warfare, military institutions, property speculation and political parties. I have been faithful to these guidelines up to the present.”

Translated from: J. Müller-Brockmann
Mein Leben: Spielerischer Ernst und ernsthaftes Spiel
Lars Müller, Ennetbaden. ISBN 3-906700-78X

Josef Müller-Brockmann in the eyes of Willy Rotzler

This influence has also been noticed by the important art historian Willy Rotzler. He wrote: “Who out of professional curiosity, tries to understand the personality of the designer will discover a close relationship between the graphic project as such and its realization, both conceptually and formally. In other words, it is rarely a coincidence that a certain graphic designer is chosen for a specific poster design project. Neither is it the coincidence of a chance commission that a graphic designer is confronted with a certain work. Usually there is a profound correspondence at play, which is of paramount importance for originality and quality of the poster being created. Josef Müller-Brockmann’s poster work is a convincing example of cause and the effect of such inner correspondences.
He is part of the “Zurich School” within the body of Swiss graphic design, a generation and a circle of graphic designers who were influenced by the specific teaching methods and subject matter at the Zurich School of Design and primarily by a few outstanding personalities within the teaching staff, such as Ernst Keller and Alfred Willimann. In this training, the evaluation of the graphic designer as an artistically active person with distinctive aesthetic and high moral professional standards was more important than technical know-how.”

A fighter in his life and in his profession

Thanks to enthusiasm, determination and self discipline the young man defied difficult circumstances on more than one occasion, and this not only in his early years. He distinguished himself later on as being perserverent and uncompromising in both his business affairs and any subject which he was communicating at a given time. The severity of his work mirrors his straight forward and strong personality.

Imagination and accuracy

In 1957 Josef Müller-Brockmann succeeded to the position of Ernst Keller at the Zurich School of Design. “As much as I respected Keller, meanwhile my professional perspective had grown diametrically opposed to his (…) My opinion of the job of a graphic designer contradicted this artistic approach. I was convinced that contents and products were to be communicated objectively in words and pictures to enable the addressee to make himself as much as possible an objective picture of what was being communicated. Therefore the question of the responsibility of the graphic designer in the general public with regard to the effect of his work was raised. My classes were aimed at teaching the visual designer to approach projects in an objective and logical manner. While the students imagined the graphic design course to be primarily an artistic study demanding imagination, I wanted to instruct them to be accurate in their thinking.”

Turned down principalship of the School, given as an ultimatum

In view of his suggestions to reform the School and his high reputation as a teacher, he was offered the principalship of the School of Design by the director of education of Zurich. “With my conditions which were to dissolve four special subject area classes and to dismiss all the teachers, I, of course, wasn’t accepted.
One year later I received the same job offer from the Design School of Basel. I justified the necessity of letting the teachers go with the fact that a teacher, after years of teaching without any market-related experience as a freelance designer, is usually dried out. Every teacher should leave teaching latest after 5 years in order to prove himself in the free market. Faithful to this philosophy I resigned in 1960 after 4 years of teaching.” Teaching in Kyoto, Tokyo, Osaka and Ulm followed in later years.

Advertising for prestigious Rosenthal products

In the early sixties Josef Müller-Brockmann (the second name stands for his wife Verena Brockmann who died in 1964) met the porcelain manufacturer Philipp Rosenthal who initiated the Group of 21. This association of 21 industrialists wished to contribute to the enhancement of the table culture with well designed products. “My task was to help these ideas on the road to success via advertisements and brochures, later also with exhibitions. After an euphoric initial period diverse opinions developed over the years, lead to the dissolving of the Group of 21.”

The Bauhaus influence

“After realising that my strengths were not lying in the field of illustration and, on the other hand an illustration is not an objective form of communication but rather a subjective depiction of a specific situation, I focused my efforts on learning typography and photography. In drawing as well as in typography I wanted to avoid subjective, emotional design and to look for a system conforming the traditional rules of typography: length and spacing of a line and contrast in the typeface with optimal legiblity were, for example, matters which had to be taken into consideration. I avoided decorative elements and strived for the highest degree of objectivity. The same goes for photography: The suject had to appear with its own values and characteristica and without any form of alienation. In purely typographic designs I tried to put the areas into a contrasting tension with areas remaining empty. In its execution I did not rely on my feeling but on measurable proportions. The understanding for typographic values gained from various sources.
I was essentially influenced by the typography put in practice at the Bauhaus and by Tschichold.”

Translated from: J. Müller-Brockmann
Mein Leben: Spielerischer Ernst und ernsthaftes Spiel.
Verlag Lars Müller, Ennetbaden. ISBN 3-906700-78X

Pan-European IBM design adviser

In 1967 IBM appointed Josef Müller-Brockmann to the design adviser for Europe. His function was that of a critical adviser to the internal IBM graphic, exhibition and other designers and photographers in all western European countries. Every year he met at least once these professionals at their working places. In order to examine possible typographic, photographic or compositional weaknesses and to discuss better solutions their work was proposed to him. Up to then these designers had heard little about functional typographic, photography and composition. Therefore, the giving of an understanding of his point of reference was important to him. “After a few years most of the IBM publications were designed according to this system.”
He was with IBM until 1988.

Rhythmic, transparent and weightless

“When I designed the first posters for concerts of the Zurich Philharmoinc around 1950, the comments of the three most important newspapers in Zurich were negative. They dissapproved of the abstract nature of these posters, criticzing them for being hostile to public taste. On these posters rhythmically arranged geometric elements symbolized the musical program. I tried to interpret musical themes such as rhythmics, transparency, weightlessness etc. with definite, abstract forms, brought into a logical context. Also it was important for me to bring the composition of the geometric elements into line with the arrangement of the typography, both formally and proportionally. The criticism of Carlo Vivarelli lead to my concert posters, which were solely typographic. I tried to create a floating, transparent typography by means of a dynamic arrangement of the words and lines in order to convey a feeling of musical poetry.”

Translated from: J. Müller-Brockmann
Mein Leben: Spielerischer Ernst und ernsthaftes Spiel.
Verlag Lars Müller, Ennetbaden. ISBN 3-906700-78X

Author of two reference books

In 1971, by then already an internationally renowned Swiss designer, Müller-Brockmann wrote together with his second wife Shizuko Yoshikawa „Geschichte des Plakats“ (history of the poster) for the Zurich publishing house ABC. It is the first book placing posters into five categories according to thematic aspects: the illustrative, the objective-informative, the constructive, the experimental and the serial poster. 300 posters, mainly in color, are illustrating the text. Up to 14 colors were brought into the printing. The book was out of print very quickly and a new edition was not initiated due to the high printing costs.

History of visual communication compiled for the first time

Until 1971 there was no book available illustrating the importance of communication by pictures from the beginning of culture until the present.
Then Müller-Brockmann created “Geschichte der visuellen Kommunikation” (history of visual communication), published by Arthur Niggli in Niederteufen, Switzerland. “The thought of exposing the need of man for communication by visual signs intrigued me. My library provided the reference books which gave me the information seeming relevant to me.”

Integrity, loyalty, encouragement

The editor of the Müller-Brockmann autobiography, publisher and designer Lars Müller in Ennetbaden, comments: „The composure and self-critical detachment, by which Josef Müller-Brockmann tells us the story of his life, reminds us of virtues being despised today. This is regrettable. In his integrity and loyalty to his principles, as well as to the people who accompanied and supported him in his life, Josef Müller-Brockmann is an encouraging example.”
There is nothing to be added.