I travelled to the University for the Creative Arts’ Canterbury campus by train accompanied by my dear friend and ‘design hero’ Geoff White. Those of you who know Geoff, or were taught by him at Ravensbourne, you will be reassured to learn that Geoff still provides, through conversation, such insight and context to the subject of visual communication through his life-long immersion in the subject. This train journey was one of those life- and career-affirming events where you realise you are in the company of someone extremely knowledgeable and talented and all you need to do is listen and consider the immense value of knowing that person.
Once we arrived at Canterbury, Geoff and I were greeted by Professor Ian McLaren (who was part of Otl Aicher‘s design team for the 1972 Munich Olympic Games) and one of the symposium’s speakers. The one-day event formed part of an exhibition celebrating the 1972 Olympic design legacy:
“This exhibition at the UCA Canterbury campus presents the design heritage of the Munich Olympiad during 1972. The project draws upon Ian McLaren’s collection of relevant material (some of which can be seen on this website) obtained as a result of his having been a senior member of the design team. The exhibition provides a first hand account of the evolution of the designs and subsequent commercialisation of aspects of the work produced for Munich’72. An accompanying symposium will combine contributions from figures who worked with Aicher alongside respected practicing designers. The exhibition coincides with the passage of the Olympic flame through Kent.”
It was disappointing the event did not attract many design students, perhaps this was because the Summer term had ceased, or, maybe modernism does little to capture the imagination of students currently studying visual communication design? For those of us who did attend we spent the day listening to various speakers who sought to unpack the mind of the man in charge of the project (Otl Aicher) and find explanations or insights into the enduring design legacy of this formidable body of work.
The first presentation was in the form of a film which showed Professor McLaren interviewing David Nelson, senior partner at Foster + Partners. Nelson, who is Joint Head of Design at the company, was able to provide some insight into the relationship Norman Foster had with Otl Aicher, through working on projects together such as the Bilbao Metro and Century Tower in Tokyo. Nelson also provided some background on the Foster Associates Buildings and Projects three-volume book, a collaboration by Foster, Aicher and Ian Lambot. McLaren’s interviewing style is gentle and did little more than solicit well-known factual information about Aicher’s working relationship with Foster, however Aicher’s explanation for the choice of red for the Bilbao Metro signs was illuminating, it should be the ‘red of a 25 year old woman’. Nelson offered an attempt at an explaining this metaphorical shade, maybe readers of this can offer their interpretation? Nelson surmised that ‘Aicher was bigger than his base subject’ and many would argue that Foster is also worthy of this accolade.
Hans Dieter Reichert who was instrumental in the creation of the exhibition and symposium talked about the development of the Otl Aicher monograph published in 2006 – the public manifestation of a 2002 PhD thesis by Markus Rathgeb. In Reichart’s autobiographical musings he told the delegates that he learned more about German design after coming to England in 1984 to study at the London College of Printing (now London College of Communication). Reichert remembers visiting an exhibition at the Boilerhouse (the forerunner to the current Design Museum which was housed in the basement of the Victoria and Albert Museum). Aicher’s book to accompany the 1984 exhibition ‘Critique of the Automobile’ struck a chord with Reichert with its simple line illustrations of car forms, adherence to a formal grid structure and Swiss typographic treatment. Reichert told us that Aicher believed that the “book was the medium, every student should do a book”.
Another film followed with McLaren interviewing Klaus Jürgen Maack, strategic consultant for ERCO. During his tenure as Director of the firm (1965–2003) he established a close working relationship with Aicher where we gained some insight into Aicher’s ability to persuade his clients to publish books that underscored the philosophical aspects of the business. In today’s terms this would be referred to as ‘brand strategy’ or ‘brand values. This reinforces Reichert’s opinion that “Aicher could ‘nurse books’ out of clients, as a preparation for corporate identities” and that “his clients were very proud to have a book of their company”.
It was Professor McLaren’s presentation that focused squarely on the design programme for the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. McLaren was a student at the HfG in Ulm, where he first met Aicher, and subsequently worked as one of Aicher’s deputies on the Munich Olympiad designing the the official guidebook, publicity for the cultural programme, daily programmes and overseeing a design team. No one is more qualified to present the day-to-day workings and challenges of delivering such a large-scale design programme in the analogue design era, and it proved to be a fascinating insight.
Some light-hearted moments were brought to us by Tony Brook from Spin and Unit Editions. McLaren had briefly touched upon the souvenirs that were produced for the Munich Olympiad, and Brook took this a stage further, analysing objects that have peculiarly kitsch overtones, Brook’s mention of Waldi, the first ever Olympic mascot, and created by Aicher demonstrated Aicher’s view that “under the corporate spirit there’s a human soul”.
The next speaker was Lucienne Roberts who, like Reichert, used an autobiographical ‘hook’ to determine the modernist connections that culturally bind her design work to Aicher’s and that of the Munich Olympiad. This was manifested at its clearest with the work she is currently producing with Rebecca Wright under the auspices of graphicdesignand a practice-based design think-tank, that connects graphic design to other subject areas. Arguably graphicdesignand provides a design manifestation of David Nelson’s assertion that ‘Aicher was bigger than his base subject’.
The final presentation from Mason Wells of Bibliothèque provided us with a homage to Aicher, whose influence underscores all that Wells professes and that of his studio. Wells described the story behind the 2007 exhibition created by Bibliothèque in collaboration with Vitsoe which was:
“a self-initiated exhibition of Bibliothèque’s extensive collection of posters and print designed for the 1972 Olympics in Munich. The exhibition was held at the Vitsœ showroom in London. A poignant location because of it’s German design lineage. Vitsœ manufacture the ‘606 Universal Shelving System’ designed by Dieter Rams, one time protégé of Otl Aicher’s Ulm school colleague Hans Gugelot. The entire exhibition was built using the 606 system modified for display purposes. The invite, guide and posters for the 72 exhibition contextualised the Olympic content with the location, and placed the games’ canine mascot Waldi as a centrepiece upon the Vitsœ shelving system. The exhibition title ’72’ comes from the happy coincidence of the venue’s address (72 Wigmore Street) and the year of the games. The private view was attended by a number of Aicher’s team including German designer Rolf Müller and the only English members, Ian McLaren and Michael Burke”.
There was nothing by way of critical analysis from the speakers, especially Wells – such is his adoration of Aicher and the Munich Olympiad design programme. In the final panel discussion, the debate did take a more critical tone, where the subject of contemporary design education was bemoaned, women in design (a perennial design conference subject), provided no new insight, other than Aicher did have women working on the Munich design team, but they are not the designers history remembers.
So what can be gleaned from this modernist nostalgia trip to Canterbury? Well, those with a passion for modernism were indulged, embraced, revived. Those with a critical eye fared less well, the eye-witness accounts provided facts and personal anecdotes on Aicher and the Olympiad, but not much more than you can read in the monograph. Where the debate truly lies is in the premise of the symposium:
“the aim is to highlight the extent to which Aicher’s creative practice is still relevant for contemporary communication designers given the influence of established and emergent digital technologies and the changing demands of clients”.
This was not answered directly, however, as a design educator and practitioner, attending the symposium confirmed my belief that a modernist approach to visual communication, that relies on a formal visual language underpinned by a social consciousness will always endure, that is the legacy of the 72 Munich Olympiad, and of Aicher.
Professor McLaren said “Aicher didn’t like the concept of heroes, but he did like being the boss”. That’s probably the most oblique and acute description of modernism I could construct, just wishing they were my own words!
The exhibition continues 29 June – 31 July 2012 at:
Herbert Read Gallery