What's Karl Gerstner? Thinking in Motion

Rheinbrücke Advertisement / 1959 / Swiss National Library (NL), Bern, Archives Karl Gerstner // National-Zeitung Poster / 1960 / Photograph Courtesy of the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich, Poster Collection, ZHdK

Innovation

Ahead of the first Japan solo exhibition of Karl Gerstner, a major figure in visual communication of the 20th century, Susanne Bieri D.Phil., Head of The Prints and Drawings Department of the Swiss National Library, shares insights on the career and legacy of the designer.

Who is Karl Gerstner?

As a versatile educated, critically independent man, Karl Gerstner (1930 - 2017 in Basel) was not only one the most important innovators of typeface, typography, advertising graphics / corporate identity and advertising in Switzerland after 1950, but he was also a writer, a thinker, a collector as well as an artist - a uomo universale of his time. He distinguished himself since the mid-1950s with a variety of publications on graphics, typography and art as a didactically ambitious and renowned author.

He later became an extremely successful agency director…

Karl Gerstner founded his own graphic studio in 1949 and came to Basel as a commissioned graphic designer for the Swiss chemical company Ciba-Geigy, where he created the "Geigy style" with Max Schmid and met Markus Kutter, with whom he established the Gerstner + Kutter advertising agency in 1959. They were later joined by Paul Gredinger and in 1963 they launched the legendary agency GGK (Gerstner, Gredinger, Kutter). In the 1970s it became one of the most successful advertising agencies in Switzerland, with offices in other European countries and the US. Towards the end of the 1970s, Gerstner also subtly yet unmistakably revamped the corporate identity of Swissair.

How about Gerstner, the artist?

Parallel to his tasks as a graphic designer and agency chief, Gerstner always cultivated his artistic work, which he commented as follows: "At the beginning of my career, I allowed myself with good conscience to use advertising as an excuse to do art wherever it was. Just as Dürrenmatt camouflaged literature as a thriller, I did everyday art without forcing people into the museum, and there was something else besides missionary zeal to tell the whole truth: I did not want to go below my possibilities with any work, because I would consider that to be the most senseless waste of my life.” In 1973, the Museum of Modern Art in New York honored Gerstner's work with the exhibition "think program, designing programs - programming design". The Swiss Federal Office of Culture honored Karl Gerstner with the "Swiss Grand Prix Design" in 2012. In 2006, the design estate and the entire artistic archive of this epoch-making Swiss designer entered The Prints and Drawings Department of the Swiss National Library.