Zurich Concrete Art

Ballmer Theo, 5 millénaires d’écriture, Gewerbemuseum Basel, du 14 juin au 19 juillet 1936, 1936, Lithographie en couleurs, 126,5 x 90,5 cm
Ballmer Theo, 5 millénaires d’écriture, Gewerbemuseum Basel, du 14 juin au 19 juillet 1936, 1936, Lithographie en couleurs, 126,5 x 90,5 cm

After the Second World War, Switzerland played an important role in the development of graphic art. This new discipline was a product of the industrial revolution and was derived from schools of thought advocating a new aesthetic of everyday objects. Moreover, towards the end of the 19th century, the desire arose to abolish traditional boundaries between the artist and the artisan. The emergence of the consumerist society of the 20th century along with the introduction of new medias, the development of marketing and publicity and new related disciplines such design and architecture were all factors which favoured the acknowledgment of the value and importance of communication tools. Thus, the importance of the graphic artist, who formalised and clarified the visual and informative content of messages.

Bill Max, arc concret, Kunsthalle Basel, du 18 mars au 16 avril 1944, 1944, Lithographie en couleurs, 128 x 90,5 cm
Bill Max, arc concret, Kunsthalle Basel, du 18 mars au 16 avril 1944, 1944, Lithographie en couleurs, 128 x 90,5 cm

Graphic art and Swiss design were greatly influenced by the new artistic theories of the beginning of the 20th century and by the American architect Louis Sullivan's dictum that "form ever follows function". Two schools of thought emerged: the first the Zurich School and the second the Basel School. The artists of the Zurich school defended the merits of concrete art, influenced by several artistic movements. Concrete art was entirely free of any basis in observed reality and sought to represent forms and primary colours as advocated by the Dutch movement De Stijl. Bauhaus theory of the aesthetic of everyday objects and of typography also influenced the Zurich School.  The Basel School, on the other hand, defended the theories of the New Objectivity movement.

Concrete Art and the Zurich School

The Zurich School totally adhered to the theories of Concrete Art, a term introduced by Theo Van Doesburg (1883-1931), co-founder of the magazine De Stijl, which was also the name of the Dutch artistic movement. The posters of the Concrete artists of the Zurich School are characterised by a line, a colour or a plane. Basic geometrical forms such as the square, the circle, the triangle and the rectangle are used as reference. Spaces must be clearly “visible” and only essential information is mentioned and positioned asymmetrically. In Switzerland, one of the key figures of this movement was Ernst Keller (1891 –1968). He began teaching at the Design School in Zurich in 1918 and established the first design courses in Switzerland. According to Keller, if a poster was to fulfil its role it had to be incisive; hence the choice of image, text, style, colour and form in a composition played a fundamental role. He believed that a poster must deliver a message that is immediately and effortlessly understood. Taking coffee as an example, he said that “a poster which proposes coffee must suggest the ambiance of coffee through the choice of colours or combination of colours, through formal elements, images and suggestive texts which by simple idea association suggest the “smell the coffee”. (= «Ein Kaffeeplakat müsse also allein schon durch die Farben oder Farbkombinationen, durch suggestive Formcharaktere der Bild- und Textelemente das Klima von Kaffee erzeugen. Assoziativ müsse der Betrachter in einem solchen Plakat den „Kaffee schmecken“».
Keller mentored a generation of artists such as Max Bill (1908 – 1994) who created the International Typographic Style also known as the Swiss Style after the Second World War.


A good poster must associate harmoniously its visual and textual elements. At the beginning of the 20th century, artists were creating posters without text and merely added a text before printing. It was only in the 1920 –1930 period, with the influence of Bauhaus theories that typography became a key element of the poster.
Jan Tschichold (1902 –1974) is one of the great names associated with typography and modern design. He emigrated to Switzerland in1933, in order to flee Nazi Germany. In 1928 he published his influential book Die neue Typographie/The new Typography, which remains a reference today. In this book he insists on the importance of typography, he advocates asymmetric rectilinear design layouts rather than the traditional layout of characters along a central axis and also advocates the use of graphic bars to obtain the clearest and simplest result. Quite extraordinarily, in 1932, Tschichold opposed his own theories by defending the need for symmetry in composition and by describing the modern rules of graphic art as being authoritarian. This condemnation has to be viewed in the light of the collaboration of some Bauhaus theorists with the Nazi regime. Max Bill, a firm believer in Concrete Art, sternly opposed and criticized this change of heart. While the Zurich School can be credited for elevating typography to the same level as the image in its compositions, which tended towards abstraction, the Basel School can also be recognised for achieving the same the thing in a more realistic style.

Last modification 15.10.2009

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