Armin Hofmann

Armin Hofmann, 1920

Graphic designer and educator, Lucerne

By award­ing the Grand Prix De­sign to Armin Hof­mann, the Swiss Con­fed­er­a­tion pays trib­ute to a dis­tin­guished ex­po­nent of Swiss graphic de­sign as well as a teacher and ed­u­ca­tor who was deeply in­flu­en­tial on gen­er­a­tions of graphic de­sign­ers and teach­ers both in Switzer­land and abroad.
Graphic de­signer and teacher Armin Hof­mann does not fit eas­ily into any cat­e­gory – and cer­tainly not the Swiss Style drawer in which he is often wrongly placed. 'I was never im­pressed by the Con­crete move­ment', he said ten years ago at an ex­hi­bi­tion of his poster works held at the Mu­seum für Gestal­tung Zürich. In­ter­est­ingly, how­ever, his vi­sual vo­cab­u­lary does in­deed have fea­tures in com­mon with the Con­crete style de­vel­oped in the 1950s by Max Bill, Richard Paul Lohse and Josef Müller-Brock­mann. For ex­am­ple, he evinces a pref­er­ence for sans-serif fonts, grid-based de­sign, the use of ty­pog­ra­phy as an es­sen­tial de­sign el­e­ment, and a pref­er­ence for pho­tog­ra­phy rather than draw­ings or il­lus­tra­tions. And cer­tain par­al­lels also exist in Hof­mann’s rad­i­cal ap­proach to form and colour.
What truly dis­tin­guishes Hof­mann from the Con­crete is his artis­tic pos­ture: he re­jects all dog­ma­tism, and stands apart through his own open way of think­ing and cre­at­ing. Hof­mann was con­stantly evolv­ing, both per­son­ally and pro­fes­sion­ally. In con­trast to the ap­proach taken by the Con­struc­tivists, most of Hof­mann’s posters allow a sym­bolic in­ter­pre­ta­tion – the image of a laugh­ing clown (for the 1960/61 sea­son at the Stadtthe­ater in Basel), for ex­am­ple, or his fa­mous William Tell poster of 1963 which re­jects the clichéd Alpine ro­man­ti­cism and fea­tures an apple in black and white and the word 'Tell' in a strange new ty­pog­ra­phy. Is this Hof­mann’s image of mod­ern Switzer­land? Each of his de­signs ex­plores the pos­si­bil­i­ties in­her­ent in vi­sual com­mu­ni­ca­tion and calls them into ques­tion. This ap­plies not only to the var­i­ous posters he pro­duced for cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions in Basel, such as the Gewerbe­mu­seum, Stadtthe­ater and Kun­sthalle, but also to his 'Kunst am Bau' pro­jects, as well as the image/word logo used for Expo 64, the Swiss na­tional ex­hi­bi­tion in Lau­sanne.
What he de­manded of him­self, he also ex­pected of the pub­lic: sub­mit­ting to a re­flec­tive, di­dac­tic process rather than blindly trust­ing in ac­cepted for­mu­las. He took his au­di­ence se­ri­ously rather than serv­ing up light, su­per­fi­cial fare. Hof­mann risked cre­at­ing con­fu­sion with his some­times un­usu­ally con­structed type­faces, and his poster for the 1954 ex­hi­bi­tion 'die gute form' is a clear ex­am­ple of this. Rather than fea­tur­ing ob­jects, he de­cided to use let­ter forms as de­sign el­e­ments: geo­met­ri­cally pre­cise and in har­mony, yet, as the forms are clipped and not im­me­di­ately read­able, still ab­stract and un­con­ven­tional. (His com­monly used com­bi­na­tion of black and white also rep­re­sented a kind of op­po­si­tion to the colour­ful panorama then com­mon. The ef­fect was that black and white called one’s at­ten­tion more quickly.) The ex­hi­bi­tion’s con­tent could hardly have been summed up more pre­cisely: the poster, with its ty­pog­ra­phy and com­po­si­tion, pre­sents the topic it­self at a meta-level. The work also ex­em­pli­fies some­thing else: the start­ing point for Hof­mann’s graphic so­lu­tions was al­ways the con­tent, the de­gree to which he ded­i­cated him­self would be hardly imag­in­able in today’s age of strict time man­age­ment.
Hof­mann’s method of teach­ing de­sign and his im­par­tial­ity made him an ideal teacher. He in­flu­enced gen­er­a­tions of stu­dents in Switzer­land and abroad, par­tic­u­larly in the United States, the United King­dom and even in India. Hof­mann was one of the teach­ers for whom teach­ing was as im­por­tant as his own pro­jects. He made lit­tle dis­tinc­tion be­tween the two, since he never took a strictly one-sided view of his ped­a­gog­i­cal work. In other words, it was not just that the stu­dents were learn­ing from him – he was also open to being in­spired by them. 'De­sign­ing also means being aware of your eth­i­cal re­spon­si­bil­i­ties', was one of Hof­mann’s mes­sages for the younger gen­er­a­tion. He be­lieved that the more com­plex the en­vi­ron­ment be­came, the more min­i­mal and clear the de­sign should be. It is an idea that would ap­pear to be more rel­e­vant than ever, and it il­lus­trates the in­flu­ence Armin Hof­mann’s ap­proach still has today.
Katha­rina Al­te­meie