Ralph Schraivogel

Ralph Schraivogel
© BAK / Gina Folly

Ralph Schraivogel, 1960

Graphic designer

Ralph Schraivo­gel is a graphic de­signer with a pre­cise and metic­u­lous ap­proach. Fol­low­ing his stud­ies at the Zurich School of ap­plied arts, he started his own stu­dio in the same city. His pre­ferred means of ex­pres­sion is the poster, which he de­signs for sev­eral cul­tural agents in Switzer­land. Schraivo­gel’s long-stand­ing col­lab­o­ra­tions with Film­podium, the Mu­seum für Gestal­tung Zürich and the film fes­ti­val “Cin­e­mafrica” have gen­er­ated strong, im­pact­ful graphic iden­ti­ties that have marked Swiss graphic de­sign his­tory. His posters have been dis­tin­guished with mul­ti­ple awards all over the globe, and are in­cluded in sev­eral col­lec­tions, among which the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, New York. Schraivo­gel is a mem­ber of AGI since 1995.
The Con­fed­er­a­tion awards the Swiss Grand Award for De­sign to Ralph Schraivo­gel and recog­nises his unique po­si­tion in the Swiss graphic de­sign field, the strong and con­sis­tent iden­tity of his works through­out his ca­reer, and the im­pact, through his posters, on the image and com­mu­ni­ca­tion of sev­eral Swiss cul­tural agents. Prior to the Grand Award, Schraivo­gel was dis­tin­guished with the Swiss De­sign Award in 1995, 1997 and 2000.


A Go-Between: Ralph Schraivogel and the Poster

A poster ad­ver­tis­ing snow tires shows a pic­ture of snow tires. It’s a pity that Ralph Schraivo­gel never had the op­por­tu­nity to de­sign a poster for snow tires. What, one won­ders, would it look like?
This ques­tion does not imply that Schraivo­gel is in­ter­ested in dis­guis­ing the sub­ject of his work. On the con­trary, he wants to make it vis­i­ble — but with­out re­sort­ing to bla­tant mime­sis. He asks: what does the sub­ject mat­ter mean, what is its vi­sual po­ten­tial and — once that’s de­fined — how can it be vi­su­ally com­mu­ni­cated ? Schraivo­gel is a go-be­tween, much like a fer­ry­man: the lat­ter trans­lates from one side of the river to the other and Schraivo­gel, the inner life of the sub­ject into the vis­i­bil­ity of the pic­ture. That’s the key con­cern of vi­sual de­sign, and he tack­les it with inim­itable verve, pro­duc­ing work that has gar­nered many awards.
For well over 30 years the world has been richer for his posters. Rarely does their so­phis­ti­cated sub­tlety be­tray the ef­fort that went into them, and then only to the con­nois­seur. Some even make the im­pres­sion of ef­fort­less aperçus al­though they, too, did not come out of nowhere. Let’s put it like this: if aperçus, then only in the wake of con­sis­tently re­vis­ited lu­cid­ity. A suc­cess­ful de­sign is in­vari­ably the prod­uct of con­sid­er­able trial and error along with in­tu­ition kept in check through self-crit­i­cal con­trol.
Let me try to pin down what it is that makes Schraivo­gel’s vi­sual cre­ations so dis­tinc­tive with the ex­hi­bi­tion poster Die Welt im Kas­ten (1994): “The World in a Box”, from cam­era ob­scura to au­dio­vi­sion, five hun­dred years of tak­ing and mak­ing pic­tures, al­though the world is right in front of our eyes — one would think. ( This is the grav­i­ta­tional focus not only of this ex­hi­bi­tion but of Ralph’s work as well. ) What does he do ? A mod­ern street ra­di­ates from an ar­chi­tec­tural van­ish­ing point of the Re­nais­sance, as­sum­ing one chooses that par­tic­u­lar read­ing of the light pro­jected by a beamer — one can, but it’s not a must. The ty­po­graph­i­cal el­e­ments of the poster are placed in an or­der­ing frame­work, some­what frag­ile in ap­pear­ance and yet still gov­ern­ing the com­po­si­tion. Words and let­ters fol­low a course within that frame­work and parts of words are wiped out, due in part to the over­all patches of dark and light. A frag­mented stro­bo­scope with a human fig­ure doing a som­er­sault is in­cluded in the pre­car­i­ous as­sem­blage. The frame­work and its vul­ner­a­bil­ity: both are re­quired in order to re­veal the depth of field that marks the ex­hi­bi­tion.
A sense of depth under or be­hind sur­faces is char­ac­ter­is­tic of Schraivo­gel’s posters, which are never sta­tic, al­ways in mo­tion, much like the con­vec­tion of air or water, lay­ers of which rise and sink, and swap places. Ob­vi­ously, his posters are only printed paper, but there are cases in which even the let­ter­ing seems to rise up out of the depths. The poster for the ex­hi­bi­tion Gross & klein (“Big & small”, 1997) is in­debted to the dis­cov­ery that en­larg­ing a scratched Plex­i­glas mea­sur­ing stick on photo paper made it look as if we were gaz­ing into outer space with the num­ber 8 ap­pear­ing as the sym­bol of in­fin­ity. This im­ma­nent third di­men­sion gives Schraivo­gel’s posters a tan­gi­ble so­lid­ity, which, until about the year 2000, was height­ened by — but not based on — the tech­nique of film mon­tage.
It is the sub­stance that fas­ci­nates this de­signer and not the tech­nique. He does not deal in recipes. And that means con­stant ex­pe­di­tions in search of new forms of trans­la­tion. In the poster for the ret­ro­spec­tive of Akira Kuro­sawa’s work at the Film­podium Zurich in 2005, the let­ter­ing is like origami and glossy in con­trast to the mat back­ground pho­to­graph of rid­ers. Schraivo­gel has not ‘folded’ the in­di­vid­ual let­ters as types but in­stead ad­dresses the prin­ci­ple of fold­ing it­self. The let­ter ‘A’ oc­curs four times and is dif­fer­ent each time. It is as if the third di­men­sion re­quired to fold the paper were re­ally there. De­ci­sions of that na­ture — pre­sum­ably myr­iad, in­vari­ably dif­fer­ent de­ci­sions — are no doubt the lonely busi­ness of the artist. And when the de­ci­sions are right, the posters ra­di­ate ex­cite­ment and vi­brancy.
The di­ag­o­nal in the poster for the Woody Allen ret­ro­spec­tive could be in­ter­preted as Broad­way, evok­ing as­so­ci­a­tions with a spe­cial pro­tag­o­nist, the urban neu­rotic, or Man­hat­tan. But only the film­maker is ex­plic­itly named : Woody Allen. All else is con­jec­ture, im­pli­ca­tion, en­er­giz­ing the poster with its… its what? Its mes­sage? No, that is not Schraivo­gel; that would be too one-di­men­sional. In­stead: an at­mos­phere, a mood… He al­ways finds the right sub­stance with which to vac­ci­nate his posters with ef­fec­tive re­sults that un­fold un­der­cover. And we re­al­ize that every task, philo­soph­i­cally speak­ing, is ini­tially a prob­lem of knowl­edge.
As a dyslexic, Ralph Schraivo­gel had to force him­self to ‘like let­ters’ when de­sign­ing a poster. That is why he counts the words, ex­am­ines their shape, breaks them down into let­ters and ush­ers them to their seats, as in the the­atre. It is a for­mal pro­ce­dure and not a lin­guis­tic rou­tine. He strikes a chord when he says: “I am in­ter­ested in pic­tures when lan­guage doesn’t work any­more.” Be­cause — we might add — lan­guage is a lum­ber­ing ( dis­cur­sive-lin­ear ) means of ex­pres­sion and a pic­ture is im­me­di­ate, its im­pact si­mul­ta­ne­ously per­cep­ti­ble as a whole. For vi­sual de­sign­ers, pic­tures, ty­pog­ra­phy in­cluded, are the locus of their ac­tive agents — and their artistry lies in what they do with them and how.
Claude Licht­en­stein