Jean Widmer

Jean Widmer, 1929

Graphic designer and Art Director, Paris

Jean Wid­mer (born 1929) is a graphic de­signer and art di­rec­tor based in Paris. He stud­ied at the Kun­st­gewerbeschule in Zurich, under Jo­hannes Itten, and shortly af­ter­wards moved to Paris, as part of a group of Swiss de­sign­ers which were to fun­da­men­tally in­flu­ence graphic de­sign in France in the sec­ond half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury. Wid­mer was art di­rec­tor at Ga­leries Lafayette and fash­ion mag­a­zine Jardin des Modes, trans­form­ing the graphic out­puts of both. Later, his posters for the Cen­tre de Création In­dus­trielle cre­ated an un­mis­tak­able style, which came to full fruition in his image for the Cen­tre Pom­pi­dou and other cul­tural agents in Paris, as well as in im­por­tant sig­nage work for the French mo­tor­ways and tourism sign­posts through­out the coun­try.
The Con­fed­er­a­tion grants Wid­mer a Swiss Grand Award for De­sign in recog­ni­tion of the fun­da­men­tal rel­e­vance of his work and ca­reer, his im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tion to de­sign ed­u­ca­tion in France, and his role as a pi­o­neer in a gen­er­a­tion of Swiss prac­ti­tion­ers who changed the course of graphic de­sign in Eu­rope in the 20th cen­tury.


Real Life or The Colour of Lemons

Hans Wid­mer took up stud­ies at Zurich's Kun­st­gewerbeschule in 1946: at that time, the school was di­rected by the great Bauhaus mas­ter of colour, Jo­hannes Itten. It was an era deal­ing with the re­la­tions be­tween func­tion­al­ism and art, and be­tween art and the ap­plied arts ; an era de­vel­op­ing dis­tinc­tions be­tween artists, craftsper­sons and de­sign­ers ; and one still de­bat­ing over the links be­tween in­dus­try and mass pro­duc­tion. His­tory was on the march! "Hav­ing ar­rived in Paris in the hopes of be­com­ing an artist", (1) the young Hans Wid­mer grad­u­ally evolved into a "graphic de­signer". France may well still have been in the throes of "in­dus­trial aes­thet­ics", Zurich by then was clearly dis­tin­guish­ing be­tween art and de­sign which, though not iden­ti­cal, could nonethe­less both be at­trib­uted to one and the same per­son, de­pend­ing on the mo­ment in time, and on the mis­sion such per­son would be as­signed or as­sign him / her­self.

Hans be­comes Jean with­out for­feit­ing Hel­vetica
De­spite en­joy­ing a fab­u­lous legacy and in­com­pa­ra­ble train­ing, a per­son can nonethe­less turn into a nitwit for lack of tal­ent, in­tel­li­gence, grace and a taste for lis­ten­ing to oth­ers. Jean Wid­mer likes to hark back to a say­ing of his fa­ther's: "Know­ing how to do and doing [ it ] one­self " - that is, hav­ing to do it and never leav­ing out any­thing that could widen the world. The long path ahead began with sweet wrap­pers and gilded coats-of-arms for La Mar­quise de Sévigné. Jean Wid­mer proved to be en­dowed with a sense of hos­pi­tal­ity teamed with a sense of humor, en­abling him to in­ti­mate each per­son's con­tri­bu­tion and re­cep­tiv­ity. In­deed, he cul­ti­vates the very art of meet­ing oth­ers, and has thus suc­ceeded in sur­round­ing him­self with a wider cir­cle of tal­ented and com­plicit peo­ple than the ma­jor­ity of his fel­low cre­ators. He dis­cov­ered his men­tor in Fred Sch­neck­en­burger, a pup­peteer, the­ater di­rec­tor and great poster col­lec­tor. Wid­mer notes : "I was aware of re­ceiv­ing a sec­ond ed­u­ca­tion. He be­came my in­tel­lec­tual guide". Wid­mer is friends with Peter Knapp, whose role he took over on two oc­ca­sions. Con­tin­u­ing his stud­ies in New York, he tar­geted pho­tog­ra­phy and the nar­ra­tive con­cept under the mas­ter­ful artis­tic di­rec­tor Alexy Brodow­itch. He was thus able to as­sem­ble cer­tain el­e­ments of a cre­ative syn­the­sis. For in­stance, he noted that each sub­way stop in Mex­ico fea­tures a unique sym­bol to guide the il­lit­er­ate: this would come back to him when he took on the French mo­tor­ways. Those who have worked with him al­lude to his un­wa­ver­ing at­ten­tion. "You're ‘crazy', be it joy­ously so" Do­minique Bozo wrote him; while Margo Rouard un­der­scored his "sharp gaze and slow ges­ture", and also paid trib­ute to his "gen­tle stub­born­ness". Per­son­ally, I like his way of say­ing: "It's the com­bi­na­tion of a healthy Swiss ed­u­ca­tion and the ‘French spirit' that greatly stim­u­lated me". And it is in­deed the "com­bi­na­tion" that height­ens taste and in­tro­duces an ever pre­sent bass note, a break­away through which the spirit of the times and imag­i­na­tion pro­vide the rules of the game. Itten saw the colour of lemons as pass­ing through the body: he was wont to ask his stu­dents to eat a lemon be­fore de­scrib­ing and study­ing it. And so should it be for any de­lib­er­a­tion about re­al­ity: (2) What is its path­way and what are its colours ?

The ecol­o­gist of im­agery
From 1955 to 1969, Wid­mer's life took on a propaedeu­tic bent. Hav­ing been en­trusted by Jacques de Pin­dray with di­rect­ing the agency, Wid­mer began carv­ing out his ter­ri­tory. He took to giv­ing pride of place to pho­tos of the body in mo­tion; with Ko­r­ri­gan and his logo he came up with the first vi­sual iden­tity. He also proved to have an eye for emerg­ing tal­ents. While at the helm for Ga­leries Lafayette, he sought to "free the Parisian tem­ple from the canon­i­cal mer­chan­dise", to re­ject pub­lic­ity fea­tur­ing the ob­ject and the price, to im­pose the col­lec­tion idea by cre­at­ing "at­mos­pheric im­ages". Sadly, some very hand­some ad­verts fell to the side for "fail­ing to meet cus­tomer ex­pec­ta­tions"! Free­dom began mak­ing head­way for him with the Le Jardin des Modes fash­ion mag­a­zine, which veered from women's knitwear to the play­ful mod­ernism of a woman's mag­a­zine - wit­tily in­form­ing and sur­pris­ing its read­ers. Wid­mer be­came the mag's pho­tog­ra­pher, send­ing out in­vi­ta­tions to those who most promised to imbue the sub­ject with at­mos­phere. Ful­fill­ing a wish made of him by Jacques Admet, di­rec­tor of the ENSAD (the pres­ti­gious pub­lic uni­ver­sity of art and de­sign in Paris), as of 1960 he set up a graphic arts de­part­ment. He would go on to hone this pro­ject until 1996, es­tab­lish­ing a core cur­ricu­lum for which he as­sem­bled a team (in­clud­ing a large Swiss con­tin­gent) to teach the graphic arts pro­fes­sions. The pro­ject ended up as a "De­part­ment of Vi­sual Com­mu­ni­ca­tion". He thus com­bined the game rules with the game: that is, "ob­jec­tive teach­ing" at school with his own cre­ation through his agency.
For­give me for in­sert­ing a per­sonal note here. It was in Oc­to­ber 1969 that, upon my sug­ges­tion, a Cen­tre for In­dus­trial Cre­ation (the CCI) was opened within the Mu­seum of Dec­o­ra­tive Arts. At that point I knew Wid­mer per­son­ally and I ad­mired his work. In June 1969, I asked him to de­sign, to­gether with his stu­dents, twenty-one posters for the Cen­tre. He did so on his own (the stu­dents were on hol­i­day break) and most rapidly. It is the best gift any­one ever made to me. The pro­ject's min­i­mal­ist graphic de­sign avoids de­pict­ing the ob­ject on dis­play. View­ers are given an over­all iden­tity, a plea­sure for both the eyes and the mind. I can­not claim to be ob­jec­tive, but to me those posters rep­re­sent the apex of graphic ex­pres­sion. From that time on, a phase of Wid­mer's ma­ture out­put can be traced. For in­stance, after see­ing Wid­mer's CCI posters, the Mo­tor­way So­ci­eties ar­chi­tect con­tacted Wid­mer. The lat­ter set to work im­me­di­ately, slowly cre­at­ing first the forms, then their essence, their pu­rifi­ca­tion, their pic­togram... The birth of a uni­ver­sal model. Hi­e­s­tand and Wid­mer teamed up, going on to win the Cen­tre Pom­pi­dou's in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion for its own vi­sual iden­tity and sig­nage in 1974. Theirs was a mas­ter­ful les­son in the field, har­mon­is­ing the to­tal­ity of ac­tive fac­tors by duly in­volv­ing the di­ver­sity of de­part­ments (colour cod­ing), the flu­id­ity of the traf­fic flow and in­di­ca­tions of lo­ca­tion (orig­i­nal type­face by Adrian Frutiger, ver­ti­cal read­ing of the pan­els - a ver­ti­cal­ity alas never duly re­spected) to en­sure spa­tial ex­ac­ti­tude and great­est flu­id­ity. The pro­ject un­der­scores the ar­chi­tec­ture with a su­perb and in­ter­na­tion­ally ac­knowl­edged logo cre­ated by Jean Wid­mer. Later ( in 2000 ), a new pres­i­dent of the in­sti­tu­tion sought to stamp his own trade­mark on the mu­seum by seek­ing to do away with that logo. How­ever, his in­ten­tion came to naught thanks to a flurry of pe­ti­tions and protes­ta­tions. Wid­mer's ac­claim was fur­ther as­serted thanks to his work for the Musée d'Orsay, the Jeu de Paume Mu­seum, the In­sti­tut du Monde arabe, the Li­brary of France, the Na­tional Nat­ural His­tory Mu­seum, the City of Berlin. In short, Wid­mer makes his­tory! The scope of his port­fo­lio ex­panded to in­clude pub­lic util­ity pro­jects, prompt­ing him to as­sert : " Re­la­tions with a strictly mer­can­tile world do not in­ter­est me ". Im­ages need to be last­ing, to con­tribute to con­sis­tency rather than ap­pear­ances. They be­long to a whole form­ing a lan­guage and an iden­tity. As com­pos­ite units, they en­tail both mean­ing and dis­cern­ment, use and econ­omy, time and space. Trans­mit­table, they can be re­ceived by each and every­one. Text and image unite into a "suc­cess­ful con­cept" based on re­search and de­sign. "The shape of sim­plic­ity" takes time to at­tain. Less is more. And a healthy dose of en­ergy is re­quired to im­press upon clients the need for such time, such with­drawals, in order to at­tain the right note. "Often a graphic de­signer will ask of his client: ‘What is it that you want?' That's a ques­tion I don't want to hear".

Over these many years, Wid­mer has cre­ated im­ages that are mean­ing­ful, bow­ing to rea­son and in­sist­ing on pro­duc­ing an aes­thetic, and an "artis­tic" mas­tery that is in­duced and thus never dec­o­ra­tive. He has drawn on the liv­ing Bauhaus and de Stijl sources to de­velop his own mode of ex­pres­sion. Never has he ceased to paint and "build" a neo-plas­tic art through his choice of shapes and colours. Presently, he uses draw­ing to ad­dress the third di­men­sion, cre­at­ing sculp­tures that en­ve­lope and shape space. A de­signer, a graphic artist and a vi­sual artist: he is all and each of these.
François Barré
Trans­la­tion: Margie Mounier

(1) Un­less oth­er­wise in­di­cated, the quotes stem from Jean Wid­mer's dis­cus­sion with Margo Rouard dur­ing the Jean Wid­mer, graphiste, un écol­o­giste de l'image, 1995 show at the Cen­tre Pom­pi­dou.
(2) The CCI poster that Jean Wid­mer de­signed for the 1975 ex­hi­bi­tion Couleur shows yel­low in vi­o­let, or­ange in blue and vi­o­let in yel­low.