54 years as an AGI member
54 years as an AGI member
We ought to ask the Guinness Book of Records for recognition. Olle Eksell (born in 1918) was invited to be an AGI member in 1952, along with five of his fellow countrymen, and is now our oldest, in terms of the duration of his membership. Walter Allner (USA), who died in 2006, was born in 1909 and was a member from 1963. In spite of such a long lifetime, dear old Walter never had a chance of beating Olle’s record.
Neutral Sweden fortunately escaped from direct involvement in the Second World War. This also meant that they could stay in contact with the USA during those black years. Designers could even receive the American magazines and see with their own eyes that professional heaven was located in the US! There was no such thing as a real design university in Sweden. The Swedish Academy is the institute that chooses the Nobel prizewinners, and there was (and is) academic provision for the fine arts and music. Design students could attend the Konstfackskolan, a National College of Arts & Crafts and Design. It has now become a full degree course, but there and then, ‘Konstfack’ was simply not demanding enough and too old-fashioned.
Feeling that they had been kept too far below the ‘heavenly level’ of the US, some young Swedes desperately wanted to go west, to join in singing the gospel of American design. A Swedish friend, who had gone to Los Angeles before the war, made a list of the best schools for them. He came up with the Pratt Institute in New York, the New Bauhaus in Chicago and the Art Center School in Los Angeles. It was at the latter that the ambitious young Swedes were accepted for 1946–47: fantastic! They studied day and night, arrived at 8 a.m. to get the best tables, and worked, worked, worked. They spent only two seasons there, but harvested for five. The Art Center was too expensive, however; they simply couldn’t afford to stay any longer. One of these students was Olle Eksell.
When you scan Henrion’s AGI Annals carefully, there are several pictures on which Olle can be found. The long list of his frequent participations ends in the year 2000, at the memorable Oaxaca Mexico congress!
I remember his presence in Amsterdam 1986, in Blois 1990 and of course also in Mexico.
At home Olle Eksell was a member of several design-related organizations. An active member, but never ‘on the committee’. Those he detests.
He was not too enthusiastic when AGI kept growing in numbers, preferring the intimate charms of smaller clubs. Sweet memories of the times when he knew them all, when it still really was a club of friends. Whenever a member would come to Stockholm, it also meant coming for dinner. (Well, Olle, for me that’s still the practice of today’s AGI: I have always had many members at my dinner table and I am still often their guest, all over the world. Even in these times of a large AGI. – BB).
Yet, when AGI celebrated its 25th anniversary in Venice (1977) Ruthel and Olle stayed in the worst hotel they’d ever experienced. The congress was fabulous and so were the great dinner parties. An editor of art books from Milan, who owned a beautiful old Venetian palazzo, invited them one evening at ten. A gondola picked up Olle and Ruthel. The palazzo was modernized and very beautiful. Two old servants, dressed up for the occasion, served traditional Venetian drinks: pink, light blue and white. When Ruthel remarked to the hostess: ‘What a beautiful home this is!’, she responded: ‘My poor little house, it’s nothing...’ Being there, however, had been an extraordinary experience.
I asked how it could be explained that – after a start with quite a few Swedish members – there never came a later generation of the same volume. Olle thinks it is due to the way that people work in the Swedish communication world. In that country there are always ‘agencies’ and no personal names up front. Some of the early Swedish members soon couldn’t afford the membership anymore and left. Some others died young or simply lost interest.
Olle was an admirer of the great graphic designers from America; he felt that Sweden was always many steps behind. He organized an exhibition at the National Museum, showing the work of seven or eight American masters. Paul Rand was one of them, and Olle and he became close friends, feeling that they had much in common, and that they were identical thinkers.
Eksell was always very original, always coming up with brand new ideas, ahead of all the others. It was not always immediately appreciated – people often thought his ideas were crazy. Twenty years later they recognized that he had simply been a genius. The problem is that late discoveries of this kind don’t buy your daily bread....
I asked him if he painted. The answer was no. But then I saw his collages for Publicity, and they were finely done in watercolours. I call that painting, and he did it well. He also made a lot of iron sculptures. His graphic design includes strong logos, fine (and often humorous) illustrations, tasteful packaging and exhibition designs, and textile patterns. He also worked as an author, and wrote six books. For 17 years he contributed design articles to the cultural section of Aftonbladet, a Swedish daily evening paper. His writings also appeared in Domus, Gebrauchsgraphik, Graphis and other foreign magazines. The genius Olle wrote his book Design and Economy in 1964. Not a single devil bought it at that time, but later it became a cult title!
AGI brought the couple their friends, some books and an exchange of ideas. Olle remained enchanted by American design. British design and German design – from the East as well as from the West – also scored very highly in his opinion. Paul Rand shared these feelings,and also had great admiration for the German contribution to graphic design: ‘Absolutely the best...’ Olle always found it inspiring to meet colleagues, but he remained himself: he did everything his own way, and never copied the work of others.
He was never a teacher. He couldn’t really talk about the work. In fact he only ‘talked’ with the keyboard of his typewriter. Then he was at ease, then he could, of course, explain it all in writing.
I asked about acceptance of graphic design within Swedish society, the big companies for instance. ‘Leading Swedish international companies, they never cared.’ As for IKEA (Brindfors worked for them. – DJ), Olle wouldn’t know. SAS Airlines went long ago to the USA, to Walter Landor Corp. And so did Åhléns: ‘Saab never asked us.’
Olle became good friends with Walter Landor. They went to see his enormous office, twice as big as Hötorget, a well-known open space in central Stockholm. Later Landor bought an old paddle-steamer with one hundred rooms for his one hundred employees. Upstairs was the captain’s cabin, where Landor exhibited his work and constantly asked ‘Which one is the best, which is the worst?’
Looking back at his career, the Mazetti project (the one with the famous Two Eyes logotype) was Olle’s absolute favourite. Mazetti were a firm who made sweets and candies. Olle and Mazetti’s manager were the same age, had the same spirit, the same visions and ideas. They inspired each other. It was almost like a love affair. Olle designed not only 25 very attractive packages, but also the candies themselves, and Mazetti developed new machines to produce them. The firm was owned by a high-society family from Malmö. It all came to a sudden end, but the manager was given a ‘golden parachute’ when he was fired. He and Olle remained friends for the next 40 years. A new manager asked Olle to come back and start over again. But he said: ‘No!’ It could have been fantastic, but it crashed.
The interest in graphic design was very, very low in Sweden for most of the 20th century. (I think this sounds like Jacques Richez’s desperate attempts to get the profession recognized in Belgium, another country where the advertising agencies always dominated the scene. – BB). For a long time, Swedish design was only associated with glassware, silver, textiles, furniture and product design. US and UK advertising agencies set the climate in Sweden, and graphic design was for a long time the loser. Luckily, things have gone better in recent times.
Eksell has had no solo exhibitions at the most important museums in the country, the National Museum and the Modern Museum; he has only participated in group events. However, he did have a retrospective exhibition at the Form Design Centre in Malmö (1999), which attracted 17,300 visitors. It was broadcast on TV, and ten of the leading newspapers from Malmö, Stockholm and Växsjö gave this touring exhibition a full page of their attention. It seems that Olle had to reach his eighties to become a celebrity at long last.
It was Dan Jonsson of the AGI who helped Olle to the title of Professor. In Sweden, this state-awarded title has the same value as becoming a ‘Sir’ in England. (The same honour has been granted to Abba musician Benny Anderson, opera singer Birgit Nilsson and film director Ingmar Bergman.) Olle Eksell is the only member of the graphic design profession to have been awarded this honour. Nowadays design students wait on his doorstep, wanting to work on projects about him. Magazines still send reporters: four have come from Japan over the past two years for interviews. Olle’s book is in production in Tokyo. It will be 240 pages, in Japanese, and published in quite a large print run. His fabric design Margret Rose is now available worldwide in the form of ‘art pillows’.
Olle Eksell has had a very long, outstanding design career in a civilized country that for too long failed to understand graphic design and will – I feel – not soon have another chance of hosting an AGI congress or major design exhibition, to follow the first one in Helsingborg, 1955, arranged by Anders Beckman, when he and Olle Eksell had been members of the newborn AGI for only three years.
This essay is a real co-production with Åse Marstrander and Dan Jonsson, Ruth and Olle Eksell, all from Stockholm. We exchanged questions and answers, calls, e-mails and faxes.
I thank my Swedish AGI friends and their dear wives for their help and dedication.
Ben Bos, Amsterdam, 2006
Essay taken from 'AGI: Graphic Design Since 1950' by Ben & Elly Bos