Mendell & Oberer

Mendell & Oberer

Mendell & Oberer are vestiges of a particular era when both craftsmanship and visual aesthetics were still respected parts of the design profession at its highest level.

The anachronism may be partially a result of their exceptional training; they met each other and were both visually awakened in a Swiss design institution, which still maintains an outstanding international reputation for its educational programme: the Basel School of Design. At the age of eighteen, Klaus Oberer began a graphic apprenticeship at the school. Pierre Mendell, who was a bit older, came to Switzerland from the United States. During the late 1950s they worked with the same teachers and completed the same course. There, they were able to grow and experiment in a creative laboratory of ideas under the direction of such didactic personalities as Emil Ruder and Armin Hofmann.

Advertisement for a hayfever drug, Pierre Mendell, 1963.


Certainly there were many reasons to open a studio in a city other than Basel, somewhere which had then and has now nothing to do with Switzerland. Munich is a baroque and complex metropolis with as much flourish as tradition. Everyday life is typified by Schweinshaxe and beer, and visitors pile out of tour buses to throng to the Hofbräuhaus and to be photographed in front of the city hall. The yearly calendar of events crescendos with the city’s carnival and Oktoberfest. These were not the reasons, however, to select this location to risk opening a new studio. Mendell & Oberer knew instead that there is much more to Munich: it is also a city of theatres, splendid museums, comfortable little galleries, and the internationally known English Garden. This is not the least of it; there are also factories, the industries, the art dealers, the elegant department stores, and the city residents with their high standards of culture who maintain Munich’s centuries of tradition in music and the arts. Is it not more than coincidence that even Mozart lived not far away, in Salzburg? Ultimately, the real reason to move to Munich was that Michael Engelmann, the intelligent graphic revolutionary of Germany during the 1950s and 1960s, was there. Were it not for him, Mendell & Oberer might now be in New York, Los Angeles or Sydney.

My first visit to their Munich studio was in 1963, when I was twenty-three years old. I remember it well; their work was totally unintelligible to me. At that time, I still had all the simplicity and limitations of a farming-village mentality. My visual world was conditioned by the hallowed precepts of centre-axis typography and decadent art philosophies, and the confusion of post-war poster design cluttered my mental landscape. German art professors of the era had continued to teach calligraphy, woodcut and linocut in just the same way that these subjects had been taught since the 1930s, and students like myself dutifully made symbols and designed posters with brushes and quill pens under the watchful eyes of teachers such as Brudi, Schneidler and Trump.


Swiss book design, exhibition poster, Museum for Applied Art, Munich, 1994.


Japanese packaging, exhibition poster, Museum for Applied Art, Munich, 1993.




When I was asked to write an introduction to this catalogue, I thought it would be very easy to jot down a little story about their beautiful work. I have never had so much difficulty writing about a theme. Why the problem? One of many answers could be that I am jealous of the intelligence and serene wisdom of their results. And why write stories about something that is so beautiful in its simplicity anyway? In this chaotic western world, I cannot find one other person who duplicates the language of this studio. Every piece of theirs is a masterpiece, every work is a Stradivarius. When I open a 1984–85 Form magazine and see the double-page advertisements for Schlagheck & Schultes Design, I breathe in a generosity, an intelligence, and just an eloquent minimum of typography and colour. This freshness and directness are the product of minds cleaned out by a strong thunderstorm, in which every last possible corner of graphic tastelessness and kitsch has been washed away by an unforgiving rain. No gags, no fads, no mimicry of current fashion; no ornament which makes no sense. This purity rises above the smog of the ordinary to its own level of timelessness. We see, in the final analysis, that success does not depend upon complexity. The person who looks at this work and simply dismisses it as being too cold in attitude, too intellectual, or not understandable, is someone who cannot see any more. This person’s capacity to understand the importance of abstraction has been spoiled by the world of almost-pictures, the easy illusions of television and video and magazines. This human being is tragically deafened to the intelligence of simplicity and the eloquence of minimality. And the sound of a Stradivarius is pure yet weighty indeed.

Wolfgang Weingart, 1988


Don Carlo, poster, Bavarian State Opera, 1999.


Wolfgang Weingart originally wrote this essay in 1988. Although it was not published at the time, it was given a chance in AGI’s Essays on Design 1, which appeared in 1997. Four years later, Lars Müller published At First Sight, a virtually text-free monograph on Pierre’s work. At the beginning of the book, Mendell states that he has no philosophy. His quest is for simple communicative solutions as, in addition to the furious rappers, the world is being swept by a tide of images. At the back of the book, there are brief explanations of the 145 works, and a page featuring a very short dissertation by colleague/publisher Müller. Lars declares that Pierre Mendell’s work requires no explanation, as it uses the direct language of simple images. ‘Pierre’s language is light-footed and poetic, with depth and humour. His images speak clearly, not loudly,’ says Lars. ’I therefore read Pierre’s book without words as a manifesto against visual speechlessness’. And so it is. The logos, book jackets and posters exceed the power of too many words. The metaphors and image choices seek the shortest route to the listener, thus escaping the eternal punishment of Babylon. The heart is a recurring form in Pierre’s work. It melts on wedding invitations for his friends, it breaks or ‘stares’ during the opera, it is imprisoned or portrays the strength of solidarity, it repeats into the shape of a flower, it expresses a love of design, it becomes the head of a dancer in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Pierre tends towards minimalism. A liberating breathe of fresh air in a crowded, deafening world.Wolfgang Weingart said in 2006: ‘I wish him to stay with us a very long time.’

Ben Bos, Amsterdam, 2006


Essay taken from 'AGI: Graphic Design Since 1950' by Ben & Elly Bos