AGI History in the 1980s
New Waves Violating Old Rules
Rolf Müller was the organizer and his achievements were commendable. The main dish on the menu was the personal presentation without words with, as ‘non-speakers’, Shigeo Fukuda, Franco Grignani, Marte Röling, Arnold Schwartzman and Anton Stankowski. The advantage of these performances was that work had to speak for itself in the absence of the usual ex-Babylonian exercises from word-wizard Henrion. This form was often repeated in subsequent years. Arnold turned it into a small-scale life story, to the accompaniment of music.
Fukuda’s slides portrayed him clearly, with all his crazy, inventive ideas. Grignani and Stankowski made it plain how many wonderful things a long career in our profession can generate. Marte stole the show: her ‘flying team’ had rushed over from Holland in one night and built up a battery of multimedia equipment in the arena of the congress complex in the blink of an eye – she gave her astonishing presentation – and the ‘helpers’ took everything down again just as quickly and rushed off home again, leaving everyone utterly astounded. There was a prefab exhibition set-up, where all the members could exhibit the works they had brought with them. And a new ingredient was added to the congress recipe: the members were required to produce an instant piece of work. Masks were the chosen theme for this première. On the spot, often with a hand from Günther Kieser, the designers ‘constructed’ their own mask, which was captured on Polaroid, later to be seen again in Graphis. That was a wonderfully inspiring event in itself.
1981: back together in Prague. With Russian occupiers still in the oppressed city and an economy plagued by the strictly controlled borders, hosting the AGI congress in the beautiful, but dejected city was a major feat for our Czech friends, under the direction of Stanislav Kovár. Despite the oppression, the congress participants were able to see the rich cultural treasures from better times. Baroque architecture galore, ecclesiastical grandeur, gothic, Prague Castle with its museum full of fantastic antiques. The walkway to the old Jewish cemetery in the middle of the city took on the fleeting ambiance of dark skies and a heavy rain shower. There was an excursion to a Museum of the Book, which was some way away; the coach was not allowed to go faster than 70 km/h and no amount of promises on our behalf to pay any speeding fines fell on deaf ears. Yet more baroque in a little church designed by the famous architect Jan Santini.That year’s silent slide-shows came from Heather Cooper, Ernst Roch, Richard Hess and me. In general, they were about more than just design. Herb Lubalin had died in the spring of 1981 and was remembered warmly.
At the end of the congress, there was a big surprise: Josef Svoboda of the ‘Laterna Magika’ and his unbelievable theatrical techniques finally appeared from the wings. None of the foreigners had ever had a chance to meet him. Worse still, some people thought he didn’t exist and was merely one of his own magical creations! Walter Allner called out: ‘So he is real!’ That evening we were treated to a visit to his enchanted theatre and a glass of his wine. Wine, real Pilsner, and lots of rich food in dark cellars are among our recollections of Prague, except in those cases where these were enjoyed to the point where there were those who have no idea how they got back to the hotel, let alone how we managed to leave Prague in good health. This was the decade of seminars. Paris 1981: an audience of 350 (80 percent students) from 20 design schools listened attentively to Paul Davis and Saul Bass (USA), Alan Fletcher and FHK Henrion (UK) and Shigeo Fukuda (Japan), leaving a varied impression of our many-faceted profession.
A year later, it was Paris’s turn again. This time, the École Supérieure des Arts Graphiques was the venue. Otl Aicher (Germany), Adrian Frutiger (Switzerland), Seymour Chwast (USA) and Bruno Monguzzi (Switzerland) performed under Henrion’s direction.
In 1982, the AGI congress was held in Montreal. Prior to the event, 500 students in Toronto saw and heard a string of prominent AGI members over the space of three days, organized by Robert Burns (Canada), in collaboration with York University. James Cross, Wim Crouwel, Alan Fletcher, Shigeo Fukuda, Henrion, Richard Hess, Woody Pirtle, Henry Steiner, Massimo Vignelli, Jim Donoahue, Rolf Harder and Burton Kramer lectured on design.
The Montreal congress was the excellent handiwork of Rolf Harder, Ernst Roch and Jean Morin. The ‘slides without words’ were presented this time by Walter Allner (‘from Bauhaus to Fortune’), Fukuda (with Kabuki theatre masks) and Rolf Müller, who took us on a virtual trip to his studio in Munich. There was a coach tour through Montreal, with a visit to the Olympic sites, and a champagne déjeuner sur l’herbe in the garden of the National Museum, laid on by the city. Everyone signed the guest book. The AGI poster show hung in the lobby of Place Ville-Marie. The collection, old and new and from half the world, inspired Rudi de Harak’s AGI Poster Book 1960–1985, published in 1986. The National Film Board of Canada showed films and Gunter Rambow projected posters by Rambow, Lienemeyer and Van de Sand.
In 1983, AGI, Icograda and the Amsterdam Gerrit Rietveld Academy cooperated in a huge seminar. Again a full house of 500 students, listening to heavy discussions on form and content. On the stage were greats from design education: Jurriaan Schrofer, Wim Crouwel, Jan van Toorn, Ootje Oxenaar, Anthon Beeke and Simon den Hartog (The Netherlands), flanked by the great Swiss innovator Wolfgang Weingart, the German Gunter Rambow and the Pole Waldemar Swierzy. These teachers’ objectives and ideals often differed dramatically.Where, with Crouwel, the emphasis was on exact designing (developing skills, theory and general knowledge), Van Toorn attached the greatest importance to the social context of working in this profession. They did, however, agree about the responsibility of the designer. Rambow felt it is the designer’s task to discover forms of ‘Utopian hope’.
At the conclusion of the discussion, Van Toorn made it clear that it is important to listen to people with a different view. It is then up to the student to make his or her own decisions. Beeke focused on the process, which is more important while studying than the presented result. Oxenaar was anxious that technology should not get in the way of creativity. On the other hand, there is no reason to fear new techniques, which provide a vast source of surprises. Schrofer stressed the generous dose of intellect the discipline demands: ‘A designer must be an Uomo Universale’.
Gargonza welcomed AGI ‘84 in the early spring. The members and their guests gathered in a 13th-century castle village on a hilltop in the magnificent Tuscan countryside. Alan Fletcher was now Chairman. Unfortunately, the capacity of the construction was insufficient to accommodate the numerous delegates and some had to repair to hotels in Arezzo, which was no hardship, incidentally. The Belgian artist Benoît Jacques made a drawn report, which was later published as a souvenir sketchbook, with the support of a number of sponsors, including Pentagram. Milton Glaser confessed to the many ‘quotes’ in his work; elaborations on the exemplary work and ideas of great predecessors. Gert Dumbar showed his studio’s work. Hans Hillmann, Waldemar Swierzy, Heinz Waibl and Massimo Vignelli gave presentations. The ‘compulsory contribution’ to this congress was a self-concocted flag. These were hung in the ‘knights’ hall’, plentiful, colourful and quite lovely to behold, and were auctioned off at the end. I did not really agree with the F.C. Barcelona club flag – after all, that was not a true AGI design. Olivetti sponsored a wonderful little book, 12 grafici dell’AGI.
Alisal was the name of the Californian ranch where AGI pitched its annual camp in 1985. The nearest neighbour was none other than Ronald Reagan! The starting shot was fired beforehand in LA, where the local branch of the AIGA provided us with a seafood dinner. A reception at the Temporary Contemporary Museum, where the AGI projected its works of art over the heads of the 300-strong audience, concluded the opening evening. Many of the participants used the following day to travel through the lovely county of Santa Barbara to Alisal. The real work began with Woody Pirtle’s slide show on the lifestyles and work of US AGI members. Over the days that followed, there were talks by Schwartzman, Federico, Wolf, Medina, Blechman, Pla-Narbona, Geissbuhler, Peters and Henrion. The exhibitions were of the posters from the Napoli 99 projects and the self-portraits requested specially for the occasion. Participants were challenged to sketch each other during their stay at the ranch. All this was washed down with a great variety of Californian wines and Mexican cocktails and accompanied by barbecue and chilli dinners and plenty of loud folk music!
One of the breakfasts was only accessible if you climbed on a horse and trudged through the hills to the campfire. I had just discovered that getting older means there are things you resolve never to attempt. Like learning Finnish, taking cello lessons or even going horse riding. After signing a document declaring that I would not sue anybody if the horse threw me, driven by hunger I plucked up the courage for the ride there and back again. And at my time of life, that is the end of it. Oh, and I almost forgot, during our warm welcome at Saul and Elaine Bass’s studio, the car Jelle and I had hired was stolen. The LA police helped us get a new one within the hour. During the congress we sketched each other. The harvest was presented in a nice little booklet.
1986 was the year of frequent plane hijacks and the enormous ecological drama of Chernobyl. The destructive nuclear rains also washed away numerous US tickets to AGI Holland; there were some 40 no-shows! Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum devoted a small honorary exhibition to Willem Sandberg, who had died in 1984. It was there that the starting shot was fired for that year’s congress. We were transported in a steamboat that had once belonged to Queen Wilhelmina to Weesp, where the mayor and the fanfare were awaiting us on a red carpet leading to the big Marte Röling & Co. studio, for a candle-lit Indonesian meal and piano accompaniment from maestro Louis van Dijk. The nocturnal trip to a hotel in Oosterbeek. The Kröller-Müller Museum, with its vast sculpture garden and the nearby monumental St Hubertus hunting castle, which had lent its auditorium for the presentations and the members’ meeting. There were talks by Pieter Brattinga (on the Netherlands’ role in the history of graphic design) and Deborah Sussman (on the decoration of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics). There was a sun-drenched excursion to the scenic Betuwe region. Lunch under the blossoming cherry trees. Ootje Oxenaar was holding an exhibition in the area in the gallery De Kijkschuur and told the story of the Dutch Post Office (PTT) and his unique banknotes. Jelle van der Toorn talked about CAD. Kurt Wirth about Carigiet. There was a long film about Herbert Bayer. Cycling is a Dutch sport that became international around the Kröller-Müller. The Italians surprised us with a charming booklet, Omaggio all’Olanda. The final dinner was given in Doorwerth Castle (dating from 1280), with entertainment from a group of modern dancers directed by Ingeborg Bos. The gorgeous, efficient congress crew also received a great deal of praise.
The students had held their AGI seminar in Amsterdam’s Rietveld Academy, including a wonderful performance by 76-year-old Leo Lionni, who had lived in the Netherlands as a child and now, to everyone’s amazement, had quickly supplemented his vocabulary with the most current youth lingo. Ken Cato had cancelled, but the 300 students were treated to a spontaneous show, ‘Vignelli from A to Z’, as a superb replacement.
On the other side of the Atlantic the students were welcomed to a seminar in the New York Grand Hyatt Hotel. For 1987, AGI had lined up Massimo Vignelli, Colin Forbes, Seymour Chwast, April Greiman and Ootje Oxenaar. Massimo was now the new international president. He opened the seminar with a speech in which he stressed the importance of the historical and social context of design. The speakers had been given the theme of the approach and results of their commissions. Oxenaar, with his range of unique Dutch banknotes and his responsibility for the artistic commissions for the Dutch Post Office, earned great admiration.
The AGI Congress for that year was, once again, situated on a mountaintop: Bürgenstock, near Lucerne. It had become a new custom for the hosting country to profile itself in the presentations. Armin Hofmann gave a talk on the entire development of the Swiss poster tradition. Anton Stankowski harked back to the pre-war period in which he contributed to the birth of ‘Swiss Design’. Adrian Frutiger told us the story of his Univers. Ruedi Külling spoke of the great service of Walter ‘Graphis’ Herdeg, who then received a standing ovation from the congress participants. In the evening, Ruedi Rüegg came up with a wonderful nightcap: the story of the numerous Swiss design migrants who, like missionaries, blazed a trail of top quality across the world.
The next day was devoted to Swiss design education. Wolfgang Weingart with his experiments with new equipment in Basel, Bruno Monguzzi (Lugano) with the accent on the ideas, Ernst Hiestand, who was experimenting in Zürich with self-education – something you would not really expect from the Swiss. Together, we all produced an AGI cookery book: a binder of our own culinary tips, such as – what else? – Saul Bass’s Striped Bass. The Swiss had set up an exhibition of all the covers of Graphis for the entire period of 40 years. In the evening, April Greiman gave a spectacular performance with ‘The Today of Tomorrow’. The show was in sharp contrast to Jan Rajlich’s presentation of the Warsaw Biennale. Heinz Waibl commemorated Giulio Cittato, who had died six months earlier, a talented, amiable young designer. We had also lost the Swede Martin Gavler. Pieter Brattinga presented a booklet of his speech from the previous year on the Dutch contribution to graphic design. All in all, we had a great time on the mountaintop. A wonderful programme. And then there was the trip on Lake Lucerne in an old paddle steamer.
In 1988, there was another student seminar in New York, at Cooper Union, this time under the title ‘Sequential Design’. Henrion organized the seminar and was chairman. Arthur Paul, Milton Glaser, Matthew Carter, Paul Davis and Lou Dorfsman spoke. 300 US students and lecturers, plus an army of British colleagues came to listen and watch.
The meeting in Tokyo, 1988, was a great adventure for all those who had to come a long way. AGI treated the students, teachers and the general public to a 2-day pre-conference event at the IBM Tokyo Headquarters. Colin Forbes presented the work of many designers around the world and Grapus showed a selection of their designs for cultural institutions in France. Henry Steiner talked about the interaction between cultures in Hong Kong and Massimo Vignelli gave a presentation about 2D and 3D work. Kamekura presented his corporate identity and corporate culture works.
Drum rolls accompanied the opening session of this congress that was to become one of the most memorable so far. The Japanese hosts demonstrated their great talents in a broad field of design: from interiors to graphics, from furniture to architecture and fashion. Eiko, Ando, Isosaki, Issey Miyake, Kamekura, Shigeru Uchida, and Ikko Tanaka were highlighted. The Art Directors Club showed the selected posters of young Saito and other outstanding designers. A boat tour and, of course, the Japanese-style dinner concluded a glorious day.
On the second day Nagai gave a lecture on 40 years of graphic design in Japan and the new AGI members Pierre Bernard and Gérard Paris-Clavel presented their philosophy and work: solid involvement and political commitment. It was a stimulating, yet controversial injection into the hitherto Helvetica-dominated AGI. In the evening there were presentations of fantastic calligraphy and TV commercials (Eiko Ishioka and Katsumi Asaba). More fashion appeared on stage the next morning: Ikko Tanaka and Takenobu Igarashi had been producing the graphics for top textile designers. At the members’ meeting, Jacqui Morgan presented a slide show in memory of Tomás Gonda, who had recently passed away. James Cross was elected as international president of AGI. AGI Tokyo had been a great, overwhelming treat for some 90 members and guests.
Alpbach revisited, 1989. We met in the Neue Sammlung in Munich, a favourite spot for poster lovers. ‘Captain’ Rolf Müller and his crew put the party on the bus and packed them off, out of the country: Alpbach is in Austria. The Böglerhof, where we were staying, dates back to 1470 and was both an inn and a law court. The first evening started harmoniously with Annette Brattinga at the grand piano and Bach’s Italian Concerto BWV 971; she was to perform several times more during AGI Alpbach. The following morning (Saturday) was spent taking a short ‘low alpine’ walk. In the afternoon, German students showed the work they had produced for their finals and there was a puzzle slide show: who made what? Each participant had brought two slides along for the puzzle. In the evening, there was the first of the six usual ‘presentations without words’. Who gave it, we no longer know.
Sunday was a long session. A series of 8 to 10 international experts (philosophers, poets, lawyers) debated the issue of truth and lies in photography. Monday was reserved for major issues: the morning for the members’ meeting and the afternoon for ‘constructing headgear’ and FHK Henrion’s presentation of his long-awaited book, AGI Annals, the predecessor of this book. Henri gave the first copy to AGI chairman James Cross. The book was largely his baby: he wrote it, gathered all the information, designed it and took care of its realization. John McConnell and Henri’s own Marion Wesel had supported him over the years it had taken to write the book. A mammoth task, certainly in the light of his seriously ailing health. A unique moment in the history of AGI. The boxes were opened and everyone was delighted.
The hat show that followed surpassed Ascot and New York’s Easter Parade in all respects. Just leave it to AGI... To round off Alpbach there was the opportunity to go into the mountains with a guide or to wander through Vienna for a couple of days under the wing of Georg Schmid.
In the tradition of the ‘slides without words’ presentations during the congresses, at the end of the 1980s AGI started publishing a series of ‘yearbooks’, in which members could show examples of their recent work. The initiative began in 1988 and continued in 89–90 and 90–91. In 1989, Marte Röling (Netherlands) was the first AGI member to park a real Starfighter in her grounds, in exchange for a series of her great graphic works for the Royal Dutch Air Force.