The Daily Heller: Armin Hofmann’s 100 Years

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Armin Hofmann, exemplar of the Basel, Swiss approach to Modern graphic design, turned 100 on June 28. His son, Matthias Hofmann, born in 1970 in Basel, lives and works in Luzern. He is a graphic designer, publisher and musician who has contributed to the cultural scene in Luzern for decades. Since 2000, he has also taught at the Zürich School of Design and has been responsible for the design of books published by Der gesunde Menschenversand.

This book, Armin Hofmann: Reduction, Ethics, Didactics (which comes with an addendum: Design Process), is Matthias’ heartfelt and intellectually vigorous celebration of his father’s career. “In his own work,” writes Matthias, “Hofmann defied the dictates of trend and commercialism with intelligence and artistic integrity, creating visual excitement through formal simplicity and the power of symbol.” That’s good enough for me, yet he adds, “Pointing the way to ingenuity and credibility for today’s graphic designer, the relevance of Hofmann’s legacy endures in the midst of the digital explosion.”

I wish I’d had the opportunity, like so many of his students and colleagues, to have learned from Hofmann. Matthias’ book brings me close. I asked Matthias to talk a bit about his father and his living legacy.

Matthias: “a very personal shot of the whole family … I am [at] left and Armin [is] in the middle.”

Your new book on Armin Hofmann emphasizes his ethical convictions and educational principles. Would you describe how these overlap and how they developed over time?

They overlap in almost every way. As a young designer, Armin was very intuitive and, since he started teaching early in his career, at the age of 27, his professional work continually revealed his educational principles. He never separated the process of teaching from its practical application. I believe that Armin’s teaching methods were an extension of his initial instruction, which used fundamental elements—such as the exercises with point and line—and eventually developed to include semiotic themes.

You make a point of quoting Armin on the essence of reduction. How did this philosophical conviction evolve?

First, one needs to understand the time when Armin was growing up and designing his first graphics. Posters of this postwar era (the late 1940s and ’50s) were mostly colorful and attempted to portray a “happy” life. He wanted to provide a counterpoint to these surroundings. Second, reduction was Armin’s response to changes in society.

His most striking posters were often void of color (though vibrant in their own way). For some designers, “ornament is a sin.” Was color something akin to a sin for Hofmann?

No … not at all. One reason for the lack of color is that he was limited by small budgets and, unfortunately or luckily, he had to adhere to certain technical restrictions—most of his posters at that time were linocuts, printed letterpress. Armin cut the designs for the posters in linoleum in his studio and then reproduced them in the printing department at the Basel School of Design—and mostly in two halves because the press was not large enough to print the world format size. And of course, the extreme graphic contrast of black and white is what he liked! He once said: “The medium of color photography is too simple and too brilliant to be used correctly.”

Schweizer Verkehrszentrale Collage, 1965.
Swiss Tourism Center, photocollage, 1965.
Season 1961/62, Stadttheater Baesl, photolithography.

I asked that, knowing that his color studies in your book are exquisite but also very precise, which suggests he wanted to control color. Is that a correct assumption?

The quiet “precision” of the geometric form carries the color but does not interfere with it. If this is what is meant by precise, then it is this very precision that amplifies and actually gives free rein to the more subtle and sometimes surprising play of color relationships. Armin’s color studies investigated the hidden poetry of artistic-aesthetic perception, whereas most other color theories have attempted to analyze color based on measurable phenomena. Armin sees his color portfolio as a “teacher’s statement of accounts.” He wanted to give a wider audience an overview of what he had taught at Yale and in Brissago. In short, I don’t believe it was Armin’s desire to “control” color; rather, his desire to communicate that color is a language.

Season 1962/63, Stadttheater Baesl, photolithography.

He says he has no interest in dogma, but wouldn’t you agree that within his parameters that his work implies a certain philosophical discipline, which might be construed as dogma?

Dogma is a blind acceptance of established conventions; philosophy is a quest for knowledge. A “philosophical discipline,” as you’ve described Hofmann’s oeuvre, implies his lifelong striving towards a deeper level of awareness, which is why he preferred to speak about attitude. His commitment to this insight demanded discipline, a quality that he instilled in his students. By comparison, as one can see in Müller-Brockmann, Lohse or Neuburg’s design work, these “modernists” dogmatically pursued mathematical coherence, in deference to the precepts of the constructive-concrete artists in Zürich. Armin is an individualist, probably because of his drawing background.

At 100 years old, Armin is the last of the great Midcentury Swiss Modernists. How would you like his legacy to be remembered?

As a vivid eye-opener … free from conceptual boundaries and, for me, expressing a timeless sense for design.