The Daily Heller: Armin Hofmann Turns 100

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On Friday, June 26, we mourned the passing of Milton Glaser on the very day he turned 91. Today, Monday, June 29, we celebrate the birth of Armin Hofmann as he turns 100.

Hofmann has given much as artist, designer and teacher to the worlds of design and designers, about which I offer a brief analysis (below). Christopher Pullman, meanwhile, provides an appreciation about Hofmann's time teaching at Yale here.

Reaching the century milestone is a major accomplishment. It makes Swiss-born Armin Hofmann one of a small handful of postwar Modernists still around, and the last of those in the direct line from Bauhaus to the Swiss Typographic Style.

Unlike Glaser, who worked unabated to within a month of his death, Hofmann has not been able to produce as much in these later years. Yet reaching the 100-year mark is an opportunity to extol his importance as a form-giver and designer, a master of eloquent economy who rejected the cold formulaic reduction sometimes rightly associated, and other times incorrectly associated, with the '50s and '60s corporate Swiss Typography and the International Style.

Good Design, 1954

Instead he practiced a kind of complex simplicity that combines purely aesthetic and distinctly functional values. While his graphic language is comprised of radical shifts in scale, precisionist type arrangement and nimble symbolism, rooted in a Swiss rational veneer, it is nonetheless imbued with an unmistakably joyful personality underscored by nuance. Critics of the orthodox Swiss design style have accused it of being unrepentantly mannerist and formulaic, but Hofmann defies and transcends this prejudice.

Hofmann’s emblematic exhibition poster “Die Gute Form” (Good Design) is a perfect example of this. While anchored on a tight grid, the armature is invisible to the naked eye and the quality of Hofmann’s schematic typography both is fluid and playful. The letterforms are constructed with sculptural character to be both conventionally read and more mysteriously experienced. He is passionate about words. Some tell a story with only few smartly stacked, constructed and interconnected words, more than most pictorial narratives. With “Die Gute Form,” Hofmann produced an abstract entity that is immediately recognizable as both pattern and message. The viewer experiences the aesthetic virtues—a dramatic arrangement of form—which, when deciphered, is clearly readable as a conventional message and aesthetic element.

The drama that Hofmann could achieve with just a few words is even more intense when he uses only two letters. Indeed one of Hofmann’s recurring leitmotifs is the employ of two bold capitals—a modernist monogram—for a series of art exhibition posters at the Kunsthalle Basel. Each exhibition features two curiously yet harmoniously matched artists, and so for the poster, Hofmann has two immense initials sharing the same bill, such as "CL" for Fernand Leger and Alexander Calder, "BN" for Willi Baumeister and Ernst Wilhelm Nay, and "KJ" for Franz Kline and Alfred Jensen. The monograph motif transforms the traditional art poster into perceptual game. For rather than predictably reproduce representative pieces of the artists’ art (resulting in a clash of styles), Hofmann makes the initials into a trademark that not only “brands” the exhibit but forces the viewer to play along in a deciphering sport.

Franz Kline, Alfred Jensen, 1964
Fernand Leger, Alexander Calder, 1957
Willi Baumeister, Ernst Wilhelm Nay, 1960

Hofmann repudiates routine. When seen as an entire body there are inevitable consistencies of style, yet nothing in his oeuvre (certainly at the time he began his design in the early 1950s) was customary. Nothing supports this claim better than his collected posters for the Stadt Theater in Basel, which Hofmann gave an enduring identity during the late 1950s and early 1960s. These are not laden with titillating teasers or obligatory credits, nor are they overt depictions of the company’s theatrical offerings. Hofmann’s posters are often symbolic summations and iconic signifiers that introduce the audience to dramatic or musical fare while offering visual challenges. Rather than give only the facts, these posters require the audience to interpret the meanings of the images. It is not a complicated quiz, but the questions posed by such pictures as a huge ear and eye, a laughing clown or a scowling, maniacal face, among others, demand that the audience interact with the stimuli rather than remain passive receivers.

Statthater Basel, 1963
Statthater Basel, 1962

Passivity is not what Hofmann demands of his viewer nor is it part of his own vocabulary. One need only to look at (and read, of course) his 1965 Graphic Design Manual to understand that Hofmann’s design is actually animated, requiring the viewer’s eye to navigate various pathways. I’ve always felt that if he were starting his career over again today, motion might very well be his principle occupation. If there is any doubt that Hofmann’s static imagery is not jumping madly around a mental screen, simply look at the multiple rows of geometric layout options reproduced in his handbook.

Hofmann has designed typography and image for the print medium during the better part of his life, so naturally the relationship to film may not be exactly how he would choose to describe his work. But it is nonetheless clear that a kinetic sensibility has contributed to posters that transcend the inert confines of the medium. It is also the trait that despite the fact that Modernism is an imprecise/unsettling term that connotes the radical overhaul of standards of the mid-twentieth century artist, Hofmann’s kinetics make his work unequivocally Modern and undeniably his own version of that term.

To Armin Hofmann on his 100th year: Thank you for a lifetime of inspiration.