Armin Hofmann at Yale: a Retrospective
Updated: Jul 2
Armin Hofmann’s remarkable 100th birthday seems like a good time to acknowledge that Yale was lucky to have established an early and long-lasting friendship with this masterful teacher. His regular workshops in the Yale MFA Design program through the ’70s and ’80s significantly broadened and deepened the school’s ideas about form-making and visual communication. His personal influence was aided by a succession of graduates from his Allgemeine Gewerbeschule Basel School of Art and Crafts program, augmenting an already powerful list of instructors at Yale and offering an alternative way of teaching and learning.
The Yale program began in 1950 with the encouragement of Josef Albers, who had recently become Dean of the School of Art (which he quickly renamed the School of Design to differentiate it from the moribund Beaux Art school he inherited).
The new program was chaired by Alvin Eisenman, who gathered an impressive list of practicing professionals, starting with Alvin Lustig and Norman Ives, and followed by Herbert Matter, Bradbury Thompson, John Hill, Paul Rand, plus a long list of impressive visitors, including Armin Hofmann.
Hofmann’s first visit to Yale was in 1957, but he didn’t return until 1967. Because of this gap, as a graduate student in the program from 1963–1966, I never actually experienced Hofmann directly as a teacher. I learned about him and his educational method when his book, Graphic Design Manual, showed up in the studio in 1965.
This book, along with an earlier publication, The Graphic Artist and His Design Problems by Joseph Müller-Brockmann, fascinated us and gave us a tantalizing view of Swiss design in two flavors: Müller-Brockmann was highly structured, geometric, cool and focused on professional practice applications, and Hofmann was lyrical, warmer, intuitive, focused on personal visual exploration and formal hand skills.
By the early ’60s, Swiss Modernist design and typography was well-known and admired by many American designers, including students and faculty at Yale. Herbert Matter, after all, was one of the early pioneers of Modernism. Paul Rand was particularly smitten with the Swiss ideas and developed a long friendship with Müller-Brockmann, inviting him to critiques of the design program at IBM. Alongside Müller-Brockmann’s book, our exposure to Swiss design came from Rand’s curiosity, which we felt through his teaching. As a result, our conception of Swiss Modernism in the mid-’60s was primarily of the more austere, grid-oriented flavor; Hoffmann’s book and its student examples offered a tantalizing new direction.
When I graduated in 1966, I was asked to teach in the program (a role I continue to this day) and a traveling fellowship took me across Europe, where I met as many design luminaries as I could cram in. Including Hofmann.
Two years later, I made arrangements with him to visit the Basel School of Art and Crafts for six weeks in the summer to experience and evaluate its educational approach.
It was very different from what I had known at Yale. Long, quiet classes of students drawing and painting day after day on the same piece of board. It was all about process and observation, not about the finished thing.
During the visit I met André Gürtler, who taught letterform design, a skill not represented at Yale at the time, and invited him to teach a semester in 1970. That same year, at Hofmann's suggestion, Dan Friedman became the first of several graduates of the Basel school to teach at Yale. He brought not only the influence of Hofmann but also of Wolfgang Weingart, who began teaching at Basel in 1968 (the same year Friedman arrived). His playful and off-kilter ideas about typography would evolve into the “New Wave” typography of the ’80s.
Weingart teaching in his first year at Basel, 1968
Friedman (at left in the black hat) with his Yale students, 1974
In 1974, Inge Druckrey joined the faculty and for 10 years brought her gentle, observation-based teaching to Yale’s students. Then in 1982 another exceptional Basel graduate, Philip Burton, taught and administered in the program for nine years while also coordinating and teaching in Hofmann’s summer program in Brissago, Switzerland.
Burton, far left with glasses, and Hofmann engaged in a Yale workshop, 1988. Photo: Matthew Gaynor
Druckrey in her Yale studio
After being a periodic visitor to the Yale program, Hofmann began in 1970 an unbroken 20-year string of one- to two-week–long workshops where his contemplative, self-directed version of making forms and giving them meaning became a regular part of the Yale experience: slow down, look closely, learn to draw. Druckrey notes that Hofmann’s exercises in seeing and mixing colors harked back to Albers’ famous course that all Yale art and design students took to observe how colors interact with each other.
So it was not just the content of these courses but also the manner of teaching that contrasted with the traditional Yale model. From the beginning, Albers had advocated that the teachers in the new design program should be drawn from the best professional practitioners in the field. Unlike Rand and Matter and Thompson and the others who would come in one day a week for “crits,” the Basel model was to be present during the making process, to observe and advise and comment as it was happening, not just after the fact. The presence of Hofmann and his proteges provided our students with a complementary model of teaching and learning that definitely shaped the Yale program (and in turn the profession) in the two decades from 1970–1990.
Hofmann at Yale, late 1960s
By then, Hofmann was well-known and respected throughout the design and design education world, as was Weingart, April Greiman and a host of other Basel graduates. Already by the late ’80s, the trend line was away from the rigid and spare typography of the hardcore Swiss variety and toward a more expressive and personal direction (think Cranbrook, David Carson, Ed Fella, et al.) that could be traced back to Weingart and, ultimately, to Hofmann.