1933: An Amazing Year for Graphic Design in Italy
This text is an updated version of the essay Swiss Style Made in Italy: Graphic Design across the Border, published in Mapping Graphic Design History in Switzerland, edited by Robert Lzicar and Davide Fornari, Triest Verlag, Zurich 2016. 1933 was the year that had the most substantial and lasting influence on Italian graphic design: besides the above-mentioned foundation of the magazine Campo Grafico, 1. Dradi 1973. Antonio Boggeri opened his own agency, Albe Steiner started his career, Alexander Schawinsky emigrated to Italy and Paul Renner curated the German pavilion at the Milan Triennale.
In that same year, Paul Renner was forced to resign from his role as director of the Graphische Berufsschulein Munich, where he had invited Jan Tschichold as a teacher in 1926. Renner organised the German pavilion in Milan, which represented the Berlin section of the Werkbund, under the control of emissaries of the Nazi government. 2. Burke 1998. The impact of that participation, which was awarded a diploma of honour, was described by Edoardo Persico: “At the Milan Triennale, only the German exhibition, limited to essays of graphic design, and the Swedish exhibition […] are up to date with European style. Noting how typographic composition in Germany is heading towards balances and rhythms that exist independently from the written content, would be enough to understand how this graphic expressionism goes together with the liveliest taste in modern art. […] In 1936, we may not see Paul Renner in Milan, nor any of his fellows who made the revolution in modern architecture.” 3. Polano and Vetta 2003: 124. It is no coincidence that in that same year Casabella, the leading Italian architecture magazine founded in 1928, designed a new heading, set in Futura, with a layout based on double pages instead of single pages for the first time in Italy. 4. Fioravanti, Passarelli and Sfligiotti 1997: 72–73.
The year 1933 is significant for Germany, and by reflection for Switzerland and Italy, due to the wave of arrests for Kulturbolschewismus. While Paul Renner opted for a sort of “inner migration” featuring a silent critical presence in Germany, Jan Tschichold moved to Basel with his family in August after being arrested in spring and losing his job as a lecturer in Munich. His life in Basel was “a situation of continuous anguish, until he was granted the Swiss citizenship in 1942.” 5. Polano and Vetta 2003: 92.
Alexander “Xanti” Schawinsky (Basel 1904 – Locarno 1979), born into a family of Polish immigrants of Jewish descent, a multitalented student at the Bauhausin Weimar and in Dessau, had already been prosecuted for political reasons in 1931, when the city of Magdeburg gave him the task of managing visual communication in a variety of public sectors. 6. Holz 1981; Fagone and Nielsen 1981; Hahn 1986; Scimé 1997; Hollis 2006: 22; Gygax and Munder 2015. In 1933, he decided to move to Italy: his arrival represented the first diaspora of the knowledge developed at the Bauhaus. The use of photomontage by László Moholy-Nagy and the new typography developed by Herbert Bayer and others aroused the interest of professionals in Italy. Schawinsky found support in the recently founded agency of Antonio Boggeri, 7. “The meeting with Xanti Schawinsky was made possible by a manager at Alfieri & Lacroix, who had suggested Studio Boggeri to the Swiss artist as [he considered it] the only agency where his training would have been allowed to express itself” (Fioravanti, Passarelli and Sfligiotti 1997: 77). and worked both for the studio and as a freelance for the following three years for a large number of industrial clients: Olivetti, Illy, Cinzano, San Pellegrino, Motta, Coty, Cappellificio Cervo, Tudor. 8. Shapira 1979.
According to critics, the presence in Milan of Schawinsky compensated for the lack of graphic design schools in Italy, and attracted to Studio Boggeri a generation of young Italian designers, such as Muratore, Veronesi, Munari, Castagnedi, Grignani, Nizzoli, Carboni. 9. Barbieri 2023. In the same way, Schawinsky helped Boggeri in the exploration of the Swiss scene: together they travelled to Zurich in 1935 to meet Hans Finsler, a photographer and teacher at the Kunstgewerbeschule. 10. Hollis 2006: 22. Not only did Schawinsky master a variety of design and drawing techniques, but he also introduced them into Italian design culture: the use of coloured hatches and photomontage are two of the most significant outputs of Schawinsky’s brief yet intense stay in Italy. 11. Fioravanti, Passarelli and Sfligiotti 1997: 76–79.
Schawinsky met Marinetti and De Chirico, whose influence can be found in the Surrealist turn of his artistic works towards the 1940s. The context of his work for public clients, particularly for the Fascist Party, remains to be clarified as these posters apparently contradict the fact that Schawinsky left Europe due to the political situation in Italy. He first moved to London in 1935 to marry Irene von Debschitz, and eventually relocated to the USA in 1936, where he was invited by Josef Albers to teach at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. 12. The Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Bologna, in collaboration with the Bauhaus-Archiv, devoted an exhibition to Schawinsky’s work in 1975 (Solmi 1975). Waibl included Schawinsky in his book The Roots of Italian Visual Communication (Waibl 1988: 80–81). Concerning the departure of Schawinsky from Europe, I adopted the chronology established by the Xanti Schawinsky Estate.
Also in 1936, Max Bill curated the Swiss pavilion at the 6th Milan Triennale. The participation aroused the interest of the community of Milan-based designers, first of all for “the professionalism and level of specialisation of Swiss graphic designers,” but also because graphic design in Switzerland was a well-defined profession, with schools, remits and identity, unlike the situation in Italy. 13. Vinti 2013: 31–32.
Studio Boggeri: Max Huber and the Other Swiss Designers
During those crucial years, Antonio Boggeri (Pavia 1900 – Santa Margherita Ligure 1989) established his name as an advocate of a modern style in graphic design, marking a break with the tradition of poster design and illustration applied to chromolithography. 14. Fossati and Sambonet 1974; Monguzzi 1981. Boggeri was invited to direct the Alfieri & Lacroix print house in Milan, bought by Antonio Crespi who served in the military with him. In this company, Boggeri was able to experiment printing and photography techniques, before founding his own agency, taking inspiration from the principles of Die neue Typographie by Tschichold. 15. Höger 2007: 41. Studio Boggeri offered to the growing number of industrial clients in Italy an innovative setting: a group of professionals able to manage advertising from concept to production. 16. Boggeri and Monguzzi 2005. Besides the young designers attracted by Schawinsky’s presence, other figures connected with the Bauhausalso worked at the agency. Antonio Boggeri “while visiting the German Werkbund section at the 5th Triennale [in 1933] curated by Paul Renner observed the works of several students from the Bauhaus, and decided to invite Imre Reiner (the first ever) and Käthe Bernhardt to his agency.” 17. Fioravanti, Passarelli and Sfligiotti 1997: 77.
Max Huber (Baar 1919 – Sagno 1992) was a former student at the Kunstgewerbeschulein Zurich. A pupil of Alfred Willimann, member of the group Abstraction-Création, he was up to date with the ideas circulating at the Bauhaus as well as with the works by Tschichold. Huber stayed in Milan from February 1940 until 1941, when he was forced to go back to Switzerland to serve in the military after Italy entered the Second World War. 18. Ibid.: 104–105; Polano and Vetta 2003: 140–151. In 1942, he was allowed to return to his job at the publishing and printing house Conzett & Huber, and to eventually open his own office in Zurich, which soon became a meeting point for the large community of Italian expatriates to Switzerland during the Second World War. 19. Ibid.: 146; Von Moos, Campana and Bosoni 2006: 82–102. Huber came back to Italy in 1945 as soon as the war was over, illegally crossing the border between Vacallo and Como on foot, and then became a stable figure of cultural life in Milan and in Italy. Despite the small age difference, Max Huber’s mentor was Albe Steiner (Milan 1913 – Raffadali 1974), 20. Steiner “was certainly more Swiss than Huber” (Georgi and Minnetti 2011: 20). See also: Huber and Steiner 1977; Steiner 1978; Steiner 2006. a key figure in Italian graphic design and culture. Steiner and his family had suffered at the hands of the Fascist Party, and he took part in the war as a partisan. Since the 1930s, he had been interested in the experimentations at the Bauhausand the works by El Lissitzky. 21. Steiner 1978; Steiner 2006.
Huber admired Steiner and shared El Lissitzky’s idea that graphic designers had to be protagonists of the political and cultural scene. Steiner was in contact with Elio Vittorini, an editor at the publishing house Einaudi and director of the magazine Il Politecnico, whose graphic design was curated by Steiner himself. After he left for Mexico, to take part in a literacy campaign together with Hannes Meyer – a Swiss architect and former director of the Bauhausin Dessau – works started by Steiner were completed by Huber. The collaboration between the two was so strong that it is sometimes difficult to determine the authorship of certain works.
Max Huber completed the visual identity of the 8th Milan Triennale, started by Steiner, and was commissioned by Einaudi to renew the visual identity of the publishing house: “in the same year  Huber moved temporarily to Einaudi’s Milan offices in Viale Tunisia. He slept on a camp bed and worked non-stop, creating book covers and layouts.” 22. Von Moos, Campana and Bosoni 2006: 89. In a moment of economic crisis for the publishing house, Huber lent money to Giulio Einaudi for the paper needed to print Il Politecnico. 23. Ibid. Huber became a key figure for Italian culture and was invited to design the visual identity of the Music section of the Biennale in Venice (1948–1949). As in the case of Schawinsky, the activity of Huber is not limited to Milan, neither is his influence on the graphic design scene. The poster for the Exposition de la résistance italienne held in Paris in June–July 1946, a red, holed hatch superimposed over a black and white photograph, is a typical example of the style of Albe Steiner for many covers of the Einaudi books and for the magazine Note Fotografiche. 24. Hollis 2006: 132.
From 1950 to 1954 Huber worked as art director of the department store La Rinascente. He designed their logo, as well as the one for another department store, Coin, and that of Esselunga supermarkets, which is still in use. 25. Huber 1982. Max Huber “finds himself playing a major role as intermediary between the first cultural entrepreneurs and the public at large.” 26. Fioravanti, Passarelli and Sfligiotti 1997: 104–105.
The number of Swiss graphic designers active in Italy grew together with the boom of the Italian post-war economy. The book by Bruno Monguzzi on Studio Boggeri offers an overview of the figures active in Milan during the agency’s extremely long time-span of activity, from 1933 to 1981. 27. Monguzzi 1981: 13.
After his studies at the Kunstgewerbeschulein Zurich between 1934 and 1939, and the internship at Paul Colin’s office in Paris, Carlo Vivarelli (Zurich 1919–1986) worked briefly in Italy in 1946, before going back to Zurich to eventually open his own office. 28. Ibid.: 56, 58–59, 61; Waibl 1988: 118–119; Odermatt 1998: 158. He produced a series of works for industrial clients such as Tenax and Glaxo during his short period as art director of the agency. After his return to Zurich, he received a number of high-level commissions – such as the logos for Swiss Television and Electrolux – and continued to work for clients of Studio Boggeri, such as Glaxo. Together with Richard Paul Lohse, Hans Neuburg and Josef Müller-Brockmann, in 1958 he founded the magazine Neue Grafik / New Graphic Design / Graphisme actuel, and the role of Vivarelli as a connection with Italian culture deserves a thorough critical study.
Walter Ballmer (Liestal 1923 – Milan 2011), after studying in Basel at the Kunstgewerbeschule (1940–1944) moved to Milan to work for Studio Boggeri in 1947, where he refined his technical and cultural skills. 29. Monguzzi 1981: 57, 60, 62–67, 70; Waibl 1988: 134–135; Odermatt 1998: 14. In 1956 Adriano Olivetti hired him with an exclusive contract for the Advertisement Office. Ballmer redesigned the Olivetti logo (1970) in the framework of a cultural and corporate policy that Vinti called “industrial style”: a corporate identity built within the company instead of being outsourced to other professionals. 30. Vinti 2007. One can perceive the Swiss roots of Ballmer’s advertising campaigns for Olivetti, based on the sole use of typography, yet they are just early examples of a “manner” that was spreading, not necessarily only through Swiss graphic designers in Italy. 31. Piazza 2012: 22. In 1971, Ballmer founded his own office in Milan, Unidesign: the clients were some of the most significant Italian brands, such as Nava or Valentino Garavani, whose logos he designed. 32. Ballmer 2003. In 1970, he became a member of AGI (Alliance Graphique Internationale), after being nominated for the Compasso d’Oro award in 1954 and winning the best Swiss poster award in 1961.
Aldo Calabresi (Zurich 1930 – Panarea 2004) studied at the Kunstgewerbeschulein Zurich and in 1953 he moved to Milan to work at Studio Boggeri, becoming one of Antonio Boggeri’s chief advisers. His production during his ten years with the Studio was vast, 33. Monguzzi 1981: 76, 78, 82–99, 101–109, 111, 114; Waibl 1988: 160–161. and only ended when Calabresi founded the CBC agency with Ezio Bonini – a former partner of Max Huber and fellow of Calabresi at Studio Boggeri – and Umberto Cappelli. The agency was active from 1963 until the early 1980s. While the archives of CBC are most likely lost, the activity of the agency greatly helps understand the evolution of graphic design in Italy after the “industrial style” period. Among the clients of the agency were Alfa Romeo, Triumph, Ciba-Geigy and Hoffmann-La Roche. Calabresi was the agency’s expert on editorial design, and remained active for almost twenty years, until the advent of commercial television in Italy led to a significant change in customer demand. 34. Silvio Calabresi, conversation with the author, Milan, 26 November 2013.
After studying in Geneva and London, Bruno Monguzzi (Mendrisio 1941) discovered the existence of Studio Boggeri on the pages of the second issue of the magazine Neue Grafik / New Graphic Design / Graphisme actuel. 35. Monguzzi and Ossanna Cavadini 2011: 1–2, 6–7; Waibl 1988: 190–191. He started working with the Studio in 1961. Monguzzi was the most nomadic collaborator, working in Italy, France, and Canada, before establishing his own studio in the early 1970s in Meride, Switzerland. His work is altogether the most emblematic and conscious example of mediation between graphic languages: writing about Aldo Calabresi’s work, Monguzzi states that he “sharply marked the fusion of the two cultures, the Swiss, logical and constructive, and the Italian, poetic and libertarian.” 36. Monguzzi and Ossanna Cavadini 2011: 2.
Other figures appear to have worked at Studio Boggeri and would deserve more attention, both in order to define the individual contributions and to analyse their career from the viewpoint of their experience in Milan. Max Schneider (Bern 1932) worked at Boggeri in the period 1953–1955. 37. Monguzzi 1981: 68; Richter 2007: 20. Warja Honegger-Lavater (Winterthur 1913 – Zurich 2007), author of the Swiss Bank Corporation (now UBS) logo, designed a greeting card for Studio Boggeri in 1954. 38. Monguzzi 1981: 75. René Martinelli (Zurich 1934) was active in the period 1956–1958, and had previously worked in the office of Josef Müller-Brockmann. 39. Ibid.: 78–81; Müller 2001: 32; Richter 2007: 21.
Hans-Ulrich “Hazy” Osterwalder (Zurich 1936), after studying at the Kunstgewerbeschulein Zurich, worked at Studio Boggeri in the period 1964–1969, specialising in scientific illustration using the airbrush technique. He then worked as a freelance illustrator, and eventually opened his own studio in Hamburg in 2001. 40. Monguzzi 1981: 112–113; Hazy Osterwalder, conversation with the author, Lugano, 21 May 2012.
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