Swiss-born Widmer is one of the most crucial graphic designers of the late 20th century : he worked on Centre Pompidou’s visual identity and on the French freeway signage system. Because of the way they find the perfect balance between form and function, Widmer’s work has always been highly inspiring for Sixpack France : a fresh approach of visual surfaces, whose apparent neutrality actually conceits vivid emotions generated by geometrical and chromatic innuendos. His language managed to be both general and intimate, universal and innerworldly. What he did for public institutions and public spaces has had a particular resonance into the Sixpack mindset, mostly because we often fantasize Sixpack as uniform maker, as a clothing brand that fashions such perfects garments you wouldn’t even wonder why you wear them. And this is precisely what Jean Widmer achieved in his career : graphic objects so well conceived that you almost don’t even pay attention to them – they’re so much part of our world you could called them native.
What‘s a bold graphism ?
In the years 1960-1970, there was a real migration of Swiss graphic designers chasing work in France and especially in its capital. The first to arrive in the-post-war-1950s have been noticed because of their bold, rational and functional graphic style showing a well-structured and very creative graphic quality, bringing a great innovation in this field.
Indeed, department stores such as Galeries Lafayette, fashion magazines like Elle or the Jardin de Modes and some advertising agencies distinguished themselves with excellent modern compositions.
Then, a phenomenon happened, a kind of snobbery among the big bosses who demanded that their designers come from the Swiss school.
As a teacher I would notice that French students had difficulties to find opportunities out of the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Arts Decoratifs. I imparted to the Director, who then gave me carte blanche to reorganize the teaching methods with a new generation of teachers.
With my 35 years of activity for Ensad my students have gradually become colleagues. The graphic quality of teaching has been normalized.
What influence the teaching of Johannes Itten had on you?
Johannes Itten, a Bauhaus professor who taught the famous preparatory course during winter of 1919 in this school has aimed to make Man as a whole ” creative being “. Johannes Itten, famous for his obvious teaching qualities was called by the city of Zurich, promoting him director, to modernize the art schools. It was then to purify the Crafts of their conventionality.
With Itten appears a kind of mystic of graphic design. The graphic designer must know how to use all means of perception. At the technical workshop various crafts meet and tangle with experiences and know-how.
In the Johannes Itten course called “Materials and textures” we compose all kinds of contrasts with basic elements of composition such as glass, cloth, wood, metal, stone in order to sensitize touch and form.
So, already living in Paris and after a while, I could measure the importance of his legacy, this major business face to graphic design, photography and typography that threw me fairly quickly to a position of responsibility.
Indeed, I was deeply inspired by the creative force of Johannes Itten who allowed me, as part of education which I was responsible for at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Arts Decoratifs, to modernize the methods of the profession of graphic section which was scraping in inaction due to delays after the Second World War. I worked in this context for 36 years.
We focused on this problem which was to know whether a cultural institution required a logo.
The Centre Beaubourg is neither a bank nor an airport or a large hotel, the alternative of a signage with logo is “to situate Beaubourg in the trend, at the risk of going out of fashion, while the recommended solution included Beaubourg in history”.
1974 We proposed to create a typeface designed in order to play a unifying role without any distinction, for all internal and external communication. It was a typewriter character developed by Adrian Frutiger, who is still in use today.
1977 Shortly before the opening of the Pompidou Center, a logo was officially and imperatively ordered to me without any previous discussions about it in the years 1974-77.
I started to work in front of the impressive facade with its diagonal escalator and the logo immediately imposed itself to me from the architecture.
2000 After 25 years of existence the Centre Pompidou had to be renovated. It was discussing a new visual identity and signage that have threatened its sign of identity known throughout the world.
Is the Centre Pompidou’s logo outdated ? wrote the Parisian press.
This identity symbol has stood for a year at the fierce battle between the President of Centre Pompidou and the IGA International Graphic Agency.
Graphic designers from all over the world responded by assaulting the Ministry of Culture with mails and faxes. The Department has finally decided to maintain the logo.
Today we can even find it out by surprise unalterably etched on the pavement of public places.
If you could redraw today, what would be your target of choice and why?
My prime target would be the creation of the banknote and the European currency. I would be interested to approach this in conceptual and homogeneous terms.
The attempt I made with officials has not been followed, I approached this study with students from the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Arts Decoratifs. Three students participated in the great project of the fourth year (diploma). This was:
a- How to structure the education: to analyze the existing notes of European countries that already have a modern and traditional approach such as Holland, Germany, Switzerland or Great Britain. To make the heraldic analyze, meaning and origins of component elements of the banknotes and coins.
b- creation of the notes and currencies with contemporary subjects treatment.
To follow the Jardin des Modes was the implementation of contemporary expression, as artistic director, composing the magazine, working with the talent of artists and air time.
I started by drawing the name of the newspaper through an elegant typography and a photo booth that caught the attention in the newspaper kiosks. I felt a real pleasure to make personal snapshots, to lead and transform this antiquated ladies newspaper in magazine for modern women.
The newspaper was a meeting place for photographers, graphic designers and artists. You had to be confidential to launch talents like Helmut Newton : he started to make his first pictures of the Jardin des Modes with me. The Op Art as Pop Art influenced the photographism. The design and functional have swept the decorative. The quality of the imagination, flair, sex appeal and elegance were the scent of the journal.
In the wake of 1968 I heard at the Sorbonne slogans such as ” Imagination Power.” These words conveyed an obvious social criticism and embodied the rejection of superfluous in the fashion, luxury and sophistication of haute couture.
I foresaw the change and that a page was turned to me.
So in 1969 I decided to open my proper agency called Visual Design in order to take advantage of my knowledge.
The design strongly came on the scene with the aesthetics and industrial design.