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contemporaries. Ballmer is known for being part of the movement that created Swiss design, also known as The International Style. His style is the direct influence of Soviet constructivist and modernist ideals. It is characterized by the implementation of photography, a grid structure and strong bold hand lettering. Ballmer was born in Basel, Switzerland on september 29, 1902 and died on december 10th, 1965. he was named Auguste Théophile, but is known as Theo Ballmer. He studied at Bauhaus in Dessau, but had already worked as a graphic designer before studying at bauhaus. After bauhaus he taught design and photography in basel. Eye magazine did a feature on Theo Ballmer in 1997, the feature was published in their 64th issue. The Feature was titled “swiss radical”, and it was for the most part a brief biographical article on Ballmer’s life and controversial posters. The issue is no longer in print but can be obtained through a membership from the European magazine, the magazine isn't common on American shelves which makes it hard to find information on Theo (I recently tried to obtain the article, but the online search takes you to an abstract of the article, I emailed Eye Magazine and the emailed me the whole article which they recently posted). The title of the article singles out Ballmer as more of a radical than a father of design, international style design. Richard Hollis, the author of the article as well as the author of Swiss graphic design: the origins and growth of an international style points out that Theo was designing during the height of the Nazi Control in Europe. In both the article and book hollis Says that Ballmer was very political in his designs, always depicting and romanticizing the Soviet union, through the use of color and symbols like the sickle and hammer in the poster below. Ballmer had to balance his “commercial and political” work so creating a style that worked good for both made it easier for
him, hollis says that due to the technology at hand like lithography, photography and soviet influence Ballmer could now create a new aesthetic. An aesthetic that was bold and powerful; using the overlap of words and images. The style Ballmer practiced was a result of soviet constructivist propaganda. constructivism was a modernist ideal that came from Russia. Steven heller’s book Graphic Design history quotes constructivism as “an applied design: it said, in effect, “go to the factories, this is the only task for artists”; constructivism “called upon artists ‘to construct’ art and change the world instead of merely depicting it” (Heller p.214). According to The Graphic Design Archive online or GDA, constructivism was a style “characterized by formal structure and objectivity. Simplicity and geometry were basic qualities. The color red became the symbol of this bold style that in many ways was revolutionary”. The characteristics of constructivism influenced Theo Ballmer as well as his contemporaries and thus
molding their style into the New Swiss Style, the international style. Hollis notes that during 1930 there was a “Russian exhibit” which “exposed the swiss to the soviet avant-garde” (hollis p. 60) and Lewis Blackwell notes in his book 20th century type that the international style came from “the teachings of Ernst Keller (1891-1968) and Alfred Williman at the school of applied art in zurich” and their work expressed a “modular order expressed in...constructivism” (Blackwell 68). The influence of constructivism was not limited to the Swiss, in Poland and other Europeans countries the style was slowly evolving, Blackwell points out that Henryk Berlewi’s (Polish designer) “approach to functional communication was to create a “mechanical art”, a systemized idea of creativity that reduced typographic work to a range of functional elements that could be combined together as building elements” (Blackwell p.56). constructivism the idea that designers, artists should focus on the structural, mechanical, architectural structures around them and derive work that was realistic, simple and could communicate directly without excess stuff. This idea of constructivism was not a wholly new idea, it had its influence in The new architecture, the modernist styles of people like Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus school.
According to David Consuegras’ book American type design & designers Keller ‘begun teaching at kunstgewerbeschule in 1915, and among his students were
Theo Ballmer, Max Bill, Adrian Frutiger and Eduard Hoffmann. Frutiger and Hoffman would eventually create seminal type, where Helvetica and Univers came from’(Consuegras p25). The teachings of Keller also known as ‘father of Swiss graphic design’ would lead to the creation of Swiss design is characterized by “the presence of the grid, the use of san serif types (especially Akzidenz Grotesk, 1898), flush left typesetting, and photography rather than illustration.” (Consuegras p.25). To Ballmer and Max Bill the Soviet Union was seen as a haven, and the fascist Nazi establishment as hell. Hollis says that Bill designed and printed an independent weekly called “Die Nation” in protest, The swiss designers were all catching unto a radical style, designing in protest but Theo was “the most conspicuous” of all of the swiss designers.(hollis p.49). In the poster above Theo implements the use of red and a grid structure to convey his message in favor of a soviet style system, in this poster he uses the type to hold the poster together which creates a secondary contrast of words that plays together with the contrast in color by “an appropriately dialectical manner of ‘us’ and ‘them’...at the top right are exaggerated statements (about the Soviet system)...there are contrasted below left, with the ills of the social democratic states (Hollis p.50). During the time in which Theo was creating his propaganda poster the Nazi power was gripping more power over eastern europe luckily this never affected him directly. Along with the new style came new typography as well well as new photography; and Theo is not significant in the history for creating constructivist styled poster but also for his photography and lettering. Photography had been in use for over a hundred years, and in no way was it a new medium of communication or art but it did influence Ballmer, according to Hollis Ballmer designed the poster for 100 years of photography. Photography was seen as a member of
the new mechanical building blocks used to create the new designs, “The camera was included in their enthusiasms for the machine” and in the book painting, photography, film published by Bauhaus in 1925 “the camera , extends the range of ‘our own optical instrument, the eye’. and it ‘reproduces the purely optical image and therefore shows the optically true distortions, deformations, foreshortenings, etc.... thus in the photographic camera we have the most reliable aid to a beginning of objective vision” (Hollis p.73). ‘Ballmer was a student of photography at Bauhaus, learning the techniques of The New Photography, a technique that saw photography as a clear and direct way to communicate and drift away from subjective artwork that might convey more than the object or message. To Ballmer photography was not a simply a tool, “Photography remained central to his work: ﬁrst, as part of his design practice, to produce images of objects for advertisements, and to document what he had designed, posters especially (including Communist party election posters on street hoardings, now daubed over with swastikas); second, as a medium to record his homeland” (www.EyeMagazine.com). “The Swiss artists felt that photos are better ways to portray an idea than illustrations and drawings. It also opened up numerous possibilities for the designers to incorporate unique photos into their design. This improved the aesthetics of
the design and brought in a unique versatility to it”, the camera was more than an objective tool its manipulation created a whole new aesthetic and it was “essential information” (hollis p.79). In Swiss Graphic Design there is an example of Jan Tschichold’s work (seen above) Which used photography in a totally new way. Tschichold used the image to create stress and attract attention by using a negative instead of a film positive and building a grid structure around the image that uses asymmetry and san-serif lettering, typical of swiss design (hollis p.77). This style that Jan Tschichold’s and other designers expressed was a characteristic of Ballmer. Ballmer’s work consist of Photograms and object photography used to create the “machine” aesthetic in the image below we can see an example of his work. Ballmer was not only a designer that implement the new photography, he was also a photography professor. Ballmer’s teachings helped students see the power of the lens by creating multiple images of the same object with different lenses, different
apertures, and different types of lighting (Hollis p.76). Ballmer thus influenced the next generation of swiss designers and their use of photography within the context of the poster.
The style of Ballmer is hardly cited but in the images below, we can see the structural style that made his work. Ballmer made his design very grid like, and in many of them the grid can be seen in the simple structure of the letters which are based on the structure of a square. His posters all have bold san-serif lettering, something which is to have come from his work as a “graphic designer for one of Basel’s largest pharmaceutical companies, Hoffmann-La Roche. Here he employed Modernist ingredients – ﬂat areas of colour and geometrical lettering drawn with ruler and compasses on a grid – which remained a continuing speciality and part of a personal
style”“graphic artist in the Hoffmann La Roche” (www.EyeMagazine.com), he worked there from 1926-28. Its believed that much of the swiss style developed from the prosperous medical industry that had san-serif type and simple bold graphics meant to communicate the usage and sell of medicine. According to an online publication called Swiss Master of Design The grid structure not only broke things up into squares it helped split levels of information into hierarchies of information. Ballmer’s use of the grid was also influenced by the architectural style of the time, it was characterized by right angles and geometrically formed letters. Ballmer also used a simple color palette in his work, usually red (something he took from the Russian constructivists) and “Absolute Mathematical construction, rather than the asymmetrical horizontals” and as noted on the California state university in Northridge. Ballmer also designed the typical design jobs like: “notices and decrees, forms, legal documents, passports, certificates, tickets, visiting cards, invitations, letterheads, and envelops” of which some was exhibited in Basel’s 1930 New
Advertising Design exhibit (Hollis p.64). Along with being a professor and design student, Ballmer also established his own studio and continued designing and teaching up till his death. Most writers credit Keller, The Soviets, and Tschichold as the creators of Swiss design; however Tova Rabinowitz argues in her book Exploring Typography that Theo Ballmer and max created swiss design because they “recognized that increasing globalization was creating a need for a visual language that would be suitable for international communication. the style they developed- which was based on clear arrangement of elements, photography, abstract designs, and sans-serif typefaces” (Rabinowitz p.34). Ballmer’s name is referenced in a few design books and little record of his life exists; Recently when faced with this dilemma I decided to to call those places that link him to Design history. According to Swiss graphic Design Theo was a photography professor at “the Basel Allgemeine Gewerbeschule (trades school) from 1931 to his death in 1965” and according to Gregory Vines a staff member at The Basel School of Design (which was built around Theo’s death) there is a statue of Theo Ballmer at the foot of the school; he didn't have access to archives on Ballmer (hollis p.22). Vines however directed me towards Thierry Ballmer, The grandson of Theo Ballmer. Theo Ballmer had a son named Theo Ballmer the second, there is no information on him, His son Thierry is a practicing Graphic designer and professor. I called Thierry and e-mailed him but due to our different times couldn't reach him; he returned my email saying “ I got your email and message on the phone. I am right now very busy with my office and teaching. Can I get back to you later in about two weeks with the information you require? Best regards Thierry”. Thierry seems to be quite busy, and though he might not be creating anti-fascist propaganda posters like his grandfather he is moving the swiss style ahead; in 2000 he digitized his grandfather’s typeface which consists of 15 different weights. Typeface
is called “Theo Ballmer” and is distributed by URW++, the full family of fonts goes for $350; but indeed the history of Ballmer is far more valuable than that; unfortunately little is known of him or published.
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