WEB POSTER EXHIBITION - Ahn Sang-soo and Helvetica

  How I spent a weekend with typography

I did not quite know what to do: There was the award ceremony in Leipzig, Germany, to give the Gutenberg Prize to the father of korean typography Ahn Sang-soo, on March 23, 2007, and a day later a big party in Zuerich, Switzerland, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the typeface Helvetica. The two cities are 700 km apart, so I could not make it by car to both places, I thought, and finally decided for Leipzig. After all, I already had Lars Mueller's great little book Helvetica, what else was there to say about this legendary font.

Ahn Sang-soo

When I left, it was raining, and then started to snow heavily, but just as I was ready to give up and return home, it stopped snowing, so I continued into the night. Not for long. As I was climbing up the narrow roads of the Black Forrest mountains, there was now about one foot of fresh snow on the road, and also a truck standing sideways, and without snow chains there was no way around him. I was lucky to get downhill again, and decided to head for the next city, Schaffhausen, hoping there would be snowplows in action so I could drive home safely from there.

But in Schaffhausen, something unexpected happened: I saw a road sign pointing to the Rheinfall, a major landmark and tourist attraction, some sort of european Niagara Fall, and considering the frustrations of that ill fated trip, I thought I deserved a break and had to see it, even though it was now 2 o'clock at night. The last time I had been there sixty years ago as a boy, together with my grandmother, and it was still the splendid sight that I remembered, even in absolute darkness, completely alone. To take a picture required 10 sec exposure time, free hand, but considering Melk Imboden's famous New York poster, I felt in good company.

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The Rheinfall at night, 2007.03.23

When I finally was ready to go home, I realized that the road from the Rhine river back up to the city was just as steep and snow covered as the one that had defeated me previously in the Black Forrest, but I was now in such good spirits that I vowed to continue to Leipzig if I could make it this time. Miraculously, it worked, and I was on my way, driving or rather slithering slowly through the blizzard until I found a rest area beside the highway where I could spend the night.

The next morning, it was still snowing and I was woken up by the police.

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Highway E50, somewhere near Nuremberg
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The view out of my window

As I was crawling out of my army sleeping bag (tested to temperatures of - 8 Centigrade, no problem, thank you) I saw a policeman, and a very beautiful young policewoman, scratching their heads, as they did not quite understand what was going on, I think they were glad that I was still alive. While the officer was checking my papers, the girl was trying to strike up a conversation, but since I was not sure if they were going to give me a free trip to Guantanamo, I kept myself covered:

- Where are you going? I don't even know where I am.
- Where do you plan to go? Maybe to Nuremberg.
- What for? Sightseeing.
- Where do you come from? Switzerland, look at my license plates.
- Is it also snowing in Switzerland? Yes, sometimes.
- Can you ski where you live? Yes, when it snows, you can ski.

The meaningless nature of our dialogue became obvious to both of us, and we started laughing, but I doubt that the nice lady was familiar with Massin's book about Ionesco's play "La cantatrice chauve", a typography classic about a masterpiece of absurd theater, and she left abruptly before I was allowed to explain my admiration for both of these works.

Anyway, the road situation improved a bit, until shortly before Leipzig, where another overturned truck blocked the road, there was a three hour traffic jam, and by the time I arrived at City Hall, the Gutenberg award ceremony was over.

A page from Massin's book about the play "The Bald Soprano".


Fortunately Ahn Sang-soo was still there

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and both he and his wife were dressed in traditional korean costumes while their younger son Mano, also a graphic designer, likes to wear a cap, as his father usually does.

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Many of the friends and admirers of Ahn were still around:

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Guy Schockaert, former ICOGRADA President
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Irma Boom, book designer and previous Gutenberg Laureate
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Georg Girardet, Mayor of Leipzig
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Uta Schneider, Managing director of the german "Art of the Book" Foundation

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Stefan Soltek, Head of the Klingspor Museum in Offenbach, and fan of Uwe Loesch
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Matthias Graf, Officer for cultural affairs,City of Leipzig
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Guenter Bose, Professor at the Hochschule fuer Grafik und Buchkunst, Leipzig, authority on Jan Tschichold (born in Leipzig)
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Markus Dressen, Professor at the Hochschule fuer Grafik und Buchkunst, Leipzig, succeeding Volker Pfueller

  After the ceremony at City Hall, everybody walked across the street to the Hochschule fuer Grafik und Buchkunst, to see the small ("zero budget") exhibition of some of Ahn's posters:

Exhibition poster by Guenter Bose
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Ahn Sang-soo thanking all participants
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At right the famous Bomb fishes poster

  The poster exhibition was preceded by a large empty room with pictures beamed to a white wall, and a large painting on the opposite wall,

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  and in the main courtyard of the university, there was an installation "language were stars", consisting of ring shaped stars put on the glass roof looking down on characters placed on a light table on the marble floor of the hall :

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Photo R. Wanner

  Ahn's poem on the wall read:




  The 50th anniversary of Helvetica

So far so good, it had been a pleasant evening and my persistence had paid off, so why not keep going to the Helvetica party in Zuerich?

It was another night on the road, but a smooth trip south without snow, the traffic congestion was still there but in the northbound lane, they hadn't managed to get the truck off the road yet.

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Traffic jam on Highway E51 south of Leipzig, 2007.03.24

On the radio, I listened to a discussion about baroque music, and somebody was saying that any theory was incomplete that treats music merely as a syntactically correct sequence of sounds, not taking into account spirituality, irrationality, transcendence. I liked that, and thought the idea would equally apply to graphic design, or life, for that matter.

Is Helvetica still alive ?

I arrived an hour early at the Museum fuer Gestaltung in Zuerich, so there was enough time to take some pictures of posters in the streets. A foreign member of the panel discussion remarked later how surprised he was to see so little Helvetica nowadays, even in Zuerich, and you can verify if this is true in the posters below. Brush up your knowledge about the typeface before, in Wikipedia or typophile.com :










The Helvetica poster competition

The Hochschule fuer Gestaltung und Kunst Zuerich had called a poster competition for a Helvetica poster. The poster had to include one of the quotes about Helvetica from Lars Mueller's book. The best posters from about 120 entries were plotted and exhibited at the Museum fuer Gestaltung:

The one at the upper right corner with the big H is from Melk Imboden.



Panel discussion: Helvetica50 - Will this typeface last forever?

The panelists were:


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Gary Hustwit, Movie director, London, who made the movie Helvetica
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Erik Spiekermann, type designer and typographer, Berlin, founder of Metadesign and fontshop
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Alfred Hoffmann, former director of the Haas'sche Schriftgiesserei, Muenchenstein, Switzerland, where Helvetica was developed by Gerhard Miedinger together with his father Eduard Hoffmann.
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Lars Mueller, graphic designer and publisher, Baden, Switzerland, moderator and organizer of the event.
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David Carson, surfer and graphic designer, New York
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Manuel Krebs, graphic designer, co-founder of Norm, frequent Helvetica user.

  The lively discussion produced a number of remarkable statements, which I quote from memory as
  • Lars Mueller: Erik Spiekermann knows the rules before he breaks them, with David Carson, it's just the other way round.
  • David Carson: If a designer knows all the rules, but has no feeling for graphic design, he calls himself an "information architect".
  • Manuel Krebs: I'm proud to call myself an information architect. We like to have some order, that's why we call our group "Norm", and not "Funky".
  • Gary Hustwit: I was amazed how much Helvetica polarizes the graphic design community: People are either for order, harmony, and rules, or else for creative chaos.
  • Alfred Hoffmann: The proposed name "Helvetia" was out, you cannot name a typeface after a country, a sewing machine, and an insurance company.
  • Erik Spiekermann: Do we need yet another typeface? Yes, as long as people buy them, we make them.
  • David Carson: Look at the problems of the world. And here we sit happily worrying what typefaces to use.
  • Paula Scher (in Hustwit's movie): Helvetica caused the Vietnam War, and the Iraq war also.
  The Helvetica movie

Gary Hustwit made a fantastic documentary about Helvetica, see www.helveticafilm.com, in which he interviews some of the key players in contemporary graphic design about their opinions, memories, feelings on Helvetica and it's role. The movie is now shown all over the world, from Istanbul to Melbourne, see Screenings for a schedule, and I recommend it strongly.

Some screenshots:


Metal type

Rick Poynor

Massimo Vignelli

Wim Crouwel
Eduard Hoffmann

The Haas type foundry

Hermann Zapf

Credibility through Helvetica
Neville Brody

Lars Mueller: Posters will be prosecuted

Paula Scher

Stefan Sagmeister

  There was a big birthday party afterwards, which I missed, sorry too tired, but you can find pictures on helveticafilm.  

home   previous exhibitions  page created on April 6, 2007 / this section is part of Rene Wanner's Poster Page /