Otl Aicher’s Isny – modernism in a medieval town

By Mark Sinclair

The exhibition of elements from Otl Aicher’s project for Isny im Allgäu opens today at dn&co’s Ground Floor Space as part of the London Design Festival. It’s a particularly unusual show in that, for such a big name designer, the project remains relatively little-known and yet remains a radical initiative consisting of over 100 components.

Patrick Eley, dn&co’s Creative Director, recalls that interest in Aicher’s work began to noticeably increase around ten years ago, thanks to Markus Rathgeb’s monograph on the German designer – published by Phaidon – and the launch of the Bibliothèque-curated exhibition in London of his design system for the Munich ‘72 Olympic Games.

As fans of his work both Eley and his colleague at dn&co Guy Hulse had collected some of the Isny posters themselves – yet there was little available information about the project.

Aicher’s work for Munich, Lufthansa, ERCO and his Rotis typeface, not to mention his involvement in the establishment of the influential Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm, overshadowed this project for a small town in southern Germany, which he worked on later in his career.

The Isny work consists of a graphic system made up of 128 pictograms that could be arranged in various ways to tell the story of the town. Depicting the landscape – and everything from its flora and fauna, church spires and outdoor pursuits – it was a defiantly modern approach to creating a tourist image of the town and a rejection of what Aicher referred to, Eley says, as “the postcard mentality”.

Eley explains that while a now hand-to-find book was published to accompany the project at the time, even Rathgeb’s section on the work is slim – and there is little detail about it online. So dn&co set about researching the project, contacting Aicher’s son Florian, the Isny advertising bureau and one of Aicher’s colleagues, Monika Schnell, with the aim of bringing examples of the Isny system together for an exhibition and limited edition book.

While Aicher’s work is held in the archives at Ulm, the collection exhibited at dn&co is largely that of collector Stefan Reiber. “You don’t see a lot of it,” adds Eley, “it’s never really been collected together, certainly not in the UK…. dn&co is really interested in the idea of place and how [places] advertise and talk about themselves, so it was a really perfect tie-up of those two things.”

Creative Review: Can you give us a sense of how the Isny project fits into Aicher’s wider body of work? What was he trying to do with this project?

Patrick Eley: Interestingly enough, he proposed it initially for Ulm, the town where he’d set up the School. They didn’t want it. It was too radical for them…. And it took him quite a long time to [think] of somewhere else to do it. He got friendly with the mayor [of Isny] and proposed it as an idea – he bought into it. I guess it was an accumulation of all the work he’d been doing – the Olympics, that way of thinking about design, it was really a natural progression from there.

CR: What happened next? Was it used by the town?

PE: It was but only for a short while. The mayor left office and it didn’t take that long for people to start feeling it was a bit too radical. It was a strong change to suddenly reject [what] Aicher called ‘the postcard mentality’ where you represent everything in glossy technicolor pictures of cows, the Alpine landscape and beer steins. And he thought the way to stand out is to do something entirely different.

But I think other people had started to find that a little bit challenging and so they pulled the system in the mid-1980s. It was established in the late 70s, early 80s – by ’85 it was pulled. And it has kind of gone through a couple of points where it was revitalised after that. Ten years later, in the mid-90s … but they didn’t have as much structure and strength behind it and it floundered again.

Then, in the last few years, they’ve really brought it back in line and created a series of really strong brand guidelines. Monika Schnell, who used to work with Aicher way back when so she worked on the typeface Rotis got involved again in the late 2000s [and] created a much stronger set of brand guidelines. There hadn’t ever been anything that formalised it until that point. So she’s been the brand guardian and overseen it for the last ten years.

It’s gone through this third revival, as it were, where the town realises its strength and importance – this is something [they] can’t let go of, it’s absolutely brilliant. It’s a roller-coaster of acceptance.

CR: What kinds of things was Aicher trying to say about the town of Isny? Was he concerned with organising a system for tourists to use and explore, or just creating a way of telling people what the place was all about?

PE: It was a bit of both. Without a doubt it’s a tourist town – down [near the] Alps, it’s [about] outdoor pursuits, mountain biking and cross country skiing – hearty food. It’s not on the international stage, it’s internal tourism I would have thought. But [there] was a desire to stand out and be different from all of the other towns around.

So I think it was probably a democratic German approach to making the place stand out. Whether it had pretensions to be global, I don’t know. Having talked to Florian, one of Aicher’s sons, and seen his old studios, you get a sense of him as a designer who was very grounded in his landscape and really understood his position and his location.

[The studio] is a beautiful set of modernist buildings that [have been] converted into homes – a couple of them are still studio spaces. I found it a really interesting decision to have an international design studio out in the middle of nowhere. This is a place Norman Foster would go to and visit [Aicher] to talk about design and solving design problems. But it was nowhere near Munich or the main cities, so it’s a really interesting position to be in.

Aicher felt strong enough about the power of design and the need for it to be something that was democratic and of the people – and a useful thing – that he wanted to give it to this town. He was never paid for it, he did it for free.

And so I think it’s altruistic at one level because he was probably quite a forceful character, quite opinionated certainly, but you get the sense he was doing this because he believed it was the way to stand out and reflect that sort of Isny mentality – an old medieval walled town – that really wanted to stand apart…. He knew the area well and had a love for the landscape and the place, so I think it was very much grounded in an understanding of that and a desire to reflect that.

CR: In addition to the exhibition, dn&co has also produced a book about the Isny project (images of which are shown throughout this post). Can you tell us a bit about that?

PE: The [earlier] books looks at the pictograms as single illustrations, [but] what was remarkable about the way the system worked was that it allowed you to combine these pictograms to try and start telling slightly bigger stories with stronger narratives. So all of the posters – there’s a series that are singular, a series that are on a two column grid, a four, an eight – where story gets more dense and more complicated.

But what you see elsewhere doesn’t show you the breadth of that – and that’s what we wanted to show in the catalogue. So we’ve also then told that story of how it was created, what the rationale was – what the problems to sell it were. We set up an imprint called Place Press – it’s the first book – [its about] people, places and culture and understanding that intersection.

Otl Aicher’s Isny opens today at dn&co’s Ground Floor Space gallery, 3 Tyers Gate, London SE1 3HX as part of the London Design Festival and runs until September 29 (admission free). See groundfloorspace.com/isny

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