Otl Aicher’s work for the 1972 Munich Olympiad is revered as a “total design solution.” In a new poster exhibition, Bibliothèque hope to bring his thinking to a whole new audience


To say that Bibliothèque are avid collectors of graphic design would be something of an understatement. It’s more like they have an addiction to sourcing print classics, particularly from the European Modernist tradition. They finally managed to find an outlet for one of their favourite collections – Otl Aicher’s work for the 1972 Munich Olympics – in the form of an exhibiton of some of his best designs from the project, and now the show, entitled 72, has just launched at London design store Vitsœ.

CR met up with Bibliothèque, Mark Adams, owner of Vitsœ, and, on the invitation of the studio, designer Michael Burke who actually worked on the Olympic project with Aicher and had invaluable first-hand experience of the processes and methods involved in creating this seminal body of work. The following is a transcript of the discussion that took place at Bibliothèque’s studio.

CR: As designers, what does the Munich 1972 work mean to you?

Mason Wells, Bibliothèque: The thing about this work is that it made a quantum leap from a lot of stuff around at the same time, both technically and creatively. For us, the complexities of the layouts, the level of detailing; it’s almost like an encapsulation of the thinking of the Ulm school that Aicher set up.

Michael Burke: That’s just what I was going to stay. And, for me, that’s why I wanted to apply for a job there, but it wasn’t possible. This work is very much the philosophy and the model of Ulm’s communication department put into one particular job.

Mark Adams, Vitsœ: Is it the best demonstration of the Ulm philosophy?

MB: Of the communications department, definitely, because it embodies the ideas of using this very rational approach of selecting one typeface with different weights and the rationalisation of formats. But then, also, it breaks out slightly. Although it was all colour-coded, it’s not used in a way that we would normally expect it to be used. The problem was that the last time Germany had held the Games was in 1936 and, obviously, they wanted to develop a completely new feel: if you notice, there’s no red or black used here. The idea was that it become “the Rainbow Games”. And I can remember very vividly, after the Arab attack on the Israelis, where we all felt totally shattered, the decision was, what should we do, should we carry on at all? It was then decided that the colours would be used even more so. One discussion was that we use black, or that we stopped – then the idea was that the rainbow games would suggest an optimism. Although the work’s very typically German, in that it’s very rationalised and very structured, it’s got a soul to it.

Tim Beard, Bibliothèque: The way that the stadium’s forms were so natural really seems to have informed the organic nature of the maps you created which, although rigid and structured, are also organic in a way, too. You seemed to be working on a whole experience that evoked this?

MW: Yes, it really strikes me as an example of a “total design solution”. At other Games, the graphics, the architecture are good, but there’ll be holes in it. When you look at Munich you see a consistent attitude to design excellence that doesn’t drop.

MB: Well, you have to see it in the context of Germany at the time. They wanted Germany, obviously, to be accepted internationally after the war and it was the first major event they staged. In terms of landscaping, the city was still very badly scarred by the bombings, even in ’68, ’69. So they pushed the rubble out of the city and the site, for the Games, was actually on the rubble itself. It was very clever: they utilised the chance to have the Games as a model for developing the infrastructure, the underground system. It meant they could build it, finance it on the back of the Games. Nowadays, that’s pretty standard.

Jon Jeffrey, Bibliothèque: In terms of Olympic legacies though, the stadiums, the velodromes, this one left a bigger one. There’s the physical legacy but the graphic legacy actually went beyond the event: it was even used at the airport, for example.

MB: Yes, the pictograms were used everywhere in Germany – at sports complexes, in schools and that was the objective. Normally all the marks are copywrited and such but these could be used by different people.

MW: When you look back at the Ulm model, with Max Bill and Joseph Albers there, what do you make of it?

MB: Yes, Aicher had a few ex-Bauhaus people there. Albers was only there briefly, as a guest. He was one of Aicher’s best friends.

MW: Didn’t he train Aicher in colour?

MB: Well Aicher learnt a lot from the people that were teaching there. He was actually a sculptor orginally.

MW: He obviously had an amazing artistic leaning. He had a beautiful drawing hand, for example.

MB: He was very good at doodling. I always thought of him as a Herbert von Karajan [Austrian conductor] as he also knew the exact strengths and weaknesses of people and was able to put them together. He would tell me of a project to do for the press, I’d go off and get the materials and wouldn’t talk to him about it again!

TB: I think it’s the interpretation of the rules and guidelines for the ’72 work that’s really interesting because, arguably, the rules used are relatively simple in terms of fonts, the limited colours and formats. But what you all went and did, with the typography on everything, is phenomenal. The fact that the team were willing to keep pushing, within these same rules, to create the amazing body of work: that’s what you don’t really get so much with identities nowadays.

MB: And no marketing! Actually, one of the things that Aicher was really interested in was, not just the products we see here, but the souvenirs. He said we must get control of these souvenirs; and that was the big problem, how to structure them so that there wasn’t all the usual kitsch coming out. Waldi (9) was a very typical design approach and there’s a cuddly toy version too! You’ve seen those Bauhaus toys? Well that’s the link through again.

TB: That comes back to this total design solution whereby Aicher was seeing the merchandising – and we all know the amount of tat that will be produced for 2012 – and realising the importance of it. He was good at pre-empting these things.

JJ: And the toy he created, Waldi, is fantastic. He appeals to hardline designers and children alike!         CR: So it seems that Aicher definitely achieved that sense of optimism?

MA: Well, also, as Europeans, we should never underestimate the importance of the Marshall Plan and the vast sums of money that went into continental Europe after WWII. That Ulm period, with the money, the optimism, and people like the Braun brothers: this produced the optimism to take things forward. So the likes of Dieter Rams, for example, were just lucky that they were in the right place, at the right time for it all to come together! The amount you can trace back to that core in the ‘50s: lots of companies, like Vitsœ and the re-emerging Braun, came from that period of optimism.

JJ: The other interesting thing that every designer we’ve shown this to picks up is the lack of sponsorship. We’ve looked through everything – only on the back of the ticket is a Mercedes logo. But it’s a nice logo!

MW: It’s a political thing, with the left-wing ideology to the Games. I guess Aicher himself was pretty Socialist?

MB: And he had a very tough time trying to convince people that there wasn’t going to be any sponsorship because, of course, Munich obviously couldn’t afford to pay for it all. But the Chancellor, Willy Brandt, was also very supportive. With that support behind you, it could all happen. But then they must have been thinking about it since the 50s.

MW: I think Aicher discussed it quite early on with people, prior to going to the commission.

MB: Well, don’t forget, he’d already done Braun and Lufthansa, which was obviously a big break.

JJ: It must be terrible getting an airline followed by the Olympics…

MB: Yes, when I saw the Munich job advert in Form magazine I thought, “Is that possible?” So I sent some slides off and thought I wouldn’t hear anything as all the Ulm people and the Swiss would be working on it. So I didn’t expect to hear anything back. But then I got the call.


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