Designers invade small French town

Chaumont’s graphic design festival continues to punch way above its weight. So why can’t the UK get behind something similar?

Try and picture it. A small provincial town in Britain the size of say, Sevenoaks or Melton Mowbray; now imagine every pub and cafe full of graphic designers talking about Russian Constructivist posters and the state of modern typography; next, try and envisage the local churches, libraries and disused industrial buildings full of exhibitions by leading graphic designers from around the world. Unthinkable, isn’t it?

We don’t do stuff like this in Coalition Britain. We do Antiques Road Shows and National Trust gift shops, but give over a whole town to the glorification of posters and the graphic arts? Not likely. Yet this is exactly what happens annually in the French town of Chaumont, two hours by train east of Paris.

For the past 21 years this unassuming municipality has held a three-week graphic design festival. At its heart are an international poster competition (although international in this context means only one British entry) and a major blockbuster show (this year it is an exhibition of Russian Constructivist posters.) As graphic design events go, the International Poster and Graphic Design Festival of Chaumont is about as good as it gets.

This year’s event was the first under a new director, Etienne Hervy, the former editor of Étapes, France’s equivalent of Creative Review. Hervy has only been in the job a few months, yet managed to pull together a show that offered a sophisticated portrait of current graphic communication. He has also been hired to run a yet-to-be opened, permanent collection of graphic design in Chaumont.

I first went to the festival five years ago and fell in love with its cocktail of intellectual enquiry and graphic radicalism. This year I was invited to curate one of the exhibitions. Hervy gave me 30 giant sewer pipes dotted around the town, and asked me to commission 30 imagemakers to each produce an A0 poster. We titled the show En Tube – Concrete Image (or as Andy Martin, one of the contributors irreverently re-titled it – The Sewer Pipe Show!)

On my short visit to the festival over the opening weekend I was unable to find all 30 posters. When I asked why some of the exhibits were missing, I was told that a few of them had been peeled off their concrete plinths within hours of going up; it wasn’t clear whether this had been done by disapproving locals or hardcore graphic design fans.

The first thing to hit the visitor emerging from the Chaumont train station was the festival’s brilliant identity and signage system by French designers Helmo. Their graphic system of criss-crossing red, yellow and blue stripes was applied to shop windows, paper tablemats in the local restaurants, and specially constructed freestanding units. It was deployed in publications and leaflets, and even used to decorate Hervy’s car.

Also notable was the event’s electrifying poster by Dutch wizard Karel Martens. A bravura display of 23 highly-engineered graphic expression, Hervy describes Martens’ poster as “a masterwork of printing … a good example of the use of colours and the command of letters distinctive of Dutch graphic culture”.

This year’s catalogue, traditionally a major component of the Festival’s visual collateral and usually designed by some heavyweight graphiste, was the work of French designer Frederic Teschner. A gorgeous document, it provided a guide to the major exhibits and made a covetable souvenir. Teschner also had a small show within the Festival and the posters he entered in the main poster competition were amongst my favourites.

Hervy admitted to frustration that he didn’t have a website to match his signage, poster and catalogue. Next year, he said.

What else was there for the graphic design zealot? There was a dazzling exhibit by Norm; a show called Open Projects devoted to design shaped by user participation; a screening of Logorama by H5, partnered with their installation LIP (Logos in Peace) – a cemetery fittingly situated in a church with headstones commemorating the death of various corporate logos; a vast exhibition of student posters responding to the question, What is graphic design?; a show devoted to re-imagining the book; and a host of smaller exhibitions, workshops, lectures and music events.

The two main attractions, however, were the international poster competition and the Russian show. The competition posters – elegantly displayed in a disused barracks – struck me as less engaging than on my previous visit. This may have something to do with the ongoing colonisation of public space by media owners that has rendered the poster almost redundant in mainstream visual expression. Nevertheless, there were plenty of impressive exhibits and plenty of evidence that if the poster is to survive as a medium for communication, it will be designers that ensure its survival.

The Russian show induced a giddy sensation of being present at the birth of modern visual communication. There is hardly a graphic technique or visual trope in use today that wasn’t first pioneered by the Russian masters. But as I drooled over the technical and artistic verve on display, I couldn’t help noticing that here too were the beginnings of graphic design as a tool of coercion and persuasion. Here, for the first time, graphic design was being used to sell something: in this case the benefits of collectivism and industrialisation. It’s a path that has led us inexorably to L’Oreal television commercials and billboards selling holidays. Propaganda is propaganda, no matter what the message.

Graphic design has few better champions than the town of Chaumont. To quote Luc Chatel, Mayor of Chaumont, the Festival is an “assertion of graphic design as a creative form of art, able to imagine many different purposes for itself.”

I can’t help wondering if there’s a Mayor in the UK capable of uttering that sentence? I doubt it.

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