Inside Le Signe, France’s new National Centre of Graphic Design

On October 8, France inaugurated its first national graphic design centre, Le Signe (the Symbol), in Chaumont. For CR, Jean Grogan reports back on the potential – and symbolism – of this significant new space.

Just steps away from the train station, the ‘Castle of Cards’ designed by Alain Moatti of Moatti-Rivière Architects, is Chaumont’s new landmark. The light, minimalist structure stands at a height at the top of the town, an extension of the adjacent 19th-century Banque de France.

Moatti took graphic design itself as his inspiration, using thin slabs of natural limestone to represent the designer’s canvas of page, poster or tablet screen. He is emphatic in insisting that this Le Signe is not a museum, but a living, interactive space to promote graphic design for professionals and amateurs alike.

Says Vincent Perrottet, graphic designer and one of Le Signe’s three commissaries: “Clients who brief often have no visual culture. Here, we have a place to focus on a remarkable subject – design. We can make our profession visible and accessible to all. We are like children when it comes to interpreting an image. We must cultivate our way of seeing, this can only improve relations and understanding of disparate cultures.”

Creating an open dialogue with the inhabitants of Chaumont was an integral part of Le Signe’s design. They are encouraged to visit, to discover its exhibition and events, and to enjoy the café. Ten-metre-high windows offer passersby a view into the centre, and a spectacular view over the valleys of the Haut-Marne to its visitors from the terraces.

Le Signe features a workshop to present innovations in printing techniques and processes; three training rooms; a bookshop; a café; and, not least, a 1,000m2 exhibition space on two floors to display some of its poster archives, the largest in Europe

Chaumont has been hosting the International Poster Festival for the last 25 years. This initiative dates from an endowment from local Deputy of the Haute-Marne and botany teacher, Gustave Dutailly, of his collection of over 10,000 rare vintage posters, books, lithographs and engravings to the town’s library in 1905.

Moatti partnered with Juliette Weisbuch, director of Polymago design studio in Paris for the Centre’s interior design, scenography and sign system. “There’s a symbolic aspect to this building,” says Weisbuch. “It couldn’t exist anywhere else.”

For the exterior, Weisbuch maintained the minimalist style, individually screen-printing each 12mm thick limestone sheet with a double motif of regular and orthogonal black dots, to rhythm the outside walls, “like a tattoo, discrete, but indelible.”

The centre’s logotype integrates easily onto this surface. Primary coloured ceiling murals distinguish the three training rooms. To extend the visual vocabulary of the centre, Weisbuch created an “alphabet” of 86 silhouettes of the visual patrimony of Chaumont. Milton Glaser’s silhouette of Bob Dylan is side by side with the fleur-de-lys, the heraldic symbol of the town’s emblem.

As the bank’s original 19th-century mosaic floor at the entrance to the exhibition area was badly damaged, Weisbuch repaired it by integrating a functioning QR code in black ceramic tiles at the foot of an original marble mantelpiece.

For Le Signe’s inaugural exhibition entitled La Collection, part of Dutailly’s collection (which includes original vintage prints by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Eugène Grasset and Jules Chéret) is displayed alongside contemporary works by Paula Scher, Philippe Apeloig, M/M Paris and Stefan Sagmeister, beautifully curated by Jean Schneider and divided into five themes.

A series of design workshops (limited to groups of 12) will take place throughout the year, animated by designers including Patrick Lindsay, Sophie Cure and Nicolas Aubert on themes of typography, the brief and composition.

“The objective is not to make people visit,” says Moetti, “but to make them keep returning.”

Le Signe is at 1 place Émile Goguenheim (to be renamed Place des Arts in 2017), 52000 Chaumont, France. See cig-chaumont.com@leSigne_cng

lesigne-chaumontimg_2901

More from CR

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?

Artworker

NAO (National Audit Office)