Through experimental cultural commissions and mainstream projects for Swiss media groups, the Zurich-based graphic designers Beat Müller and Wendelin Hess of MULLER+HESS have played a critical part in loosening up and modernising Switzerland’s graphic tradition.
Like most Swiss graphic designers, Beat Müller and Wendelin Hess were trained in the rigour of Swiss Style typography, yet the dominating characteristic of their work is the sophistry with which they have subverted it into a more fluid, eclectic style.
Having met at art school, Müller and Hess started working together in 1993. They began with low budget, experimental projects for galleries, theatres and other cultural institutions and have sustained that area of work, while taking on more mainstream commercial clients including the weekend supplement Das Magazin, the weekly newspaper Die Weltwoche and Art Basel, the international art fair.
Visit Müller+Hess website at muellerhess.ch
Q. What were your early design influences? What drew you to graphic design?
A. Apart from our education, which was very influential for us, our early influences were a variety of artists in different media such as John Cage, Lawrence Weiner, Rachel Whiteread, Roman Signer, David Lynch, Peter Greenaway, Wolfgang Weingart, Herzog + de Meuron, the early work of Remy Zaugg and Marcel Schmid.
Q. Do you feel that your education (design or otherwise) influenced the way you work now?
A. Throughout our education we were given a sense of craft and for beauty in details. This still forms the basis of our work today. But we employ these qualities in an experimental way to search for the new, rather than to look backwards.
Q. Where did you meet and how did you start working together?
Wendelin: We met at art school. Beat built a large bookshelf between his table and mine, so he didn’t have to talk to me. We only made up after my return from London.
Beat: Our actual collaboration began in 1993 with a large book project, which I didn’t want to do and couldn’t do on my own so I asked Wendelin to work with me. The project is still in my drawer.
Q. What were your earliest design commissions as Müller+Hess?
A. Posters for music festivals, theatres and galleries as well as experimental books. Small cultural projects without much money.
Q. You have worked mainly for the cultural sector. Is that an active choice or something that just came about?
A. It just came about but with a little active choice. Small cultural clients have small budgets but, all the same, they want attractive new design. So they look for young, unknown designers and give them as much freedom as possible. It is a coexistence between “no money”, “radical new design” and “carte blanche”. This is the only niche for non-market oriented, non-financially motivated innovation. If you create a name for yourself in these “carte blanche” situations, suddenly it becomes possible to create new ways of designing even for more commercial or marketing-oriented companies. Take Cornel Windlin with the Zurich Theatre as an example; Müller+Hess with Art Basel, Das Magazin and Die Weltwoche; David Carson with Nike and so on.
Q. What prompted you to launch your self-published magazine Grenzwert? Will you keep the publication going?
A. The magazine Grenzwert was an overflow for all the visual ideas that we couldn’t use in our commercial work, but that we wanted to be published. At the same time this unfettered way of working created a laboratory to test ideas for use in commercial work. But Grenzwert is dead now. The motivation through which it came into existence is channelled through different outlets.
Q. For a period Wendelin worked on one of Switzerland’s major newspapers as art director of the weekend supplement Das Magazin. Now he is working as art director one of Switzerland’s most traditional weekly newspapers Die Weltwoche. How has that experience fed into the projects at Müller+Hess?
Wendelin: It broadened my horizons and that wider field influenced the attitude and direction of Müller+Hess. Also our rate of work and decision-making has increased.
Beat: At Müller+Hess we have profited from the network which Wendelin has built up as an art director. We got to know some really interesting people and opinions.
Q. How would you describe your work in relation to the Swiss graphic tradition?
Q. Crossing out and obliterating words is a trope of your work. Do you view this as a direct challenge to graphic decorum?
Beat: No, we are not artists. All the same, we question established ways of seeing and rules of perception through our role in the service industry. Our first questions to a client are always: ‘Why are you doing that? Do you need to do it?’
Wendelin: To break with the usual way of doing things and the usual rules but to stay functional, in our eyes this generates exciting new work.
Q. There is currently an active young graphic design scene in Swtizerland. Do you consider youselves to be part of it?
A. There is no scene. In our opinion there are some people who share a dislike of mass visual culture and try to go against it. Some of are young, others have been working for twenty years. The scene, which is highly publicised, is not really autonomous or new.
Q. Where will Müller+Hess be going in the next few years?
Beat: I have no idea. After ten years in the business we have less idea about this than at any time before. We want more content and less 'graphic' form.
Wendelin: With luck there are new challenges: moving away from specialisation, moving across disciplinary boundaries and into new areas of work, preferably with collaborators and clients whose content is relevant and who know what they are doing.