Otl Aicher’s Isny
As part of this months’ London Design Festival, Ground Floor Space — the gallery of brand and design consultancy dn&co. — will host an exhibition of Otl Aicher’s work for the German town of Isny im Allgäu. We spoke to Patrick Eley (Creative Director at dn&co.) to find out more about this iconic and greatly influential piece of design.
Many thanks for taking the time to speak with us. This is the first time a UK audience will have had the fantastic opportunity to see an extensive retrospective of Aicher’s visual identity and pictographic work for the town of Isny — it would be great if you could tell us a little about how this exhibition came about and what inspired you to stage it.
Otl Aicher has long been a source of inspiration for our studio — his work, particularly that for the Munich 72 Olympics is a design touchstone — but his work for Isny is relatively little known. A few of us have Isny posters on the walls at home, but there has never been much information available about the project as a whole.
So we went on a trip to discover more. Our journey through southern Germany was the epitome of a busman’s holiday. The treasure trove of the archive at Ulm, the generous hospitality of Aicher’s son Florian at Rotis, and the sweet beauty of the town of Isny itself were stops along the way to a greater understanding of the man and his vision.
Much of our own studio’s work concerns places and spaces and how to best represent them. Aicher’s forceful, uncompromising approach seems a world away from what we might create now, but the clarity of vision is exhilarating.
Aicher may be known mostly for his iconic branding work for the 1972 Munich Olympics, whereas his work for Isny is perhaps, as you say, a little less well-known or referenced within the design community. How did you first discover this body of work?
We’ve been fans of Otl Aicher for years, and have spent our fair share of time studying his work and scouring eBay for his prints. Markus Rathgeb mentioned Isny in his 2007 monograph on Aicher, a couple of us have the book Isny, itself published in 1981, but we’ve always wanted to know more.
This is one of a couple of examples of place branding he did for towns in the region – he worked with other towns such as Bad Gastein in Austria. But this is one of the better known examples of his work because it was completed over approximately ten years and it turned heads within Germany at the time.
Aicher’s work, and that for Isny in particular, is characterised by a beguiling reductive simplicity — an economy of line drawn with an often mischievous twist.
Your research for this exhibition took you to the town of Isny itself, as well as Aicher’s archive at Ulm. What did you discover there?
Isny is a charming, historic town situated in the heart of lush German farmland, just in the shadow of the Alps. The town has embraced Aicher’s work — you can see it on flags and signage throughout the town, as well as in the tourist centre, where you can buy scarves and matchboxes with Aicher’s motifs. The town is very proud of these pictograms and treats its branding the way another town might treat its heritage buildings. Isny felt strangely familiar — the architecture, the rolling hills, the tractors — we had all seen them before, but in black and white. Although none of us had ever been there, its identity made it recognisable.
The archive in Ulm is a remarkable place — a little slice of design heaven. A beautiful building housing an utterly extensive collection of the work of Aicher and his students at the Ulm School. Treasure after treasure stacked on shelves in a climate-controlled basement. We saw original paste-up artworks and prototypes of products for Isny – some which were made in the end, and some which weren’t. It gave us a real sense of the process behind the work for Isny.
You also collaborated closely with Aicher’s son, Florian. What kind of insight did he give you into his father’s approach and process with regard to creating this iconic concept?
Florian was incredibly generous to grant us permission to reproduce his father’s work for Isny, but we didn’t get the sense that he was close to the process himself. He did recall his father going in to Isny to buy cheese, however. Apparently it’s a great place for cheese…
We had a brilliant morning in Rotis, the rural hamlet where Aicher had his studio from 1972 onwards. Florian showed us around and his wife Gabrielle made us spaghetti and we ate together under a tree.
Rotis was originally a farm dating from the 15th century — tranquil, lush and leafy. Rigorously gardened by Aicher, who would go to ‘greenland’ each year to tend to the land and abstain from work. It was a place with no distractions, where his staff could really think and get work done. It’s entirely different from our own way of working; it must have been quite a radical decision to move a globally-renowned design studio into the depths of the countryside, miles from the big cities. We were really struck by that — a studio that produced very modern and totally enduring work, but absolutely isolated from the world it was working for. Apart from Isny of course, which was just over the hill.
You have also produced a limited edition publication to accompany the exhibition, which looks great. Can you tell us a little more about this?
The publication was originally intended as a lean accompanying gallery guide to go with the exhibition. But the more we dug and the more people we met, the more we realised that there was a real story here, one that hadn’t really been told outside of Germany. It sort of snowballed from there…
There’s so much to the story of Aicher’s work for Isny – how it was originally conceptualised as a project for Ulm, for instance, or how it was entirely revoked in the mid-80s in favour of something more conventional, or how the town of Isny still uses these pictograms today. The book delves deeper into Isny the place as well. To understand the work Aicher did for the town, we felt it was important to understand the town itself.
Each image is a wonderfully condensed view, but seeing them together in their original contexts is what is so interesting.
What key pieces can visitors to Ground Floor Space expect to see at the exhibition?
Having so many of the different posters in one place really demonstrates the system Aicher created. Everything is A1 (although there are a few intriguing skinny half A1 posters divided vertically) and designs range from single pictograms to syncopated arrangements of multiple pictograms on 2, 4 and 8-column grids. Each image is a wonderfully condensed view, but seeing them together in their original contexts is what is so interesting.
We’ve also got a few of the physical items on show. There’s a great memory game which Aicher prototyped while working on the project. It was never made because it incorporates each of the 128 pictograms he drew — it’s an impossible game to play, but it does give a very complete picture of his expression of Isny.
The breadth of subject is vast in Aicher’s system for Isny — from architectural and recreational to wildlife and landscapes. Is there any single piece that, personally, stands out for you?
There are so many brilliant ones to choose from, but the cat licking its paw is a classic. We actually spotted a few barn cats when we were in Isny, so it was great to see what inspired the pictogram. Aicher apparently loved cats…
What do you think is the appeal of this work, nearly forty years after it was originally conceived and designed by Aicher?
Aicher’s work, and that for Isny in particular, is characterised by a beguiling reductive simplicity — an economy of line drawn with an often mischievous twist. The pastoral world of Swabia is distilled to a series of square landscapes reminiscent of Polaroids, or even Instagram — stark moments rendered entirely in black and white. It’s a bold expression and an intensely memorable one, with the powerful quality of a graphic novel. Perhaps that’s part of what is so appealing. Aicher creates a world that can be ordered and re-ordered; a flexible system that can tell the changing stories of a place panel by panel, while remaining entirely recognisable and consistent.
It’s also the idea behind the work that continues to resonate especially today. The towns surrounding Isny all deployed identical tourism campaigns of grazing cows and blue skies and what Aicher achieved here was something different, something memorable. There was actually an outcry from within the town about ten years into the branding programme, they felt they didn’t identify with the black and white portrayal. The entire system was pulled in favour of something more generic. Little by little, the town has been reintroducing it since the 1990s and today you really get a sense that it’s been embraced once again. It backs up a universal truth that some of the best ideas are the ones that make us feel most uncomfortable at first.
Big thanks to Patrick Eley and all of the team at dn&co. for their time in putting this feature together.
Thanks to the kind folk at dn&co. we’re also offering one reader the chance to win a copy of Otl Aicher’s Isny. This limited edition publication will accompany the exhibition and features rare and unseen work from this iconic project. To be in with a chance of winning, simply share this article on Twitter with the tag #FFF_Isny or RT our competition tweet — we’ll pick and announce the lucky winner on Monday 25 September 2017.