Fritz Gottschalk has contributed considerably to the dissemination of Swiss design in North America, by a presence in Canada and the US in the 1960s and 70s. He built a solid reputation in brand communication and environmental design with his firm Gottschalk+Ash, and expanded its operations to a multinational organisation.
Born in Zurich, Gottschalk completed an apprenticeship at the printing and publishing house Orell Füssli while he simultaneously attended classes at the Schule für Gestaltung Zürich. He then worked at the Atelier Typographique in Paris and at London Typographic Designers before enrolling, in 1962, for further training in typography in Emil Ruder’s class at the Schule für Gestaltung Basel.
In 1963, he moved to Canada and became head of graphic design at Paul Arthur & Associates Design, where he worked on major projects such as Expo 67. In 1966 he founded Gottschalk+Ash International in Montreal with Canadian designer Stuart Ash. They later opened offices in Toronto, Calgary, Zurich, New York and Milan. Among their most memorable projects are the Montreal Olympic Games, the SkyDome stadium complex in Toronto, and the Swiss passport design. A 1974 article in Typografische Monatsblätter’s (TM) issue 8/9 offers an interesting glimpse into the work of Gottschalk+Ash and the design context in Canada.
Throughout his career, Gottschalk has stood as a prominent exponent of Swiss typography and graphic design. He has spread powerful ideas on both sides of the Atlantic. Thus his work can truly be celebrated as a critical contribution to the development of the “International Style”.
Louise Paradis How would you describe the position of TM in the world of graphic design and typography during the period 1965–85? Was it an influential magazine?
Fritz Gottschalk TM is a heritage journal, and has always been published by the Swiss Printing Union for all the printers, typesetters and paper people. That’s what it is all about. It goes back to before I began in the field of typography in 1954, when I started an apprenticeship at Orell Füssli in Zurich. We certainly were aware of this magazine, which was extremely avant-garde in terms of modern typography and design. They always had very forward-looking articles by people like Jan Tschichold, Max Caflisch and the person who influenced me very much as a young man, Emil Ruder. He transformed TM into a magazine that represents avant-garde typography. TM really made me aware of what I was doing as an apprentice – what kind of field I was entering into – and it got me interested in the design and creative aspects of typographic communication. We just adored Ruder and every page or every article he designed or wrote for TM. Those were exciting times because it was after the Second World War and Europe was recovering. Switzerland was lucky enough not to be invaded, and therefore everything was a bit further advanced here. We were cutting edge when it came to design. Other important names? Armin Hofmann was a stroke of luck for the Basel school, where I did my postgraduate work. Here in Zurich there were people like Müller-Brockmann, Vivarelli and Neuburg. That was the nucleus of the movement.
LP They all published articles in TM?
FG They all wrote articles and showed their work, not only in TM. Another Swiss magazine founded at about the same time was Walter Herdeg’s Graphis. It was leading as well: the very first magazine to report about graphic design in broader global terms. Once Herdeg reached retirement he sold it to B. Martin Pedersen, who then moved it to New York. TM always stood out because there was no other magazine worldwide that focused on modern typography.
LP You went to England, then Canada. Were people aware of that magazine over there?
FG After my apprenticeship, I first went to Paris. I did the rounds looking for a job. I went to the best people there – Peter Knapp, Jean Widmer and a studio called Snip, who did beautiful work. When I showed them my work, they said, “It is very much TM.” But the English were not so aware, perhaps because its text was only in German and French. The British did it their own way. I think they come from a different angle in terms of design. They were certainly influenced by the thinking represented in TM. Fletcher/Forbes/Gill, now Pentagram, their typography was as beautiful and as modern as if it were done in Zurich.
LP What about your time in Canada?
FG Canada for me was an absolutely fantastic time. It was old–new. It was big. It was the kind of thinking that TM represented. We really imbued it with Swiss style, which was almost unknown when we arrived on the scene. The Canadians were more influenced by and looked toward England than France or Switzerland. So, our way of thinking was radically new and different and that was our luck. We then started to push it and did things in a very purist fashion. At that time it was relatively easy to stand out. You just did the simple poster with a few words or shapes and it stood out.
LP How did your collaboration with TM come about? Did they contact you or did you send samples of your work?
FG They only featured one article about us in 1974. It had to do with the Alliance Graphique Internationale, of which there was no Canadian branch at the time. Herdeg and Neuburg approached me and said, “We would like to get a Canadian branch started.” I got to know Neuburg, who was very good in writing about design. He looked at my work and said, “You should do an article in TM”, and we got the OK to do the article. I think that Hostettler was in charge of TM at that time; he was the brain behind the whole thing. He was very cultured, very open-minded, with a good sense for design and typography. He gave us the number of pages and the due date and that was it. At that time we were young and brash. We said, “OK, we will do it on the one condition that we also design the cover.” He said yes to that as well.
LP So you designed the blue cover and the article?
FG It was a fantastic piece of PR for us.
LP The first time I went through the pile of TMs at my school, it was such a nice surprise when I saw that cover. An article about design in Canada in TM? And inside that issue, there is an article …
FG … written by Hans Neuburg.
LP When you went to Canada, what did you think of graphic design there? You brought something really new to Canada.
FG Not quite. I was in Paris for a year and a half, then London for two and a half years and then I did my postgraduate degree in Basel. I just wanted to leave Switzerland because it was too small, too tight. I didn’t feel comfortable. I always thought: I am going to end up in New York. But I couldn’t go to the US because they would have drafted me into the army right away. I figured, well, I can go to Canada and then later move down to the US. That was my strategy. This was in the early 60s. I could find no article anywhere, no books, no names, nothing about graphic design in Canada. I had a hell of a time trying to find something. I knew Herdeg, so I went to see him and asked if he knew anybody in Canada. He gave me the name of Paul Arthur, who was assistant editor for Graphis and had lived in Switzerland for four years. At the same time, I heard about a guy named Ernst Roch who did beautiful work, and also Allan Fleming. So I had three names, and I wrote to them all. Fleming was the first to reply. I had sent him a nice package of my work. He wrote, “Fritz, over here, it is a freewheeling society.” Those were his only words. He probably thought, this guy is too Swiss. That was my very first impression of Canada and yet that is why I love the country to this day. Roch wrote back and said, “Once you are here, come and see me for an interview.” In the meantime, my application to immigrate was in process. Then I got a letter from Arthur. He said, “You were recommended by Herdeg, so you can start working for me.” Boom! So I went over to Ottawa and started at Paul Arthur.
Paul Arthur played a tremendous role in terms of Canadian design. He is the man who made the Canadian government take note of design. And we did a hell of a lot of work for the government. Those were exciting times, we had Expo 67, the Olympics afterwards – Canada was really a happening place.
LP Expo 67 and the Olympics were in my opinion the peak of Canadian graphic design or design in general. So much was happening during that period.
FG Canada in terms of design really boomed back then. The country was on its way to becoming a member of the global community. We didn’t look back to the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, we just proceeded from now. The starting point was documented in TM: clean, straightforward typography. That explains why Canada’s image is not 100 per cent Anglo-Saxon. You know, the Americans are the Americans and the French are the French, but in Montreal I felt in-between the two: here is the US and here is Canada and here I am in the middle. I still feel that way. And that is Montreal’s great contextual advantage. Canada has the chance to make something new out of this very unique position. I also believe that this is why TM thinking succeeded in Canada. Canada didn’t and still doesn’t want to be the US, but doesn’t want to be Europe either. Canada wants to be Canada. Stuart Ash – who became my partner in 1965 – is a wonderfully Waspy Canadian. Together we had both aspects between us: the European/Swiss way of thinking and the North American English-speaking Canadian ethos, which is more generous, more relaxed. It was a great combination. I never wanted to do cold Swiss design. My idea always was to go beyond that, take the best from Europe – from Switzerland – and accept the best of the New World, with its freewheeling let’s-try-it attitude. And these days, it is a smaller universe, and everybody is in the same boat. I am not talking about the Internet per se. The digital world is fantastic from a technical point of view, but now we’re looking at things we haven’t completely come to grips with yet. Anybody can do anything now. That is why the period you admire, the 1960s and 70s, was much more concise. Things were done by knowledgeable, well-educated, gifted people, whereas today if you live in Okanagan, British Columbia, and need a letterhead, anybody can design it. Whereas before, there was an attitude behind it: local design articulated a Canadian attitude.
LP You first started to work in Ottawa, then you went to Montreal. How did you meet Stuart Ash?
FG Stuart lived in Toronto. He had attended Ontario College of Art and worked for Anthony Mann designing Canada’s centennial logo. Up in Ottawa, we started to do some very neat communication design work for the National Gallery. It was not commercial work, you know, it was all for the government. Stuart saw our work and then came to Ottawa for an interview and we hired him. The weekend he moved up to Ottawa, I moved down to Montreal because Paul Arthur got involved with Expo 67 and Place Bonaventure, which were two big projects. I worked for Arthur there, perhaps for a year. Eventually I decided I had to start out on my own. A few weeks later, Stuart called me and said, “Can I come and see you? I would like to do a postgraduate degree at Ulm.” That was the school in Germany at that time. I said, “Stuart, you don’t have to go to Germany. Why don’t you come and work with me as an employee for one year and if things turn out well, we will go into business together.”
LP Did you work on Expo 67 during that time?
FG We did quite a bit of Expo 67 under the umbrella of Paul Arthur and Associates. We did the site signage, shops, printed material. Later I got involved with the Olympics, where we handled the design quality control. I directed the souvenir committee. I had a couple each of industrial and graphic designers and we were in charge of the visual appearance of these items. About 40 companies from all over the world came to show us their work. They came with the most awful designs imaginable and we provided a graphic and industrial design service, as we were paid by the organising committee to make all things conform to Montreal Olympics style.
LP You opened your office with Stuart Ash in Montreal, but after that you opened other branches.
FG We started in 1963, and Gottschalk+Ash has been in existence since 65. Stuart and myself opened the office in Montreal and worked there together for four years. Then one day, Stuart – being an English-speaking Canadian who grew up in Hamilton and Winnipeg – said, “Fritz, I want to open an office in Toronto.” Toronto at that time had only one high-rise, and they still had wooden boardwalks. You cannot imagine what it looked like in the early 60s! Montreal was much more advanced. I said to Stuart, “If you want to do it, do it.” And he put his mind to it and now the Toronto office is much bigger than this little office here in Zurich.
I stayed in Montreal, where we had another partner, Peter Steiner. After I left, he and Hélène L’Heureux ran the Montreal office. I knew Peter – who is also Swiss – from my studies in Basel. Following the Olympics, a number of things came together. One was that they checked the working permits of all the people in the office and some, from the US, had to go. Montreal went into an economic slump after the Olympics, because they had overspent. And Quebec wanted to separate from Canada. The Montreal Museum, which we had made into a bilingual institution, now had to be made into a French-only or French-first institution. I am Swiss, and I will never understand this bickering between two cultures. Times became more difficult and all that reawakened my pipe dream to go to New York. I decided to leave and open a New York office, which I did with Ken Carbone – he later partnered with Leslie Smolan and formed Carbone/Smolan Agency, which has evolved into one of the US’s best-known communications firms.
New York in the 1970s was in a depression. It was bankrupt, frenetic, dirty. Everybody thought I was crazy to open an office there at that time. But we had work almost immediately because we knew all these companies through the Olympics. I did that for two years, but decided rather quickly to return to Switzerland. I thought, I will work like a samurai, doing one job a year by myself. But within six months I had my first employee. Sascha Lötscher joined the Zurich office, became partner in 2003, and majority shareholder in 2010. For the last 15 years we’ve worked together successfully to ensure the continuity of G+A’s vision. Today Sascha is CEO and manages the office.
It was and still is a great ride. That should be what it is all about for young people. You have to go out there and shake the bushes. You have to take chances. I don’t think it was easier in my time than it is today, only different. The Expo and Olympics were a particular time in Montreal, there were opportunities, but at that time nobody knew what graphic design was. We had to educate people. I would love to be 20 again because society is now more sensitised to design: you have the digitised world in which one can do fantastic work and you need very few people to do it. For young people I think it is an extremely exciting time, though perhaps these days you have to try harder to stand out.
LP To return to TM magazine. When I looked at the years before your issue, there were almost two and a half years of Weingart covers. Then suddenly, in the middle of a series, your cover appeared, which was refreshing and surprising. How did you regard what he was doing? I can see from your work then and today that you are leaning more toward a modernist aesthetic and way of thinking.
FG TM had Emil Ruder as its beacon. He was a pioneer of Modernism in the 1950s. I was his pupil at the school where Armin Hofmann taught too. They are the two people who profoundly influenced me. Their philosophy was very logical. Before that you had classicism with all its horrible stuff – curlicues, etc. Ruder and his colleagues got rid of that. They said, we’re going to build a new world, similar to the school at Ulm and the Bauhaus. This is where my personal roots are. Ruder opened my eyes. His world was very unpretentious. I was born a few hundred yards from here. I grew up with this Zwingli or reformational spirit: you don’t brag, you don’t open your mouth before thinking, you don’t put your elbows on the table. And it was pretty much the philosophy of Ruder.
Then came a designer by the name of Weingart. He said, that is all old fashioned. I am going to rethink everything. And that he did! Weingart shook the bushes, and I admire him for that. He made all of us look at our work differently. Deep down in my heart, I was totally against it. The attitude I grew up with reflects life in the industrial world we occupy; it’s part of our society, and always directs us to do something positive for the greater good. The basic difference with Weingart is that he did it for himself. He broke the rules, he showed us that things can be done in an alternative way. That is what he achieved. But that is also the fundamental weakness of his work. You needed to be very clear in your head as a young person or student or observer. Once you knew the basic rules, only then could you start to improvise.
LP Looking at Weingart’s professional path, one can see that he was a teacher all his life. So most of his works are personal experiments which were facilitated by his teaching position. I think his experimentation is extremely valuable, but in ways other than working for clients.
FG Weingart was very privileged in that way. If you had a solid education in terms of communication design and typography, then went to study under him, that was terrific. But he took a lot of young people and seduced them: is this a poster for a steam engine or a dry cleaning shop? We never wanted to do work simply for the sake of work. We wanted to motivate people to go see the exhibition of the painter whose name or work was on the poster. At Gottschalk+Ash we always love to work for industry. Not that I don’t like to do an art catalogue, which is the icing on the cake, but people with a real problem give you the compelling and challenging assignments. How do you sell a machine or a brand-new service that nobody has ever heard of? Those are really the core problems that we have to solve as professionals.
LP Other than Weingart, were there signs or manifestations of change?
FG I can give you a whole list of names: Weingart, Katherine McCoy, Willi Kunz, April Greiman. They had a similar attitude; they are all very gifted designers. At the same time, you also have Massimo Vignelli, Cahan & Associates in San Francisco, Bruce Mau, Paprika in Quebec. They do great work, but in a totally different mindset.
LP It seems to me that good, simple modernist work follows a continuous line, with a certain timelessness attached to it. Whereas if you look at postmodern design, the line peaks and dips more abruptly.
FG Postmodern design is dead!
LP Swiss typography, even during the heyday of postmodernism, seems to have continued to be appreciated and does quite well worldwide.
FG Ask yourself why. Because it is honest. It doesn’t subscribe to fads. If you look at some of the work we did 30 years ago – without knowing when it was made – you would think we did it last week. That is what we are proud of. We are not interested in doing things that are a flash in the pan. Today, you can do work so fast you are not even aware of what you have done. I would tell young people to take more time to do whatever they are doing. Because only by taking your time, by stepping back, you achieve the quality that is required.
LP Can you tell me about your experience studying at the Schule für Gestaltung Basel in the early 1960s?
FG At that time they had something absolutely fantastic, what we call today a postgraduate programme. The condition for getting in was you had to complete a four-year apprenticeship and two years of practical experience. Ruder and Hofmann accepted two to three students a year. There are about 16 people worldwide who did the Basel programme. It was very difficult to get in because they obviously picked the very best. It was a privilege to be in this programme. We had the freedom to do whatever we wanted. I did a one-year programme with a guy named Horst Hohl. Before that I studied under Harry Boller, who then went to Chicago. André Gürtler taught there, as did Boller, then came Hunziker and Hans-Rudolf Lutz.
LP I am more aware of the programme in a later period, when they were accepting about 15–20 students.
FG That was after Ruder died. They started to work with computers, and Weingart and Hofmann were teaching there.
LP Tell me about Hans-Rudolf Lutz.
FG As a teacher, he was very socially minded, committed and aware, and he liked to break the rules. We always had printing bills to pay, whereas under Weingart there were never problems like that. But Lutz understood us, because he did beautiful books himself. He was always scratching together money to finance his own fascinating projects. I thought what Lutz did was very inventive work. He took graphic design and used it to make your mind halt. There was always thinking behind it. For example, he made an entire book about the logos on the goods boxes that he collected. That to me is serious graphic design research.
Let me add one more thing. Today, we are lucky to be part of an interesting, challenging, stimulating world. Talented people who are in the field of graphic design are the lucky ones. To them I say, enjoy the ride!
The above interview took place in Zurich, in January 2011. It was copy-edited by Roland Früh and Ariella Yedgar. Additional edits in 2016 by Stanley Moss.