Ken Komai 


Pursuing a broad-based designer education in the 1960s and 70s enabled Ken Komai to acquire the necessary skills to move into architecture and city planning in the 80s. The son of famed designer Ray Komai was born and brought up in New York City. Komai attended the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm, Germany, and the Schule für Gestaltung Basel between 1966 and 74. While studying, he assisted influential designers and companies on a number of projects: layout execution work at the famous advertising agency GGK, interning at E+U Hiestand, helping “father of the New Wave style” Wolfgang Weingart on his first US and German tours, 1972–73, and aiding prominent Schule für Gestaltung Basel tutor Armin Hofmann at his Summer Program in Graphic Design, in Brissago, Switzerland, and later on some of his three-dimensional projects. Additionally, Komai designed a cover and article for his friend Dan Friedman for Typografische Monatsblätter (issue 1, 1981). He taught a class at the Schule für Gestaltung Basel, 1986–96.

Komai’s special interest in the third dimension led to working at the Institute for Urban Planning and Architecture (ORL-Institute, ETHZ), in Zurich, 1980–86. At the same time, he worked and collaborated with many architects, including W+K Steib, Hans Zwimpfer, Buchner Bründler Architects, and Hanspeter Baur—the latter of which developed into a Partnership (BAUR + KOMAI, 1988-98). In 1999 Komai established his independent architectural practice ARCHBUERO KOMAI, which, as well as undertaking the usual building projects, is involved in city development projects and urban renewal strategies. As an executive board member of the SWB, Basel (Schweizerischer Werkbund, an interdisciplinary club for design professionals in Switzerland) he is a participant in the IBA (International Building Exhibition 2020) to develop the three-country (France, Germany and Switzerland) agglomeration around Basel.


Ken Komai   [Looking through Typografische Monatsblätter covers 1960–90] So you have covers by Weingart, Vines, Faris, Lutz … And this cover here, Issue 4 of 1974, is by me. It was for a TM competition where we proposed an idea in the form of a text for the “next” series of covers. Wolfgang Weingart did a series of covers where he designed a template layout within which he presented the winning text ideas. And this cover from 1971, issue 1, I did for Dan Friedman. When Friedman first came to the Schule für Gestaltung Basel, he met the head editor Rudolf Hostettler. That is how the article for TM issue 1 of 1981 evolved. Hostettler was very intrigued by Friedman and wanted him to do something. And here are some André Gürtler covers. He was a teacher at the Schule für Gestaltung Basel.

Louise Paradis   Yes, I am actually meeting André Gürtler this afternoon with Felix Berman. Do you know them?

KK   Yes I do, I know both of them. I had André Gürtler as a teacher and I was probably not a very good student. And Felix Berman I know as a typographer. When I first came to Switzerland, I had an opportunity to help out at an advertising agency called GGK. That is how I started in Switzerland.

LP   GGK was probably the best firm in Switzerland in those years.

KK   What did I do? I did paste-ups.

LP   What are paste-ups?

KK   At that time, when you made a layout the art director would do a sketch and you would take all the different elements—the text lines at a specific size and the pictures; you would assemble everything like a collage, basically paste it up. They would then make a photolithograph, and then a plate from which it would then be printed. That is how a lot of designers started off. Felix Berman was one of the head designers at GGK. I first came to Switzerland in the summer of 1966, and he was one of the people in the office I did layout work for. I think he had his own office later on. He was a very good typographer. Then, when I went to the Basel School for Arts and Crafts [later named Schule für Gestaltung], I met all of the teachers: Gürtler, Meier, von Arx, Hauert, Hofmann, etc.  It was before Weingart started teaching.

LP   Was Emil Ruder still teaching there the first time you attended the school?

KK   Yes, he was still there. And then the second time I went there—after Ulm—he was not so well. He had health problems.

LP   So you came to Switzerland twice?

KK   Yes. Before I came to Switzerland I went to college in Vermont. I was supposed to transfer to the Rhode Island School of Design, but my father, Ray Komai, who was  also a designer, told me, “If you want to go to art school, we are going to send you to Europe.” My father was a friend of George Nelson, who was good friends with Armin Hofmann. Nelson wrote the introduction to Hofmann’s book Graphic Design Manual, Principles and Practices. He was one of the connections for Hofmann to start teaching at Yale University. It was Nelson who told my father that there were no good schools in America, and that you should go to Europe for that. He maintained that there were two schools in Europe: Hochschule für Gestaltung, in Ulm, and Schule für Gestaltung, in Basel. Nelson also knew the Swiss graphic designer Karl Gerstner, and in the summer of 1966 they said I could do sort of an apprenticeship at the GGK, but not exactly; I would just help out.

LP   So you went to GGK as a kind of intern, then to Ulm, and then to Basel?

KK   Actually, I started school first here in Basel, but I didn’t understand what the school was about. At that time, because I came from an academic background, I thought it would be much different—not starting off by drawing a cube and doing the basics. I was disenchanted with the way they wanted to start, so I went to Ulm, and Ulm was much more academic; more intellectual, theoretical, and, for me, more motivating. It was what they called visual communications at that time. It was new. When I came back to Basel after being at Ulm, I said I studied visual communications, and they said, “What’s that?”

LP   That is funny, because when I talked with April Greiman, and she told me that when she started to teach she changed the name of the program to Visual Communications. But that was years after Ulm.

KK   Ulm was a school for environmental design, which had three departments: visual communication, product or industrial design, and architecture. And there were only 150 students at  the school.

LP   Was it because they didn’t accept more?

KK   Yes. The school was very small. You were lucky if you got in. I was one of the youngest there, and probably one of the most ignorant, because I didn’t have either an apprenticeship, or trade, nor a bachelor’s in anything. They only had four or five permanent teachers. Otherwise they invited guest teachers, who were often very outstanding designers coming from all over the world. At the time there were a lot of student revolts in Germany, and the school was politically very active. The students were trying to change the system, because Ulm was the only (Hochschule) institution for design in Germany which was privately owned but state subsidized. It was founded after the Second World War by the Foundation Scholl and people like Inge Aicher-Scholl, Otl Aicher, and Max Bill, who wanted to revive the idea of the Bauhaus and create a design school that was socially, politically, and economically motivated. As you know, the Bauhaus and the Modernist movement wanted to make a break with history. Up to that point, the beginning of the twentieth century, you still had the neoclassic revivals dictating everything, and nobody knew how to deal with the new concepts of production and industrialization, and the needs of a rapidly changing society. There were new materials and technology. Music and painting became accessible to larger groups of people, not only the bourgeoisie, and there was more democracy. The roots of Modernism came from all of that. America didn’t go through that because they didn’t have the same problems and history as Europe had. Modernism got exported to America as a style, as the so-called “International Style”. At that time, America embraced Modernism more politically than ideologically.

LP   What do you mean by politically?

KK   Socialism was becoming a big thing in Europe, and America was afraid of communism and Russia. For a while Russia also embraced Modernism, with people like Lissitzky and Malevich, but then they turned against it and returned to neoclassicism. They felt that Modernism was too abstract, and that abstraction led people in the wrong direction. Things should be more real and tangible. Politically, America wanted to distinguish itself from Russia, and went in the opposite direction and embraced Modernism as a style.

LP   Felix Berman wrote something really nice about that, that American designers “looked at Swiss design as if they would look at painting, admiring its formal beauty without understanding the content.” Did you encounter TM magazine when you were in America?

KK   No. Because I didn’t know anything about design, except for the fact that my father was a designer. Maybe my father knew about it, but that would have been much before the Weingart period. I think I wasn’t really aware of TM until I came to the Basel school, which was in 1969. That was about when Friedman was studying here—he only stayed in Basel for a year. I think Hofmann recognized that Friedman had much potential and was very talented, and sent him to Yale. Friedman was also extremely articulate.

LP   So were you at Basel in the year that Friedman was there?

KK   Yes, partially we actually shared an apartment. He had a room on the top floor, and I had a room on the first floor.

LP   Were you the only Americans?

KK   No, there were other Americans. It was actually very international. There were only two or three Swiss students, and we were about 15 to 20 students in all.

LP   Why were there so few Swiss students?

KK   Because it didn’t fit into their school system. They had the apprenticeship and the Fachklasse [specialized class] system. The International Advanced Program for Graphic Design at the Schule für Gestaltung Basel was a pilot project. There were students from everywhere: John Dickerson was American, Michael was Danish, Claude Forget was from Montreal … [Showing a special article in Graphis] Here is an article published in Graphis about the beginning of this new program. I think it is from the early 1970s. It was a tirage à part [supplement]. It shows a couple of pieces I did at the school. I was good at making three-dimensional things.

LP   Was this tirage à part in Graphis magazine sort of publicity for the school?

KK   Kind of, I guess. I took a year off from school, from 1970 to 71, to go to Japan, because my father worked on the American pavilion for Expo ’70, in Osaka. I came back in 1971, and was at the Basel school until 1974, where I continued going to school not only at the Advanced Program, but also taking many additional courses—I made my own program. In 1976 I started working in Basel for Theo Ballmer, who was a specialist in signage. We won some important competitions, such as designing maps for the Paris Métro and signage concepts for RER Paris. Through this experience I was able to start my own business, in 1977, with Urs Strähl, and became more involved in architecture and urban mapping, which led to my next jobs working for the Basel urban planning department and later to a job at the polytechnic in Zürich [ORL-Institute ETHZ] from 1980 to 86. In 1989, there was a second publication about the school. At that time I taught a three-dimensional class for students who worked in two-dimensions, at the school. It was about color and space. It was only for a couple of hours a week. Otherwise I was Partner in my office with Hanspeter Baur (BAUR + KOMAI Architects Inc.). The head of the department was Michael Renner. He hadn’t done the Advanced Study Program for Graphic Design; he had gone to the Fachklasse. It was a four-year program for graphic designers. Most of them were Swiss or German and had attended the foundation year and then took the entrance exam to get into the Fachklasse. The people graduating from the Fachkasse were more skilled than the people attending the International Advanced Program, because they went through the entire program. People who came to the Basel school to do the advanced class only received a small taste of what the entire program was about. Most people came for only one or two years. Some were really good, like Friedman, who had the perfect background to go to the school. He went to Carnegie Mellon, in the US, which kind of taught the same philosophy as Basel. He studied under Kenneth Hiebert, who also went to the Fachklasse in Basel. The school became more and more process-oriented, and film, animation, and programming played a larger role. They also started to do more conceptual work—developing ideas about semiotics and understanding how new technologies influenced design. It was a time in which digital technologies were being born. In general the school became more experimental.

LP   Can you tell me more about TM Issue 1, from 1981, which you designed? Was it the head editor, Rudolf Hostettler who contacted you to do that issue?

KK   No, it was actually Dan Friedman who contacted me. Friedman was in contact with Hostettler, and he asked me, “Can you do this article for me?” He had a few ideas and sketches for how he wanted it to look, and I just did it. It was very simple.

LP   I like the end of the article with this picture of creased paper. You also included part of it on the cover.

KK   It was kind of a spoof, because the article was entitled “Throwing Out Work from the 70s.” So we were throwing everything into the waste-paper basket. When you told me that the years between 1960 and 90 interested you because of a certain transition from Modernism to postmodernism in design, I meant to say that I think postmodernism is, in fact, more of a reaction to and a criticism of Modernism than a further development of it. Friedman talked about radical Modernism, and wrote a book about it where he describes it as being another step. It had to do with the development of society as he saw it; how people perceived life, and lived. Friedman believed that Modernism should be more radical in the sense of having it embrace more things and be more complex—not too simplistic and purist. In a way, I think that kind of attitude towards Modernism was already present at the school in Basel. Hofmann’s [and Basel’s] form of Modernism was much more multi-dimensional and complicated aesthetically than Ulm’s. Ulm was into aesthetics on a different level. They were looking more from a social and economic point of view: democracy, participation, interaction, and mass consumption were some of their concerns. For a long time designers didn’t want to accept the ephemeral in design. They tried to make something that would last forever. They would make a monument out of poster design. Friedman saw that, and he wanted to play with that idea in his article for TM by throwing things away and using creased paper, and being provocative through the use of other kinds of vernacular. In the end, I think so much of what we do and understand can only be explained in terms of context. That’s the didactic part!


The above conversation took place in Basel in January 2011. It was copy-edited by Ariella Yedgar.