The graphic design studio Odermatt & Tissi was founded in Zurich in 1968 by Siegfried Odermatt and Rosmarie Tissi, both of whom are considered pioneers of graphic design. The studio’s work has been published in numerous magazines, has won many awards, and has been exhibited internationally, including in Offenbach am Main and Essen, both in Germany; New York; Zurich; and Tokyo.
Tissi was born in Thayngen, close to Schaffhausen, Switzerland, in 1937. She trained as a graphic designer at the Schule für Gestaltung Zürich, followed by four years of vocational training: two in Winterthur and two in Zurich. She has shared a studio with Siegfried Odermatt since graduating, yet has developed her own voice and has worked independently on many projects, in a playful style which stands in contrast with the rigidity of Swiss typography. Tissi has been an AGI (Alliance Graphic Internationale) member since 1974 and has received numerous distinctions and awards for her work. She has lectured at many design events, in Mexico, San Diego, London, and Tehran, and has been guest workshop teacher in Montreal, New Haven, Philadelphia, Spain, and Shanghai. Additionally, she designed distinctive typefaces such as Sinaloa and Mindanao. Tissi created three remarkable covers for TM, in 1979, 81, and 84.
Odermatt (who was present during the interview but with a limited English, he did not engage in the conversation) was born in Neuheim, Switzerland, in 1926, and died on 13 January 2017. He was a self-taught graphic designer. While working as a delivery boy for Graphis Press he became acquainted with painter and graphic artist Hans Falk and later collaborated on some freelance work with Falk from 1943 to 46. He began working as an independent designer in 1950, and has been running a studio with Rosmarie Tissi since 1968. He has been an AGI (Alliance Graphic Internationale) member since 1974 and has received numerous distinctions and awards throughout his career.
Louise Paradis I am looking at the period 1965 to 85. It was a kind of transition period from Modernism to Postmodernism.
Rosmarie Tissi Are we in between this period with our studio? Oh! I am so glad that we are not at the beginning!
LP I am meeting with people who did covers for TM. I am pretty sure you did three.
RT [Showing the TM cover for the January 1979 issue] I was so unhappy with it because they changed my design. I made it aligned like that and they changed it! I had made a poster beforehand, with the same arrangement, which they kept, and I can’t believe they changed it on that cover. I was looking forward to that issue so much, and it was such a disappointment when I saw the cover.
LP How would you describe the position of TM magazine in the world of graphic design and typography during this period, 1965–85?
RT I would say it was quite important, because we really looked at every issue to see who is in it and what were the articles. I think Rudolf Hostettler was the man behind it, and he really had good taste and knew a lot about typography. Nowadays, things have changed.
LP Were there other magazines you were looking at?
RT I think Graphis was OK. Now it is too fashionable, too shiny, too nice … I cannot explain why exactly. During the time of Walter Herdeg, they sometimes published things we couldn’t understand, but as a whole it was very good.
LP How did your work with TM come about? Did Hostettler ask you or did you propose your work?
RT We never proposed. Hostettler asked us. To be honest, I would have been too shy to ask to be published.
LP Did you design the inside pages?
RT No, we just gave him our work and they put it together.
LP Did you go to school in Zurich?
RT Yes, but only the general school. Then I went to do an apprenticeship, the first two years of which were in Winterthur, which was a horrible place. I didn’t learn a thing. I had to clean the rooms. Then I changed and came here and stayed.
LP Did you teach yourself after that?
RT No. Do you know the apprenticeship system? I had to go to school twice a week. We had different classes, like business administration, etc. Then I was an apprentice the rest of the time at a company. Those students who just go to school don’t know that sometimes work means having to be really quick. That’s why I like the apprenticeship system: you learn on the job.
LP What about Siegfried Odermatt?
RT He didn’t study typography. Not that he is proud of it; that is just the way it is. He was a delivery boy for Graphis Press. He knew everybody there and sometimes he looked at what they were doing. There he met a graphic designer and painter and he worked with him a bit. He wanted to be a photographer. Siegfried asked Walter Herdeg, then the publisher of Graphis, whether he could do an apprenticeship with them, but Herdeg already had an apprentice. Eventually, Hans Falk, who worked for Graphis, gave him some work. In the beginning he was a graphic designer and then a painter.
LP Did you have teachers who influenced you particularly?
RT Not really. In those days, my teachers were all old fashioned graphic designers, and they didn’t like what Siegfried was doing and the fact that I was doing my apprenticeship with him. They thought he was too modern.
LP Who were your favorite designers while you were at school? Were there people you looked up to?
RT Karl Gerstner was very good. And I always liked the American designers, for example there were Saul Bass, Gene Federico, and George Tscherny. They had this style that wasn’t as heavy as the Swiss style. Some of my work at the beginning was very Swiss too, because I hadn’t found my way. But overall, Swiss design didn’t have soul. I preferred the American design, and I still do. I like Franco Grignani because of his three-dimensional images and black-and-white images.
LP How did you find out about American designers?
RT In magazines like Graphis. For instance, I have a collection of Grignani’s advertisements. Sometimes, mostly when I was young, we would go to bookshops just to look at books. I really wanted to know what others were doing. And, just to make little parentheses about my time in Winterthur, instead of eating at the school cafeteria I would go out and buy Graphis with that money. And the chef would be furious when he saw me: “What did you use your money for?!”
LP So you always had your eyes open and you were hungry to find out what was going on?
RT Yes, but not in order to copy others. Sometimes it just gives you a little kick, and why not?
LP As I mentioned, I am exploring at this period of transition between Modernism and Postmodernism. And in my opinion, please tell me if I am wrong, the work of your studio is right in between those two periods. There is still structure in your work, but it is not like Swiss design. It is something else, there is a very playful element to it.
RT Yes, that is my style, more playful, because I always tried to move away from Swiss graphics. Somebody asked me how I worked, and I said, “I design first, then I try to make the grid. Some other people do the grid first, then they start to work.”
LP I think you basically took the best from each style. It is a fascinating balance. Did you feel during the period in question that there was some new way of thinking, a new aesthetic?
RT Those years, the 1960s and 70s, until the 80s, were wonderful because clients wanted to have good design and they had money. Then suddenly clients wanted to save money and started to ask, “Why is this not red,” and things like that. Before that, you could just do good work and clients didn’t try to change it.
LP I’ve seen that you taught at Yale?
RT Yes, for three weeks.
LP Was it when Paul Rand was there?
RT No, it was Sheila Levrant de Bretteville. Paul had left already.
LP I read an article about her, where she explained her new program for Yale, and at the end I had the feeling that social studies were almost as important as graphic design in that new curriculum.
RT Yes. I am good on typography, but it sometimes takes me to have an idea, and if you don’t have an idea you need a good composition. So, for the Yale workshop I thought of something simple and asked the class to make a composition with their initials. An easy task but some of the results were almost paintings; some very esoteric. In my opinion, I don’t need to include a personal touch to the work when I am in front of clients. However, some young people think they should, which is something I experienced there for the first time.
LP During the same time, Wolfgang Weingart designed a lot of covers for TM. Were you interested in his work?
RT I liked his work, yes. He is a good example. He had set about to change Swiss design.
LP You have always worked on commissions, for clients. In Weingart’s case, he had a special position: he was a teacher and almost didn’t have clients at all. He could explore and experiment at his ease.
RT Weingart indeed was a typical teacher, because he could experiment as much as he wanted. But if he would have had to live from his work, that probably would have been different.
The above interview took place in Zurich, in January 2011. It was copy-edited by Ariella Yedgar and Roland Früh.