Obituary Karl Gerstner
André Thomkins, a friend of Karl Gerstner (20 July 1930 - 1 January 2017), once rearranged the letters of the artist’s name to read “Klar, strenger” meaning “clear, stricter”. “Klar, strenger” was also Gerstner’s life motto and is the mark of his graphic work and free art. For Gerstner was not someone who created from the shadows, rather whatever he created could be explained and therefore understood, with all its variables, possibilities and consequences. It was consistent.
Born in Basel in 1930, he wanted to become a chemist but his parents’ financial situation did not permit it. So at fourteen years old, he attended the pre-course at the local commercial college and learned to draw elementary bodies, parts of surfaces, light and dark contrasts and increasing complexities which were all subjects that he would use later in his commercial graphic and free work. An apprenticeship with the realist graphic artist Fritz Bühler came next, followed by lessons in Basel with Armin Hofmann and Emil Ruder, the founders of the new Basel Graphic after the Second World War. Then Gerstner worked in the advertising office of Geigy, the chemical firm, but soon decided to go freelance and met the author Markus Kutter whilst still linked to Geigy. In 1955, Gerstner designed the pamphlet “achtung: die schweiz” [caution: switzerland] authored by Max Frisch, Lucius Burckhardt and Kutter. After the commemorative publication “100 Jahre Geigy” [100 Years of Geigy] in which gilt edges, handmade paper and dignitaries’ speeches were replaced by the graphic representation of production and company development, i.e. concrete visualisations, the pair founded the agency Gerstner and Kutter. Gerstner endeavoured to “manage Bauhaus as a business.” Once Paul Gredinger had joined them, the company was expanded to become GGK, an exporter of Swiss graphics with subsidiaries in Düsseldorf, and later in other cities, including New York. Markus Kutter described this period in the publication “Sachen und Privatsachen” [Matter and Private Matter] and showed what is possible when design is seen not only as a marketing strategy, but also as a cultural reality. Particularly at GGK, art of his time was not a means of distraction, as in corporate collections, but an integral component of self-perception.
For next to graphic art and by no means detached from this Gerstner was committed to this as a painter of constructive and concrete art and was one of the most important representatives of the second generation; moreover, with “Kalte Kunst?” [Cold Art?] he provided an important contribution to the understanding of this art movement. Paul Gredinger painted too, and amongst the Basel colleagues of the mid-1960s, there were artist-designers such as Paul Talman, known for his spheric relief, and Helmut Schmidt-Rhen who also worked in Constructivism. Gerstner was also friends with Dieter Roth and Daniel Spoerri and promoted the latter’s move to Düsseldorf with the opening of the Eat-Art-Galerie and its associated restaurant.
The 1960s was the period in which Gerstner became widely known. He designed a logo for Christian Holzäpfel – who produced the innovative furniture system by the designer Herbert Hirche – with variables that represent space and element constructions. He also produced a brochure for it which folds out to the left and right, with a picture of the company owner like a beacon in the centre. In 1962, with his design of the magazine Capital, he showed that finance is much more than development graphs and figures, with the sponsored pages designed by the GGK agency, instead of advertisements. A complex grid by Felix Berman provided immense variation and, as regards content, Capital pre-empted Brand Eins which came much later. Like Raymond Loewy, Gerstner also worked on the Shell logo, and like Helmut Schmitz at DDB, he also dedicated himself to advertising VW cars with wit and expertise. In 1971, Gerstner withdrew from the day-to-day work of GGK, which was increasingly influenced by advertisers like Wolf Rogosky and Michael Schirner, and, supported by old GGK friends, he took on complex tasks for Swissair, the publishers Burda, Ringier and Langenscheidt, and for IBM.
Primarily, however, Gerstner began focusing on his artistic work and publications. Since the early exhibitions in Hans Mayer’s (op) art gallery in Esslingen in the 1960s, he had consistently expanded the artistic work in his repertoire. His book “Programme entwerfen” [Designing Programmes] published in 1964, although now difficult to obtain, is on every ambitious graphic artist’s reading list. The “Kompendium für Alphabeten” [Compendium for Literates] became a seminal work after its first edition in 1972. In 1990, his “Avantgarde-Küche” [Avantgarde Kitchen] was published with postulates which were also important for non-culinary designs “Principles not recipes”, and at the beginning of the new millennium, he summarised his work to date with two comprehensive volumes on graphic design and art.
Karl Gerstner died on 1 January 2017. His place in art and design history has been long assured, his contribution to Swiss graphics equally so, as has the expansion of constructive-concrete art to playful variables, to which his work for the kinetic variable Edition MAT also belongs. And its founder, Daniel Spoerri, a close friend of Gerstner, shall have the last word in this obituary; a word which Spoerri also likes to use as a dedication, and this article also greets Karl Gerstner with it: Salute!