Dan Solbach interview

The Swiss graphic designer reminisces about a stylish Scandinavian upbringing and discusses art, utopian design and his fascination with books.

Interview by Fraser Stanley
Published November 2013

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i. Catalogue for this year's Prix Meret Oppenheim, a lifetime-achievement award by the Federal Office of Culture.
  An inside spread of the Prix Meret Oppenheim catalogue. Photography of the award winners: Gina Folly, Zürich
Artist's book for the Genevan artist Kim Seob Boninsegni. "The result of two years working on it on and off."
. Invite/poster/PDF for a film festival at New Jerseyy. With Tobias Madison
An artist's book for the Viennese painter Rita Vitorelli. "Conceived and designed in 24 hours." Cover drawing: Rita Vitorelli
Poster for the first exhibition at the Westfälischer Kunstverein (Münster, Germany) under the new director in the new location. Image: Christoph Westermeier
The second issue of Wandering, published in March 2013 by Dan Solbach, Tenzing Barshee, and Pippin Wigglesworth. Cover image: Heike-Karin Foell
Leaflet for Swiss artist Hannah Weinberger's presentation at abc Berlin Contemporary with LA gallery Freedman Fitzpatrick.

All works © Dan Solbach 2013 

What are you up to today?

I've spent far too long in meetings at my part-time job (yes, I still need one), then I've finished a lot of smaller jobs which have been waiting, mostly while listening to this great new FACT mix by Floorplan a.k.a. Robert Hood.

You are originally from Gentofte. When did you move to Basel?

We moved to Switzerland when I was just a bit older than two-and-a-half years old. I'm raised Swiss but I think Denmark did have an influence nevertheless, as my father studied furniture design there and then worked for Nanna Ditzel.

I was always surrounded by Scandinavian furniture, also at my parents' friends' houses they all have Arne Jacobsen chairs and at least one Poul Henningsen lamp...

Do you think your father’s profession was one of the reasons you became interested in design?

It probably was – design was just always around. For example, I have very early, almost faded, memories of visiting Nanna Ditzel in her Copenhagen home or her summer home. Also, I remember being in the Pantons’ Basel home in the early ’90s, although that memory is mostly just some orange light, which somehow makes sense when you think of Verner Panton's design...

Funnily, my first specific interest is also linked to Panton. The exhibition of his complete works at Vitra Design Museum in 2000 made a huge impression on me and was somehow the starting point of my own interest in design.

“I remember being in the Pantons’ Basel home in the early ’90s, although that memory is mostly just some orange light, which somehow makes sense when you think of Verner Panton's design...”

You studied at the Academy of Art and Design Basel. How has studying affected your approach to design? I understand you undertook a variety of internships as well during your studies?

I completed a total of 15 months of internships before I started studying. So I entered my studies already with an idea of how I wanted to work and where I wanted to go, which wasn't always good, because in retrospect I think I could have used the freedom provided by the school more experimentally. In a way, I was already a bit to set in my ways.

I also started working freelance in the second semester – I think I did at least five books every year next to my studies, so I wasn't really that focused on school and I think the teachers knew that.

Instead of finishing school like my classmates, I then went to Leipzig for one semester, which opened my eyes, as the classes were more open, less school-like – more discussions, more reading. I also started typesetting there, which changed my perception of typography as a means to convey language.

I then came back to Basel for my final year to find myself in a very motivated group of students. We started organising lectures, discussed everything to the tiniest detail – at times, even the teachers couldn't add anything to our comments in a class review. It was very inspiring and everybody had so much energy. We were constantly asking ourselves all the questions a student should have regarding the profession of graphic design. And I also met some very good friends there.

There is the obvious legacy of traditional modernist Swiss design, yet there are so many emerging contemporary artists and designers that are pushing new boundaries in Switzerland. Basel especially seems to have a strong creative community. What is it like living and working in this environment?

I chose to stay in Basel for my studies, because around this time I was in a circle of friends with a lot of creative energy. Some had just finished their art or fashion design studies; others had just started them. We were publishing a fanzine called Used Future, which somehow was at the centre of all of it and served as some sort of connecting platform. I knew I wanted to remain a part of this energy, so I stayed in Basel.

Modernism got more and more important at the end of my studies and after. I started getting all these books by Ruder, Hofmann, Gerster, etc. – a heritage which, after the millennium and the craze for new media, got more and more lost at the school itself, if you ask me.

As one of the founders of the New Jerseyy art space in Basel, could you tell us a little about the space and how it came about?

New Jerseyy came out of the aforementioned fanzine Used Future. There was an offspace [artist-run space] called Vrits, run by some friends, which was very influential for us. We thought it would be nice to open a space as well, and asked Daniel Baumann, who at this point had already been working for many years as a freelance curator, to help us setting it up. He liked the idea and proposed that we all join together and do it as a team, without any assigned jobs (except maybe the graphic design). We all started a discussion about what interested us, which from time to time would result in an exhibition – only that ‘from time to time’ meant ‘every three weeks’ in the first few years...

Although I'm a little less involved now, it's still one of the most important things for me, as I was not only thinking about design but maybe more about different expressions of language, therefore gaining a healthy distance from graphic design itself.

“I always like working for art, because I get to follow an artist's work so closely.”

You work primarily within the arts community, with artists, galleries and museums. What is it like working with creatives as clients?
Do you have any projects that you particularly enjoyed working on?

There are some projects that are important to me, as they opened doors to a new audience, a new artist's body of work, etc. – like Sunset, I love the Horizon for Andro Wekua, First Faces for Lena Henke, or Adolf Wölfli Univers with Daniel Baumann.

Others are important because they led to different working methods – like Portrait of the Image of the Artist, which I had to do in less than 24 hours; or Kim Seob Boninsegni's book, on which we've worked on and off for two years in a sort of mail exchange; and of course the first books I did – Emil Michael Klein's first book, or Adolf Wölfli Universum (not to be confused with Univers) – because I'm so grateful for the confidence placed in me while I was still so young and inexperienced.

I realise I'm only talking about books... it's probably what I like doing the most. But I'm also really happy with all the invites I did for New Jerseyy, as I think it was a good run. And then there's a group of Viennese curators who keep asking me to do posters for hardly any pay but in exchange I can do the weirdest things, so that's nice as well. I don't think I'm able to pick any projects in particular, as I enjoyed all of them in some way.

I always like working for art, because I get to follow an artist's work so closely. Seeing it not only in one show but on a wider scale is probably what I like the most about it, besides the process of working together with the artists.

“I'm trying to keep a healthy distance from my profession; it's almost a love-hate relationship.”

Are there any books in your collection that you keep returning to that have influenced your practice or that you simply enjoy? Have you always been drawn to books?   

One of the most important books on my bookshelf is probably Bern Porter's Found Poems. It's such a perfect example of design not influenced by a designer, and it's a joy to return to.

I believe I've always been drawn to books, although as a teenager I probably believed I'd design record sleeve after record sleeve. I'm not a painter, I'm not one to design images, so I believe I'm also not really a poster designer. But the physicality of the book – all the aspects coming together in its production, the idea of a concept and design having to transgress the boundaries of the page – just fascinates me every time.

Wandering Magazine is a project you started in 2012 with Tenzing Barshee. What is it all about?

Wandering was supposed to be a lifestyle magazine about hiking but then became this collection of talks, chats, Skype conversations, email exchanges, etc. I see it as a literary magazine speaking about art and its production. As much as the contributors are dispersed across the world, the magazine itself seems to be all over the place, meandering like one long conversation... We didn't really define its purpose but I like how it somehow got out-of-hand, especially with the second issue. We now have to sit together and start planning the third issue – I don't know yet how it will turn out.

“I like that, by this definition, graphic design is a profession aiming at its own dissolution. Isn't that perfect?”

You mentioned to me that you have been thinking about ‘the utopian quality of a design without character’. Could you elaborate more on this notion?

It's a strange thought... As I said before, I'm trying to keep a healthy distance from my profession; it's almost a love-hate relationship. Also, I've been more and more concerned with structure as the central element of all my design – somehow a quite typographic approach, I'd say. I'm starting to ignore both type and images in their inherent qualities and seeing them more as elements in a hierarchic structure.

So, it got me thinking (and this is probably a very neo-modernist idea) of the ‘ultimate’ structure – a structure so clear, no graphic design will be needed any longer. But, of course, due to the Zeitgeist and the demand for individuality, this becomes a utopian idea. But I like that, by this definition, graphic design is a profession aiming at its own dissolution. Isn't that perfect?

What are you currently working on?

I'm working on the promotional material for the next show at Westfälischer Kunstverein, which will be Virginia Overton, whose worked I've liked for quite some time now. I redesigned the Kunstverein this spring and they gave me total freedom – it was incredible!

I just finished the catalogue for the Federal Department of Culture's annual Prix Meret Oppenheim. It's being printed in an edition of 14,000 – never have I reached such an audience; it's quite insane.

I also designed a leaflet for LA gallery Freedman Fitzpatrick and their presentation of Hannah Weinberger at abc Berlin. It's not something I would normally mention but I like the cover of it and of course I'm excited to see where both the gallery and Hannah are headed.

And finally, there are a few books on the horizon, also some smaller identities and probably more short-notice flyers, leaflets, etc for friends...

You mentioned you have a love-hate relationship with graphic design. How do you maintain a healthy relationship with design — or stay focused for that matter?      

I usually try not to talk too much about design with others, although I like to discuss certain methods to somehow uncover what's really underneath it all. But the profession itself – working environments, clients, etc. – is a boring topic to me. ‘Work’ is just one of the least interesting things to discuss with friends over a beer. 

Nonetheless, I believe there's nothing else I would and could do besides graphic design. Most of my thinking is through the eyes of a graphic designer – there's no off button. So much for staying focused…