Nine letters, vertical

From O to R: Let's talk about a hedgehog, standardisation and neurotis for a change (please click on the letters)

© Stadt Isny / Isny Marketing GmbH


Marcel runs around the house and shouts: Otl quick, a hedgehog! He rushes over, bends down and reappears indignantly – the nine-year-old, the anti-authoritarian children’s shop child, has teased him, the authority par excellence, and laughs and everyone watches – a hedgehog is sitting there, but one from Steiff.


The large-format work on typography that Aicher published in 1988 contains the sum of his experiences with type, its design and arrangement. The tradition in which he moves like a fish in water is that of “Swiss Typography”. Aicher owes much to the most important type designer of the After-Times era, the Swiss Adrian Frutiger, and his typeface Univers. Less well known is the affinity between origin (the craft of plumbing), the functional principle of a turbine (hydroelectric power station in Rotis) and the absoluteness of the right angle in image formats, grids and print space. His own typeface, Rotis, is the most widely used typeface of the nineties – from Audi to the Bible Society, whether as bread-and-butter type or title line, Rotis is unmistakable – unfortunately.


The nicest place to work was the library in the apartment building under the roof. No one disturbed me, in my lap the cat lay and slept. Aicher always tried to win over companies we worked for to produce an anthology, a book series or a “work edition”. He was a brilliant persuader. The book series produced at BMW and Erco, Lufthansa and Franz Schneider Brakel were often awarded as “most beautiful books”. Testimony to his care and rigour in design and image selection, typography and printing.


Stuttgart main station, summer 1976. He came by train, I arrived from Berlin. He was smaller, more angular than I had pictured him, and wore only black. Three years later, on a ship on Lake Constance, we looked at each other in amazement – both wearing beige. Colours fascinated him even as a child, and he knew an infinite number of things about them. Today, when we talk about the cheerful, colourful games of the 1972 Olympics in Munich, what do we see when we look back? Aicher’s colours! The light blue, white and silver, deep orange and saffron yellow, the dark and the light green.


had no money for advertising, but it did have an enthusiastic head of the tourist office. Moreover, everything was there: the foothills of the Alps with rivers and the Eistobel, the striking townscape of towers and gates. Instead of expensive colour pictures, Aicher created a black-and-white drawing system for advertisements and posters with verses and lines of text – such as by Günter Herburger: “My hometown always sates me.” Aicher’s Isny drawings are incomparable even after a quarter of a century: down-to-earth and shimmering, powerful and floating – Zen pictograms sui generis.


Hans Gugelot designed a slide projector with a circular magazine for Kodak in 1963: Carousel. That was the name of the seminar we organised for photographer friends in Rotis in the summer of 1978. Aicher himself was a sceptical photographer. He distrusted colour photography, which dominated Stern and Geo. He revered the black-and-white documentarists: W. Eugene Smith, Magnum and Life. One result of the Carousel seminar was “Circular – a non-commercial and non-saleable magazine from the field of photojournalism and visual communication”. The magazine appeared in December 1978; a second one was never made.


Thirty-three years after it was liquidated by the then Stuttgart state government, it is a much-lauded model. What the then head of government Filbinger promised – “We want to do something new and that requires liquidating the old” – was not fulfilled even by his puppet Späth – a university of design that brings students from all over the world to Baden-Württemberg.


When I arrived in the Allgäu in January 1977, the snow was high and revealed that someone was already trudging ahead of me to Rotis: Bitz. The former farmhand, pistolero and marten catcher worked “at Aicher’s”, all at the age of 76! “Does he have anything to boil?” he asked, shoving an egg into my pocket. “What beats the beauty of one egg, or better still two eggs, slightly different in colour?” In his book “The Kitchen is for Cooking”, Otl Aicher visited quite a few renowned chefs at their workplaces.


was a ramshackle water mill that Aicher bought with his fee from the 1972 Olympics and converted into a place to live and work. Since then, a lot of nonsense has been written about the supposedly “autonomous republic”. Yet there was hardly any other place that was so compulsively standardised and autocratically run as Rotis. The staff spoke of “neurotis”, and most of them left sooner rather than later. In a 1987 commemorative publication, the names of those missing from the book are particularly striking: Fred Kern, for example. Kern was Aicher’s closest collaborator in Ulm, then Munich and later in Rotis – for more than thirteen years. His contribution to the development of Rotis and to Aicher’s graphic work is considerable – why ignore him? Fred Kern, who lives in Ulm and is a top graphic artist – salü!


The book, published posthumously in 1993, contains a collection of “political essays” and other writings. Reading it, I encounter again the Aicher whose contradictions destroyed my faith. He curses the terror of low-flying military aircraft above him and his family and participates in the construction of the new airport near Munich. My reproaches do not reach him. He looks past me with a tight-lipped expression. He praises the precious water and instructs Bitz to empty the septic tank into the stream. Incomprehensible. In his essays he argues against the state and the greed of companies for profit, yet he lives very well off them. Either or. What is the point of all the theory, the better knowledge, if it remains inconsequential for one’s own life? Anger returns over this man who is such a stranger to me and over his conscience, written as if clear.

Andreas Schwarz is an author, graphic designer and exhibition organiser. He worked for Otl Aicher in Rotis in Allgäu from 1976 to 1980 and was managing director of Villa Seidl, Haus für Schwabing, in Munich from 1991 to 1996.

The text was first published under the title “Als Grönland noch im Allgäu lag”, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 1/2 September 2007; here shortened and arranged as a sequence of letters by Chup Friemert. With the kind permission of the author and Süddeutscher Verlag, Munich.