29 August 2019



Text: Jörg Stürzebecher

Museum für Gestaltung –Museum of Design, Zürich

– 5 January 2020




Stations, trains and posters make the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB, CFF, FFS) a showcase for Swiss design. The Museum für Gestaltung, Zürich, is devoting an exhibition to this theme for the first time.


This is an important exhibition and in the right place, as the old location of the Museum of Design in Zurich can be reached in a matter of minutes from the main railway station. On show are well-known objects of the Swiss railways from the past and present: Hans Hilfiker's station clock, models of important bridges and stations, pictograms and posters. There is even a model railway (N Gauge), with the Mittelland and Alpine routes, and of course much about the corporate design, created in 1980 under the direction of the pioneer of grid-based typography, Josef Müller-Brockmann, whose railway company logo impressively links the railways with the country. The SBB quite literally connects the inhabitants of the Swiss Confederation and its many visitors, with the country and enjoys great popularity with both groups. While rail travel nowadays in other countries can be seen as a bit of a trial, Switzerland is different.It has precision schedules allowing for the needs of disabled passengers, is punctual without hitting record speeds, and has functioning toilets that are regularly maintained, and well-used trains that are not overcrowded. The Swiss railway has long been fully electrified on all routes – after all, Switzerland is a country rich in hydroelectric power – and the railways are part of everyday life for people from all income levels, as is the public transport system. Admittedly, the short distances between populous areas do help. Quite apart from all the models and examples, however, SBB's actual performance is down to much more than its Crocodile and Red Arrow locomotives, and its freely chosen corporate design. Its success is down to the way everything works and fits together – from locomotives to information and a transparent pricing system that is not cheap, but acceptable by national standards, dispensing with the need for bargain hunting and long-term planning. What is more, the Swiss see the value of railway stations as real estate, so they don't have to become cheap shopping malls to be viable. Timetables are still easy to find and waiting areas are not an obstacle for those conducting business. It is precisely this that distinguishes SBB from the cosmetic changes introduced by other railway companies such as New Haven, the once exemplary British Rail, subsequently run down through privatisation, and the Deutsche Bahn, which continues to focus on airlines rather than on the needs of its customers.

The exhibition does not have a catalogue, but does offer a public edition of the design manual for the Swiss Federal Railways, and its designer at that time, Müller-Brockmann. It is published by Lars Müller, who is not only Müller-Brockmann's biographer, but is also responsible for outstanding services to the work of Brockmann’s recently deceased wife Shizuko Yoshikawa. Müller has himself long been an important brand for design publications in Switzerland, and in this respect the show is the outcome of a wonderful relationship: between theme, exhibition venue and publisher. Thanks are due to all involved; I am delighted.


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