Beda Achermann – A walk-in sketchbook11. November 2011


Beda Achermann is one of the first creative directors from the Alps to become internationally known. He revolutionized fashion during his time at the German Männer Vogue in Munich in the ‘80s. Later, he transformed boring annual reports into stunning narrative picture books. Up to this day, Beda is working nonstop, jetting around the world from his base in Zurich, Switzerland. He is well-known for his approach: Only the best is good enough for him – and there is nothing he despises more than mediocrity. This is why many famous photographers and artists love to work with Beda. But he also has an eye for the best young talents who keep him in tune with future developments of graphic design and art.
Some people may think he might be ostentatious. But when you visit Beda in his studio in the vibrant Langstrasse district of Zurich, you discover a world that transports you back to the days when graphic design was a playground, an adventure in creative craftsmanship, informed by historical knowledge. Beda lived in Germany, France and Italy for decades but he was born 55 years ago near Lake Lucerne in Central Switzerland. Ten years ago, he returned to Switzerland and is now working from his studio for several Swiss clients but also for international brands. Together with his partner Dorothée Vogel, a well-known Swiss fashion designer, he lives in a house built by the pioneering Hungarian- American Bauhaus architect and designer Marcel Breuer. My interview with Beda began in a hotel in Berlin and ended with a dinner in Zurich, while his friend Walter Pfeiffer took photographs.

Looking back at your career, you always highlight the time when you worked as a creative director for Condé Nast’s Männer Vogue in Munich. What was so special about that time? I think we invented something totally new. Right from the beginning in 1984, every issue was a milestone. I worked with young photographers like Mario Testino, Max Vadukul, Michel Comte, Herb Ritts, and Ellen von Unwerth who were at the beginning of their careers back then. By working together we grew together. Our generous visual language and the often symbolically charged imagery were totally new. At a young age, we had the opportunity to create incredible stories and to live our passions. We worked a lot and drank a lot, driven by the idea of making the best magazine in the world. We really had fun. It was sometimes close to madness. Herb Ritts once came to Munich, and we dressed up in these typical Bavarian costumes to welcome him at the airport. It was amazing – all these well-known photographers came to Munich, even though it was not the center of the fashion world.
Back then, someone like Hugo Boss would typically show young, blond, slick men in his ads. We worked with totally different types of models, who had scary faces, for example, and noses that were too big. Hollywood stars like the young then unknown Sylvester Stallone posed for us. I mean, I even had Andy Warhol as a model! I used the artists that I worked with as models – for example Walter Dahn, the Junge Wilde, or the dancer Pina Bausch. We not only produced stylish and visually innovative spreads, we also invented new forms of journalism. We had the best editors, for example Giovanni di Lorenzo, who is now the editor-in- chief of the German newspaper Die Zeit. Back then, as a creative director you were on par with the editor-in-chief. Actually, we often did not have an editor-in-chief, so I had to fill in. Which suited me, since as a creative director I really think in an editorial way. I have a strong focus on the interaction between text and image, and on how they can work together in the best way possible. But the day-to-day business was sometimes a fight. One time, I wanted to crop photographs in a way that I knew was too crazy for the publisher. So I presented him the uncut images. But two months later, I had the magazine printed with the images I wanted. And I got away with it.

In your work for Männer Vogue, you established a new visual language for magazines and for graphic design in general. The younger generation of graphic designers seems to lack to this ambition. I have the feeling that contemporary graphic design is increasingly average… A lot of creative people today simply don’t know about the history of fashion, design, and art. But without this knowledge you’re going nowhere. At the same time, you have to keep your eyes open. Graphic design, magazines, advertising – everything is changing so fast these days. Consequently, I always have to be a step ahead. I have to travel around a lot in order to understand current influences in fashion and design and to translate them into my own language. I’m really curious about everything. I go jogging every morning at 6am, whether I am in New York, Paris, or London. That gives me a lot [of inspiration]. This morning I saw these little lakes in the Tiergarten, the wonderful light reflections on the deep black water. I have a book where I write all my inspirations down. Every day I fill in some pages. I write down the ideas I get from having dinners with artists, collectors, and professors. I collect articles, pictures from magazines, images of art works. So, after all these years, I have a massive bank of knowledge. I think I could provide any company with ideas (laughs).
Speaking with an artist, touching an art piece, smelling it, feeling it – that is so much more important than looking at a picture on the internet. This is the only way to understand art and design. Today there is this iPhone-knowledge, which is really dangerous. People think they know everything about art, design, culture, fashion, and media – but actually they have no idea. They just copy each other, especially in Switzerland. Graphic design in Switzerland isn’t bad at all, but it’s always the same. The Swiss love slickness and correctness. They never do anything wrong. The result is that every image is identical. It’s predictable, boring and unsexy. I prefer the risk of failure to mediocrity. I recently created a number of posters for a theater in Zurich whose visual language was really anti-graphic design. In a way, they were my comments on the state of graphic design in Switzerland. Partly, the schools are to blame. They provide no space for new ideas, since it’s all about early success. A lot of graphic designers publish books at a young age, often before they even finish school. You get the feeling that what matters to them most is publishing a book, but not working on it. They lack a passion for work. But to me, work is what I am interested in, and work takes time. It takes patience and persistence. I don’t see a lot of it. Too often young graphic designers are just about branding themselves, turning themselves into an event as quickly as possible

You have the reputation of being very demanding. Photographers and artists, even the best, are sometimes a little bit intimidated by your notoriously strong opinions…Yes, indeed. I’m very, very challenging because I hate mediocrity. I always want the best. But not just for me – also for my employees and customers. If you want to play on a high level, everything has to be done well. You have to think very hard about whom you are choosing for a job! I’m always happy to work with people who have a certain purity, an absolute passion for their work. The same goes for the labels I work with. Their history and authenticity is timeless. I don’t like hip things that are pushed by the media or by a trend. I take a genuine interest in the work of photographers and designers. I understand their working process and what makes them tick. I don’t just superficially look at their work. I try to understand the process behind it. I think they feel that and want to collaborate with me for that reason. And I’m really honest about my opinions. They work for me because I’m honest and modest with them. For this reason famous photographers work for me for a moderate fee. There are many photographers with whom I have worked closely with for many years. I knew their work before they were famous. We respect each other and that brings about the best editorials and campaigns. The problem is that today people in advertising, or product managers of brands, don’t know what a good picture is. Terry (Richardson), whom I really respect and who is a talented photographer, took a photograph for this year’s Berlin Fashion Week. He put a girl in front of a Mercedes Benz, took three shots, and just cashed in his check. The point is not that he is a bad photographer – the opposite is true. But he does regular mundane assignments too, and when someone chooses him only for his name, that’s the result you get, because he basically has no desire to do it.

You’ve worked for magazines and retail brands. Currently, you are working on projects with fashion brands but also with local theatres in Zurich – your scope is very broad. Can you describe your work? What distinguishes your studio? Above all, it’s about my interests and my passions that I bring to my projects. At heart, I am a dreamer. I still have all these childhood dreams that I want to come true. That is an important driving force behind my work. For example, I’ve always wanted to collaborate with Bollywood artists, so I did so for Migros (the biggest retailer in Switzerland). I present these dreams to customers and try to invent something new that they have never thought of. So dreaming is one side of me. Then there’s the other – I am very good at making things I happen. Almost always I somehow find a way to realize the things I want. It’s about a mix of having a vision and an understanding of the way things work. Being a dreamer and a realist at the same time. In a way, my work is similar to a movie director’s. I have a vision, then I convince someone to give me the money to produce it. Finally, I put together a team of people, and I direct them to realize my vision – it’s similar to the process of making a movie. I want to show things in new light, to create a new mise-en-scène that highlights aspects and angles that are not obvious at first glance. The book for the car manufacturer Smart, the annual reports for Migros – it’s all about the visual concept. For Migros, we reinvented the annual report. Before, they were featuring boring managers in suits, shaking hands. For the first Migros job, I took five students and asked them to collect everything Migros had sold during the past six months – bottles, packaging, candy bars, nuts, bananas, and so on. We photographed each product and created a new mix. I wanted to show custom- ers that these everyday products are in a way artistic. For example, we enlarged the bee on a honey a bottle and presented it in another context, making it unique. I just did an annual report with the American photographer Jeff Burton and the German writer Benjamin von Stuckrad-Barre. With Walter Pfeiffer, I am in the process of reviving the image of the Swiss hosiery and knitwear label Fogal. We took pictures in Carlo Mollino’s house in Turin where he shot his erotic Polaroids. I also work with a lot of emerging photographers like Linus Bill, Taiyo Onorato, Nico Krebs, Rico Scagliola, Michael Meier, or Stefan Burger, who is now quite successful in the art world, but was absolutely unknown when I started working with him. For Atelier Pfister (a furniture maker in Switzerland) I worked with a number of young photographers. They have done incredible work – contemporary furniture staged in totally unexpected locations like an old castle, not these boring lofts that you see in every catalogue.

Why don’t you do more work for international fashion brands and big names? Sure, I would like to work for Hermés and make a lot of money. But nowadays, after all these years, I think that art is more creative and more important to me than fashion. I can’t spend the whole day talking to photographers, models, and make-up artists. I prefer a dinner with artists. But I must admit that I am in two minds about this – particularly when I get an interesting offer to run a new magazine. But magazines and fashion brands have changed since the days when I worked in that industry. It has become extremely commercial, and they are just doing what the advertising clients tell them to. And it’s more difficult because almost everything has already been done. Nevertheless, there are always new approaches, but to see and understand them, you need an under- standing of history and a lot of professional knowledge. I have the feeling that people know less than ever today. A lot of people working in the fashion industry are happy just to be a part of it, to show their business card and say, ‘Hi, I’m working for Vogue.’ They are not aware that they could make stories with the most amazing photographers, designers, and artists from around the world. To see this, you have to deal with history. All my talented friends, for example the industrial designer Konstantin Grcic, have a large pool of knowledge they can access. But unfortunately PR and events have become more important than content. The balance is wrong. You should first make an awesome magazine and then organize an event for it, and not the other way around.

Your sense of history not only informs your work, it is also evident in the house you live in, designed by Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer. Can you tell me something about the house? Marcel Breuer worked in the rooftop studio where my partner Dorothée now creates clothes. It’s a studio house, where you work and live, not a villa beside the lake. It’s in a valley with a small river, surrounded by trees. The house is totally transparent. I can open the windows everywhere. It gives me a feeling of freedom. Because the house and the surrounding landscape are almost one, I experience the four seasons really intensely. I feel when winter comes, and in spring I can smell the flowers. The layout of the house, with its two large rooms at the front and the rear, is exactly right. The hallway is lined with built-in cabinets where you can store anything, so there’s no waste of space. It’s a really intelligently built house.

The interior is very well preserved. There’s wonderful details such as the faucets in the bathroom with such an elegant shape…Breuer honed the house to perfection. Not only the layout is awesome, but also all these intricate details – the perforated black coverings on the radiators, the bedrooms with their elegant decoration, the terrazzo floors, or the beautiful water taps.

What did you have in mind, when you put together the artworks and the furniture in your house? The house is very personal. The objects inside are inspiration, not decoration. In a way, it’s a personal scrapbook that I can walk around in. It is a collage like the ones I often use in my work. It’s a study in contrast and combination, as chic as it is wild. It’s never simply elegant nor simply brutal, but both at once. Like these chairs or the other pieces by the Italian designer Carlo Mollino. He was a fascinating personality. A photographer, designer and architect – but also a great skier. Or the paintings by Dieter Roth and John Baldessari, they have this quality, too. But there are also objects by unknown craftsmen that I value as much – such as the glass figurines I discovered in Murano or the pottery from Morocco. I don’t care about names, it’s always about form. There’s no hierarchy. In its own way, everything in this house is unique.

Numerous artworks in your house are by people you have worked with… Sure. Many objects and works are so valuable to me because they are memories, like the pictures of Irving Penn, Helmut Newton, and Paul McCartney. And, of course, the pictures by Walter Pfeiffer are very special to me. Many works have a personal dedication. It’s a circle – these people create great things, and that’s why I like to work with them.

It’s amazing how harmoniously these objects and artworks fit into the Breuer house. One reason is that Jean Prouvé, who designed some of the furniture I own, and Marcel Breuer had similar ideas. Prouvé is pure craftmanship. The table on the terrace, designed by him, is my, let’s say, Ferrari. But it’s also important to acknowledge the influence of Dorothée, my partner. She brings a light feminine element into the house and balances out my love of boldness. For example, she chose the playful, African-inspired chairs in dining room and the wonderful grey sofa, both by the artist Franz West.

You always want to create contrast in your home. Is that the reason that you put these colourful fish on the table outside? I bought these fish during my last holiday in Liguria. The fish contrast the Mollino chairs, but somehow but they also complement them. The fish are great, particularly at sunset. They represent a kind of dolce vita and make summer last a little bit longer. Maybe I’ll put them in the basement this winter.

Where do you find all of these objects? They’re a side effect of my general curiosity. I always absorb a lot of information. I read dozens of magazines each month. I visit exhibitions all over the world. I have dinner at a gallery owner’s home, or I chat with artists. I visit flea markets and antique shops. I’m constantly in touch with art and design, because I am passionate about them. This is how I find objects, it just happens. And sometimes I am lucky. For example, I got the Mollino chairs really early on, when very few people even knew about him. Now they’re, let’s say, en vogue. There’s probably an app on the iPad, where you can ask for appropriate “furniture for an art col- lector,” and you get Mollino chairs.

You said the work of the artists or designers you collect speak the same language. What is this language? Their language is very close to mine and that of my work. Irving Penn photographed skulls, but he also photographed the most beautiful women in the world. He had an eye for both and brought two worlds together. The really good things are never perfect, because that’s boring! So I avoid to use of the word “beautiful” – these photographs over here are not pretty, but pure. Real things are never pretty or perfect. I have a very strong sense of realness. I grew up in Central Switzerland, a rural region with a distinct identity, very much a world of its own. That’s where my sense for what is distinct, pure, and authentic comes from. My provincial background is actually the very thing that enables me to function on an international level. Because wherever I go or whom ever I meet, I can always recognize what is distinct and unique. I know what’s real, just like farmers in Central Switzerland do. I love Munich because of the beer gardens – that’s a really authentic culture to me. I don’t see the point of chains that are the same all over the world. Or here in Berlin I could never stay at the Soho House. That’s kindergarten design for me. To me, being genuine is the most important. I want the real thing – whether that thing is a perfect sausage in a simple pub or a five-course spectacle in one of the world’s best restaurants. I am not interested in the middle road. Only unique places count. The same is true for the people I work with. And for the objects in my house. That’s the language they speak.

You work very internationally. That begs the question why is your studio based in Switzerland? I have lived for the most part of my life between Germany, France and Italy. Now I’m 55 years old and have lived here in Zurich for ten years. The city is a great base for me. I have a good team of very talented young designers who are really ambitious. By car, I’m in Munich in three hours. By plane, I’m in Paris, London, or Berlin in one hour. That’s the same time it takes to travel from Uptown to Downtown in New York. Because I’ve lived in all of these cities, I know exactly how and where to get my ideas when I am there. I don’t have to live there anymore. Now I can comfortably choose from my base in Zurich where I would like to do a fashion shoot or a design project. And to be honest, I probably didn’t want to live in those cities any longer. I don’t want to hang out in the hippest restaurants every night. Zurich as a city is tailormade for me. In the morning, I go jogging in the forest and see a smiling deer. Afterwards I have a meeting in my office in the middle of Zurich’s red-light district. Then I eat lunch in Paris with a customer, and in the evening I’m back. Okay, Zurich is not part of the fashion world, not a creative hub… but the question is whether I want that. I can get it whenever I want to, but on a daily basis, it’s more important to know that in Zurich my prints will be finished on time. That makes life a lot easier. But despite Zurich’s great advantages, I sometimes still wonder what it would be like to live in another city. You never know.