Melding Swiss and American Graphic Design with Piera Wolf

Surveying the Brooklyn-based Swiss artist's visual creations

While Piera Wolf might not be a household name, many in the fashion, design and art worlds are familiar with work by the talented graphic designer. And, if you’re planning a trip to Washington, DC’s Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC) for its 2016 opening, you’ll definitely become well-acquainted with her designs.

Wolf—who was born in the small town of Chur, Switzerland, but resides in Brooklyn—studied at The Basel School of Design and then The Bern University of the Arts. Since, she has worked across the world and it’s the fusion of her upbringing and later experiences that makes her work so distinct. With the NMAAHC nearing its final stages, and new projects ahead, Wolf’s global insight conveys much of what’s at play in design now.

From a fundamental level, in understanding Swiss graphic design, one grabs hold of core attributes across the design world. “It’s always very structured, with clear set hierarchies,” Wolf explains to CH. “Its roots are from the Bauhaus movement, and stretch even further back in time. It’s clean and clear, with a solid function and message. The goal is to transmit a message in a legible, direct way.” These notions have held true through her work today and manifest across multiple industries. Though, she says evolution has unfolded in steps as she sought to defy her background across different international projects.

As a designer for Denmark’s fashion and lifestyle publication, S Magazine, working in collaboration with art director Ferdinando Verderi, Wolf found an inspiring canvas to let her training, understanding and creative imagination shine. The two won the prestigious Graphis Design Annual 2015 gold award for their design of Issue No.15. “A book or magazine works entirely different than when you design a wall space for an exhibition. The way you communicate messages for two different tactile, material experiences best employs a diverse world.” Awareness of such materials and how design training is applicable across each is key, she furthers, knowing that each will etch a different impression. It was a move to New York, however, that expanded her capabilities.

While with NYC’s Base Design, Wolf collaborated on the modular logo system that would become Milk Studio‘s MADE graphic. It launched in September 2010, accompanying New York Fashion Week and would appear on everything from pamphlets and posters to multiple uses on the internet. There were 32 variations, with the goal being to showcase how dynamic Milk’s creative community was—as well as their blog housing the content produced. Here, she notes the importance of blending Swiss concepts of font and color with the more illustrative American style. In essence, in feeling the impact of the city and its own deep heritage of design, creative consciousness expanded.

Wolf now works with Ralph Appelbaum Associates, the global firm completing the exhibition design for the NMAAHC—with Seattle’s Nordic Heritage Museum next, where she is the only designer on the team. Regarding the former, she says, “It’s a huge museum consisting of several galleries so the challenge was defining one voice for the whole structure, while making each gallery and subjects within, distinct—a sub-voice with different identities.” Wolf shares that they wanted to hold true to both the vast historical importance and contemporary necessity of such a museum, while honoring the designs of star architect David Adjaye.

With exhibition design, multi-media experiences must be taken into consideration, as well as human interaction. Thus, she shares, inspiration must come in human form: “I sit in front of a computer every day, but my work doesn’t start at 9AM or end at 7PM. Projects reappear when you are with friends or on the streets of a city. Friends that work in fashion, or as editors or photographers all help to extend ideas and approaches—on an international level. Yes, art is inspiration but so are people, and most importantly, dialogues.” And herein lies the personal touch noted in American graphic design that’s sometimes devoid in that of the Swiss. It’s something Wolf has observed in everything from signage to advertisements in magazines across the US. And with this background, knowledge and curiosity, she hones loose mind-maps into polished products.

First and last images courtesy of Pipilotti Rist, Thomas Rhyner and Piera Wolf, from Rist’s retrospective at Tokyo’s Hara Museum, second image courtesy of Karlssonwilker Inc., fourth image courtesy of Base Design, and fifth image courtesy of NMAAHC/RAA