In the 20s and 30s, the electrified Simplon line was the epitome of modernity and efficiency in railways. Promotional materials exploited this image, published in multiple languages by the Swiss Federal Railways and the Commission Romande de la Ligne du Simplon.
Leading Swiss poster artists like Emil Cardinaux and Otto Baumberger were commissioned. For brochures, contemporary designs were applied.
The graphical representation of the Simplon line shows the development of Swiss graphic design in the Art Deco period.
by Arjan den Boer
The Simplon line from Lausanne to Brig was built in the late 19th century, the Simplon tunnel to Italy in the early 20th century. The modern Simplon line dates from 1924 when the western part was electrified. The tunnel section had already been fitted with three-phase alternating current. In 1930, the entire line was converted to modern and reliable one-phase AC.
The electrification gave the Simplon line an international reputation for being modern, fast and reliable. From 1925 onwards the Swiss Railways conducted a campaign to promote this image. Designer Daniele Buzzi then introduced an iconic image: an electric locomotive near the Castle of Chillon on Lake Geneva.
Even in the early days of the Simplon line some posters were published, most of them in a traditional style. The 1913 poster by Hans Eggimann (1872-1929) really stands out.
Daniele Buzzi was an engineer, painter and designer. He worked on hydroelectric dams for a power company. In the 1940s he taught himself lithography. He later became known for his colorful posters of the canton of Ticino.
In 1927, the Swiss Federal Railways published an illustrated booklet about the route and the electrification of the Simplon line. The traditional inner pages were bound by a contemporary cover by Atelier Häusler, a Bern-based advertising agency active from 1920 to 1950.
It showed silhouettes of landmarks along the Simplon route, such as the 20 kilometer long Simplon tunnel, the Matterhorn and the Stockalper Palace in Brig.
Judging by style and typography, Häusler also designed the first leaflet for the Simplon line.
The front of the leaflet showed a mountain range penetrated by a tunnel and a train. The inner pages featured a detailed map by the renowned cartographers Kümmerly & Frey.
In 1928, Emil Cardinaux perfected the image of the Simplon line that Daniele Buzzi had introduced: a 1927 type Ae 4/7 locomotive passing the Castle of Chillon. Speed is suggested by blurring.
This poster represented the line's definitive image for a long time. It was re-released in 1949 with a new caption highlighting the scenic route instead of the electrification.
Cardinaux is considered the inventor of Swiss travel posters. He studied in Munich and Paris and was quick to understand the specific requirements of posters. In 1908 he created an innovative poster of the Matterhorn. His style, featuring distinct color areas, matched the lithography perfectly.
The 1933 Simplon line poster by Otto Baumberger shows the alpine town of Sion in Valais and its rock ruins of Valeria and Tourbillon. Style and colors refer to cubism and expressionism.
Beside the rather vague track a quite detailed overhead wire pole can be seen. The pole seems a little fragile, but is in fact a supplementary pole between two portals. These were installed in the Rhone Valley to keep the wires tight.
Like Cardinaux, Otto Baumberger attended art schools in Munich and Paris. He was one of the pioneers of the Sachplakat: a poster centering on a single object. Well-known is his 1923 poster of a hyperrealistic blow-up of a tweed coat with PKZ clothing label.
Two double-sided leaflets, dating from 1932 and 1936, referring in color to the Cardinaux and Baumberger posters, were created by unknown designers. Again, the town of Sion symbolizes the Simplon line.
Under the common denominator les grandes lignes de Suisse the Gotthard railway was promoted on the other side of the leaflet.
The folded panels of the 1932 leaflet advertised the Pullman cars and sleeping cars of Wagons-Lits. Sleeping cars were used on the Simplon Orient Express from Paris to Milan and beyond. The Gotthard Pullman Express ran between Basel and Milan.
The 1936 folded panels depict electric traction. The Ae 4/7 locomotive serves as the symbol of Swiss Travel.
In 1933, young designer Bernard Reber created the front cover of a Simplon line brochure. It showed stylized overhead wire poles with the rock ruins of Sion as a backdrop.
In 1937, Reber stylized his picture even more with the railway line near Castle Chillon as subject. In this flyer he let go of the laws of perspective and created the subtle impression that the train was in a tunnel.
In Reber's designs, illustration and typography complemented each other.
Apart from the Swiss Railways, Reber also worked for Swissair. He had studied under the book designer and illustrator Hugo Steiner-Prag in Leipzig. In 1947 Reber designed posters and stamps commemorating 100 years of railways in Switzerland.
In the early 30s, photomontages emerged in graphic design, made possible by offset printing. In 1935 the Commission Romande de la Ligne du Simplon released a leaflet with cut-out photos of people doing sports.
The design seems inspired by Walter Herdeg's and Walter Amstutz's successful promotional campaign for St. Moritz. Several elements are recognizable, such as sports photos combined with drawings. A photo from St. Moritz literally ended up in Suisse Romande!
Since 1923, the Commission Romande de la Ligne du Simplon looked after the interests of the Simplon line. Its goal was optimal access to French-speaking Switzerland. From 1935 to 1950 the commission issued promotional materials. In 2005 it merged into OuestRail.
In the period following on World War II designers referred back to the heyday of the interwar period. Sometimes this was done very explicitly, for instance when Cardinaux' poster was re-released after 20 years.
In 1946 Hans Jegerlehner created a poster that was in line with Baumberger's 1933 poster. Captions and typography were identical and the drawing style was similar. Jegerlehner depicted the Rhone Valley near Sion with its characteristic poplar trees.
Hans Gordon Jegerlehner, educated in Bern and Munich, also made paintings and murals. In addition he illustrated books and magazines. His posters, mostly for the Swiss railways, were often anecdotal and featured bold colors.
Around 1950 the Commission Romande de la Ligne du Simplon released two posters by Walter Spinner. The greatly magnified Simplon line is depicted as the center of an international railway network running from London to Cairo.
Even though the Simplon Orient Express provided connections to Egypt, this route had lost much of its practical significance due to the situation in the Middle East. A pipe-smoking man with a cap announced the onset of the 1950s.
Falk, educated in Zurich, designed political and travel posters. After 1957 he became a well-known abstract expressionist painter.
After his Genevan education, Holy became a painter in Paris. On his return in 1939, he worked as an advertising designer.
In 1956, it was fifty years ago that the Simplon tunnel was opened. The Swiss Federal Railways ran a design competition for anniversary posters. The entries had a pictorial 1950s style. The emerging modernist Swiss Style seems to have passed the Simplon by. Did progressive designers think the topic was boring?
There were two winning posters. Rather unoriginal, both showed the Simplon tunnel with Swiss and Italian flags. The poster by Hans Falk is painted in a colorful expressionist style. The poster by Adrien Holy has a less pronounced style. A brand new Ae 6/6 type locomotive is depicted.
In the late 50s the Simplon railway had lost its modern appeal. Meanwhile the Swiss or International Style had emerged: a modernist movement in graphic design, recognizable by clean typography, a lot of white space and grid alignment. In addition to letters and planes, 'objective' photographs were preferred over illustrations.
A 1960 anonymous attempt for the Simplon line was not very successful. Centered text was a taboo for modernists.
The famous Swiss railway clock may be considered an icon for the Swiss Style. Shapes, colors and typography are reduced to a minimum. But the clock does have a gimmick: the red second hand refers to the station guard's signaling disc.
The design by Hans Hilfiker dates from 1953. The clock is still used at all stations of the Swiss Federal Railways.
The graphic representation of the Simplon line
Special thanks to Udo Boersma (Van Sabben Poster Auctions)
Hollis, Richard Swiss Graphic Design. The Origins and Growth of an International Style 1920-1965 London 2006.
Köppel, Thomas und Haas, Stefan Simplon - 100 Jahre Simplontunnel Zürich 2006.