In October 1999, I was travelling to an Alliance Graphic International (AGI) get-together. It was in Pontresina, Switzerland. Due to my complete lack of navigational skills, I somehow managed to board the wrong train at Zurich station. After an hour and a half sitting in the supreme comfort and efficiency of the Swiss railway service, I noticed that the snow-covered mountains – which I thought I was heading for – were beginning to fade rapidly into the distance.
A little later, my worst fears were confirmed by an extremely courteous conductress. Yes, I had indeed boarded the wrong train. She disappeared to return a little later with a complete travel itinerary, including tickets, for my revised journey, which would take me via a fiendish series of postal buses and mountain trains – now you wouldn’t get that kind of service on British Rail.
I finally arrived at my destination some four hours after everyone else. By that time, they were flushed with merriment, having consumed a four-course gourmet meal and copious glasses of exceptional wine. Embarrassed, exhausted and very hungry, I retired to my room. I immediately consumed the entire contents of the complimentary fruit bowl, rapidly followed by a spectacular block of Swiss chocolate the size of a brick. Feeling a little queasy, I went to bed to the sound of the distant jollity of my fellow AGI members and their partners. But I would not have missed that unplanned excursion for the world. For it was on that arduous trip up the mountain that I first heard of a man who was to fascinate me and later become a hero.
As the yellow post bus gently wound its way up the mountain road, the passing scenery and the Swiss’s passion for stacking logs mesmerised me. Not just any old stacks but the most perfectly arranged logs I have ever seen, an arrangement that would not look out of place in Tate Modern.
As the bus continued its way up the network of snow-covered roads, I became aware that I was being observed. A man in his sixties, dressed in a classic green Loden overcoat and sporting tortoiseshell spectacles, spoke to me in impeccable English: ‘Excuse me, but I couldn’t help noticing you observing our national pastime’. His face was round and kindly with a brushy Günter Grass-style moustache. He looked like a favourite uncle. We spent the next two hours together. I will call him Christian here, for reasons that I will explain later.
He was a radio producer on his way to join his partner for a weekend at their chalet in the mountains. He told me – and this is the weird coincidence – that he had originally studied graphic design back in his twenties, not at one of the prestigious Swiss design schools but privately with a somewhat eccentric and highly individual designer whom he’d come across by chance while holidaying in a little Swiss village called Schwenden. To condense a two-hour journey, this designer, whose name he would not reveal, sounded rather intriguing.
The bus pulled in at a charming village as the light was fading. From the bus, I could see groups of people and families silhouetted against the orange glow of the lighted windows. This was Christian’s stop. We exchanged details and agreed to keep in touch, as one does on these occasions. Of course we didn’t.
Five years later, I ran into him again. Now retired, he was living in Zurich. We arranged to meet up for dinner. Later, over a leisurely cognac, we talked more of the designer whom Christian clearly held in great esteem. Could I possibly meet him, I asked? “I think that would be difficult,” said Christian. It would seem that this elusive designer was an extremely private person and that the handful of students who had been taught by him had given their word not to reveal anything about their experience or about the man himself. Bizarre.
This of course made me even more curious. Was Christian pulling my leg? I recharged our drinks, taking care to hold back on my own glass. As our conversation continued, Christian became more animated and told me about his own life in radio as a drama producer. As lovers of radio and theatre, we had one of those rare conversations where you just can’t get enough. It was utterly fascinating. But at the back of my mind, I was thinking: this mysterious man up here in the mountains is creating great work that nobody appears to be aware of. Why? The next day, Christian called to say that he would try to create a meeting but that it might take a little time or might not happen at all.
Two years later, I was revelling in one of those delightful REM moments when my bedside phone sprang to life, sending my dreams scurrying away. It was Christian. He had arranged a meeting. But it was only on the agreement that I would not write about the experience. Nor would I be allowed to take a camera. He wanted my word. It was becoming like a John le Carré novel. I of course agreed. A few weeks later, Christian met me at Zurich airport. With snow chains fitted to the wheels of his Volvo and the beginnings of a blizzard in the air, we set off up the mountain once more, only this time it was to meet an extraordinary man whom I would never forget.
Sadly, he passed away in January this year at the great age of 91. So now at last I can tell his fascinating story and show some of his remarkable and rarely seen work.
For Part 2 click here