Interview with…
Pierre Bernard
Atelier de Création Graphique

Pierre Bernard
Atelier de Création Graphique

Pierre Bernard is a French graphic designer. Both Paris École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs and Warsaw Akademia Sztuk Pieknych had an evident importance in his work. He was a young professional when he joined the May ’68 student movement, and put his abilities toghether with his political involvment in the production of Arts Déco posters. Together with Gérard Paris-Clavel and François Miehe, Pierre Bernard attended two years (1969/1970) at the Institut de l’Environnement in Paris that wanted to continue Ulm design school tradition. In the same years the three of them founded Grapus, the most known design collective in public graphic design. This experience lasted long, but in the early ’90s the members of the group decided to follow different paths. Pierre Bernards along with Dirk Behage and Fokke Draaijer, gave life to the Atelier de Création Graphique (ACG) where he is still working.

We report here the two main themes we had the opportunity to discuss with Pierre Bernard, on a Sunday morning of early march 2011. We focused on two important complete experiences, Grapus collective long life and the short period of May ’68. We are interested in defining if and how the production of graphic artefacts in these two moments can be defined collective and spontaneous (gratuitous).

Starting in non chronological order, Mr Bernard describes us some characteristics of the Grapus group. The main difference between the Grapus experience and the other ateliers’ was the pratique fusionelle, a way of working and designing that Pierre Bernard thinks is no more possible now, both because it was really linked with the culture of that moment (Grapus life is considered from 1970 to 1990) and because he does not have the age any more, as he confesses: “j’ai plus l’age pour la fusion!”
Grapus’s aim was to produce artefacts that every member approved, that were the product of a fusional practise.

Our first question is about the production and history of one poster, titled Que le bouches s’ouvrent, one of a long list of posters self produced by Grapus without any client. The black and white photograph reproduces the kiss of a young couple and it is overlapped by two white lines of text saying Que les bouches s’ouvrent (M. Thorez 1934). «Le plaisir que les hommes prennent à l’art est le plaisir qu’on prend à la vie. Bertolt Brecht».
In 1979, Grapus was working on a municipal newspaper when someone found the first part of this sentence which was part of a famous political discourse by Maurice Thorez, politician and member of the French Communist Party.
Immediately that sentence reminded the photograph by Philippe Guilvard that Grapus already had in its achieve. Bernard sees it more as an image than as a poster: when Grapus produced this kind of images the aim was to send a clear message to someone. In this case they used this vernacular poster to affirm the necessary independence of the Communist party form the URSS/Soviet one, they wanted to underline their anti-Stalinist communism and they did it laughing at Thorez’s thought. Grapus’s activity was really in the politics, they were experiencing the fusion between members’ thoughts, but also between disciplines all under a common and shared ethic.

A previous formative experience for the young graphic designer had been the May ’68. Mr Bernard tries to make us feel the stimulating atmosphere that gave birth to this students’ movement even if he is strongly against the present mystification of this moment. He starts denying the situation as a collective movement that put together students, workers and common people. In the popular ateliers students and professional graphic designers or artists were the authors of these posters: there wasn’t a collaboration with non professional. This kind of experience is not repeatable, the posters were produced by designers and artists to meet the society’s need of images. Whitout this need and without the professionals ability nothing would have been produced. It was a moment of perfect alchemy.

May 19th a call for artists and designers said: The only effective way to show solidarity with worker and student movement, is to produce the graphic elements that they need urgently: poster, engraving and collages. Act! Less theory, more practice! You have to come day and night to the ex-school of Beaux-Arts.1 In Les 500 affiches de mai 682, Vasco Gasquet described the Beaux Art’s atelier activity as a strict process, especially after May 15th when an internal general assembly was constituted. This assembly judged all the posters concepts and decided which had to be produced. The motivations concerned the comprehensibility of the message and the relevance to currents events. According to most witnesses it seems that a lot of proposals were not accepted.

Mr Bernard defines it as a savage democracy, everyone by the show of hands could approve or disapprove a project; the majority were students but sometimes also common people joined the assembly. From his description we can feel the enthusiasm that stimulated this production. No one was working on his own, and if this happened, when the poster was posted, someone else could take it down to make some corrections. There was a fruitful competition that was similar to the one which permeated Tomaszewski’s classes but the main difference was that the criticisms arrived at the end of the project not while it was being produced. The posters were hung on a wire like laundry, after that each one began to speak and indicated the strengths and weaknesses of each project. In May ’68 the process was collective, finally Bernard says, but somehow anarchic at the same time.

Living this experience taught a lot about fusional practice but, most of all, left a feeling of open possibilities: artists and designers worked together for a common cause, paper and ink were offered by printers and volunteers stuck posters on Paris walls, and this happened for real.
Grapus was born after the May ’68, all the members could see at which point things were possible and how a graphic artefact could change, encourage, support a political movement or simply an idea.
Looking for some example of Grapus projects, Mr Bernard describes us the Zup! L’album de famille, and Wild Graphic Art another significant experience they did with a labour union and the Cultural department of Grenoble: an 8 days workshops with the workers of the region whose output was a series of posters.

When asked about co creation and co design, Mr Bernard seems to be sceptic about a generically creative democracy. He admits that when he was younger he didn’t have the same idea but today he strongly believes that a formal democracy is something we have to avoid, that it only serves the established order and it does not have sense. He leads us to a point whose critical importance we are starting to know: collective projects find their sense and success only if every member is personally involved on the subject. In other ways we can call it formal democracy and it’s no longer useful to research. We need people to be involved in an issue to be claiming to be able to participate.

* Text drawn from the interview with Pierre Bernard on March 4th, 2011, Paris.

  1. Cfr. Wlassikoff, Michel (2008), L’affiche en heritage, Paris, Editions Alternatives.
  2. Cfr. Vasco Gasquet, Les 500 affiches de mai, Balland, Paris 1978.