What Fifty Years in Graphic Design Teaches You
Words by Andreas Francisco
Portrait by Sigbjørn Borud
Graphic design is so much more than laptops and Photoshop. It’s the methodology of visual communication, an art that wouldn’t be what it is today without Bruno Oldani, who’s been doing it for fifty years, winning all sorts of competitions and awards along the way. He was even knighted for it. No easy feat, considering the guy had to do fourth grade twice, quit school at sixteen and is—I’ll be damned—color blind. If you don’t believe it, pay him a visit and he’ll be happy to show you his archive: folders on folders of articles and work. Everything you need to know about the Swiss-Norwegian godfather of graphic design.
"Graphic design used to be a handcraft. Before I had a computer there was cut and paste, scissors and glue. And photography. I learned how to work with my hands, with colors, which was very good for me when ideas became digital. Marketing is important too. I learned that when I got my first assignment selling eggs. Tell me, what were we talking about before I derailed? People keep saying that if you ask me something, I always digress. I live for anecdotes. I tell stories upon stories because I connect my experiences to everything."
This isn’t the first article claiming that Bruno departs the subject of conversation notoriously, and it won’t be the last. As I enter his office, my eyes are automatically drawn to the farthest wall, where, even though he says he’s not an artist, there’s an art piece signed by him. It’s called The Aesthetics of Garbage, and yes, it’s made out of junk—a table and some traffic signs and posters and the like, painted to look somewhat like the Italian flag. It’s an assault on the rest of the perfectly aligned office, his workstation dead center, but without it the room would lack color.
Color. Maybe that’s the word I’m looking for when trying to describe this man. He’s sitting in front of me flipping through folders containing everything he’s done since he came to Norway, fifty seven years back. There’s even folders for every news clipping and article written about (or simply mentioning) him. He’s spent years organizing them, a project that started in the 80s and never ended. This way he can remind himself of where and when and what he’s been doing, he says, even though there used to be considerably more to fill folders with back in the those days, when he was at the top of his game. Hell, he’s even kept all the anonymous letters from colleagues writing to chew him out—which might be the reason why there’s so many news clippings to choose from. Journalists just so happen know that Bruno Oldani is a man who’s not afraid of airing his opinions.
Then there’s his looks. It’s as if every wrinkle in his face has been shaped by the movements of his mouth alone. If it’s not talking it’s smiling or frowning. But mostly talking. And it’s all happening under a wreath of curls surrounding the bald spot extending from his forehead to the top. A colorful spectacle indeed.
"The folders are a little bit self-centered but what can I say? I may be retired but I’m just as active as before. Maybe even more. Emotionally I object to being retired because I love working. I’ve also done a lot of pro bono stuff, but you can’t live off it. One of the very first works I did digitally was making a family tree. My great-grandfather was Italian and his branch is the only one missing. He moved from Milano to Zürich in 1870, I think. He was a craftsman, working with stuccoes and plaster. My grandfather was the same, my father as well. I was the only one who did something different. I’ve actually been there, you know, in the house my great-grandfather grew up in."
See what I mean? Interviewing him can be either a journalist’s dream or nightmare. Smiles or frowns, it depends on who you ask. But I don’t mind, as long as he doesn’t mind the occasional interruption. So I stop him to ask how it all began, adjusting my seat, preparing myself.
Even though he became a professor tutoring students decades later, Bruno was never meant for the school bench. In the fourth grade a teacher told his parents that he was a bit slow on the uptake, and made him do fourth grade all over, where little Bruno got a new set of classmates, friends he’s still in contact with. Being older than the others was a big help, but school would never be anything more than a means to an end. When he was finally allowed to quit at sixteen, he found himself a job as an assistant decorator in a warehouse. Here he learned the values of hard work, doing everything from heavy lifting to painting to silkscreen printing. The job sparked an interest, and when he saw an ad in the newspaper for an apprenticeship as a graphic designer, he knew what he wanted. As a test assignment they asked him and all the other candidates to draw a poster for fresh eggs. He landed the apprenticeship and finished all of the four years, plus one year working. Then he moved on.
"It was my mentor at the apprenticeship who recommended Norway. He knew someone in Oslo. Everyone else went to Italy or Paris and I just don’t like the French. Too stuck-up. I went to Oslo expecting to move back to Zürich after a year but ended up staying indefinitely. I moved from agency to agency a lot the first years, which was good, since I learned different stuff from each of them. And that’s something I don’t regret."
In those days he was more of an art director, a typographer, than a graphic designer. This was in the late 50s and the craft hadn’t been developed into how we define it today. In 1965, he started Norway’s very first design studio, where he would work with musicians, filmmakers, magazines and books, everything he could get his hands on—being as restless as he is, he never actually read any of the books whose cover he designed, and preferred just talking to the main source of insight: the authors and their editors.
Looking through his folders, skimming past headlines and pictures, diplomas and prizes, his consistent artistic expression, it seems as if every aspect of his professional life can be linked to an event, some article or statement meant for the public eye, proclaming the works of a pioneer making a name for himself.
"It’s amazing how we can get paid to do this. I see so much breadth when I look at what I’ve achieved. Photography, self-taught. Furniture and interior, self-taught. I can’t draw and I have to use so much color in my work that even I, who’s color blind, can see that there are colors. I can’t believe I became a professor."
A few years after he quit teaching, he garnered international attention for his work with the Norwegian Winter Olympics. He was in charge of designing the postage stamps and did such a good job they became an unforgettable contribution to the identity of the 1994 games.
In fact, he liked working with stamps so much he participated in a contest to design postage stamps for Switzerland. After winning, naturally, the director of the Norwegian postage system, or something (he doesn’t want to name names), called and said they wanted him to stop doing what he was doing. If he didn’t drop the Swiss postage stamps, he could no longer work with Norwegian stamps. And of course, for Bruno, there was only one way of responding to such an incomprehensible threat of blacklisting: he went to the press and produced some more ammunition for his folders.
He shows me the stamps. Even to the untrained eye, it’s clear that they were designed with the tools found on a desk and not on a desktop. What about the digital age, I ask, and he says he never gave himself the time or the chance to work digitally every day, like all the others did. Where everyone else kept up with change, Bruno stuck to what he knew. He then shows me a picture of a broken mirror and says he had to break ten mirrors before it was perfect.
"What’s nice about the digital is that everything can change so easily. But I wanted to work with my hands, create, have meetings with my customers, the writers with their books. Talk to people."
It’s been over fifty years of graphic design. His position in the history of the craft is unmistakable. People have made books about him. The National Library of Norway wants to preserve his material. He hasn’t just won awards, he’s designed them as well. But nothing can really compare with that time when he was appointed a Knight of the 1st Class of the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit.
It’s invigorating how he tells his stories with such conviction. About the days when his office had a meeting room in the basement, where clients and musicians would gather for talks and photoshoots and sometimes they would play music and laugh and have the time of their lives. He gets carried away, but this time I don’t stop him. I just look down at the folder on my lap and think of this article ending up in there. And I imagine him: receiving the magazine in the mail, finding the pages of himself, reading thoroughly, before scanning and placing them neatly inside. Just so. Just Bruno being Bruno, an old man cutting and pasting the fragments of his life.
"All these experiences have influenced me. During the war we weren’t allowed to have flowers in the garden, so everyone had corn or potatoes. And we made do. But you learn from it. And when I look back, I think it’s amazing to see what I’ve been allowed to experience. I compare myself with those I’ve admired. I never lie in the sun, but I do love the sun. Wait, what was it we were talking about?"