The group was founded in France in 1970 by Pierre Bernard, who had studied with the Polish poster designer Henryk Tomaszewski; François Miehe; and Gérard Paris-Clavel, who had met during the student movement of May 1968 and were influenced by the subversive ideas and practices of the Situationist International. Alex Jordan and Jean-Paul Bachollet joined the group in 1975. After Miehe’s departure in 1978, the core of the group found its equilibrium.
The group's members were all members of the Communist party, and the group maintained an explicit political, social and cultural engagement. They at first rejected assignments with commercial and government clients, instead working with experimental theatre groups, progressive town councils, the Communist Party itself, the Communist trade union CGT, educational causes, and social institutions. Even in later years, when the staff had grown to 20, operating in three distinct groups, they signed all of their work simply “Grapus.”
Grapus wore its Marxist heritage proudly, remaining devoted to the plebeian immediacy of posters, leaflets and bumper stickers. Among its recurring elements of style are the use of handwritten text, the use of an extensive symbolic vocabulary (e.g. hand, foot, moon, sun), and the convergence of diverse techniques (e.g. drawing, painting, photography, text), a technique known as “detournement, the rerouting of a message through acts of visual vandalism.” Beginning in 1978, Grapus gained exposure in important exhibitions in Paris (Musée de l'Affiche); Amsterdam (Stedelijk Museum); Aspen, Colorado; and Montréal (Musée d'art contemporain).
In 1990, after receiving the French Grand prix national des arts graphiques, the collective faced a difficult ideological test when they had the opportunity to design the visual identity of the Louvre Museum. Bernard was in favor of taking the assignment, believing that design for cultural institutions could be a tool for social change. His partners wanted to design exclusively for social causes, found the Louvre to be elitist, and believed that taking the job would compromise their convictions. As a result, the collective decided to part ways in January 1991. Bernard, however, remains committed to a conception of design as a powerful tool for social commitment: "The dissemination of public graphic design to the most socially and/or culturally deprived, is one of the means to achieve the desired aims of community and social justice."
The group's original members have maintained their principles in their work. Pierre Bernard, along with Dirk Behage and Fokke Draaijer, founded the Atelier de Création Graphique (ACG). They took the Louvre job and, among other works, designed the identity for the national parks of France, and signage for the Centre Pompidou. The ACG works in the areas of publishing, publicity and signage, as well as creating visual identity. Pierre Bernard has been a member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale since 1987, received the Erasmus Prize in 2006, and teaches graphic design in Paris at the École nationale supérieure des arts décoratifs (ENSAD).
Gérard Paris-Clavel joined with Vincent Perrottet to begin the studio les Graphistes Associés. Shortly thereafter, he left and formed the group Ne Pas Plier (“do not bend”), which broke with the traditional conception of a graphic studio by refusing “corporate” work, allying itself instead with sociologists, social workers, laborers, and other workers for public education.
Alex Jordan founded the studio Nous Travaillons Ensemble (NTE: “we work together”) with Ronit Meirovitz and Anette Lenz, with whom he had worked within Grapus. They intended to pursue a seamless continuation of the Grapus approach, without being constricted by a paralyzing ideology. Since its creation in 1986, NTE has worked in partnership with the photographers’ association le bar Floréal, and has also collaborated on numerous works with the multidisciplinary organization la Forge.