Herbert Leupin was born in Beinwil am See in 1916 and spent most of his childhood in Augst, a village near Basle. His passion for drawing started early. Following the advice of his form teacher, he attended the Gewerbeschule (Vocational School) in Basle from1931-1934 where his talent was recognized and encouraged by Paul Kammüller, the successful poster designer and the constructive artist Theo Eble of the legendary “Gruppe 33” (Group 33). The young man’s talent was also recognised by Hermann Eidenbenz, in whose graphic studio he worked, gaining valuable experience in advertising and photography.
In 1936, Leupin graduated from the then famous Ecole Graphique in Paris after studying between 1935 and 1936 with Paul Colin, himself a famous poster artist. Under Colin’s instruction, the young artist started drawing for the Variété, which would later on serve as a source of inspiration for his clown posters. During his time in Paris Leupin remained loyal to the traditional Swiss professionalism and discipline. Colin was convinced that his prospects as a poster designer were excellent.
In 1937, Herbert Leupin returned to Switzerland and worked briefly for Donald Brun - whose graphic studio was the most successful at the time - finally setting up on his own in August 1937. Soon Leupin’s poster motifs were to be seen all around Switzerland and his career as the most celebrated, most creative and most productive graphic artist of the time began.
In 1939, Leupin received his first big commission by the Basler Grossmetzgerei Bell (one of the best butcher’s) in Basle. The firm’s only conditions were that the Bell brand name should be combined with an image of cold sliced meats. The final ingenious realisation created a real sensation at the time, prior to the Second World War. The poster depicts an appetising array of meats, tastefully arranged on a small wooden board. The meats were supplied by Leupin’s father. Leupin cleverly painted the Bell logo on the handle of the wooden board. The “cold cuts board” proved to be a resounding success, both for the Bell company - whose customers were so thrilled by the idea, that the butcher’s firm had to have the small wooden board reproduced - and for Leupin himself. This poster marked the first step of his successful career as the most famous and most humorous poster designer up to this day.
In his formative years in the early 1940s, Leupin closely followed the Basle style, the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), of his contemporaries, such as Niklaus Stoecklin from Basle.
The advertising message or product was drawn meticulously, using plastic oversized objects, depicted in almost photographic detail.
This style called the Magischer Realismus (Magic Realism) was used almost exclusively by graphic artists at the Basle School between 1930 and 1950 for advertising consumer goods.
Examples of this style are the Eptinger posters produced for the Eptinger Mineral Water Administration Sissach. Bottles of mineral water are portrayed so realistically they appear graspable.
Other examples of this style are Leupin’s soap advertisements for the company Steinfels AG Zürich. Again the artist painted the bars of soap in such detail that they also seem to become tactile. This graphical interpretation appears again in 1945 in several posters for Hoffmann-La Roche AG in Basle. Leupin created an almost hyper - realistic image of a lock of hair for the manufacturer of the Pantène Shampoo and, in an advertisement for men’s shaving cream, he cleverly interwove the firm’s name Zephyr into a crown of shaving cream.
In 1945, Herbert Leupin married Elsa Schaumberger who bore him two sons. Leupin’s style changed at this time, acquiring a fresh touch of subtle humour and playfulness.
At the end of the 1940s, Herbert Leupin started to detach himself from the Magic Realism and sought new forms of expression. Leupin describes this time as an artistic crisis. Trying to work more freely and more artistically, he uses photographs, collages or just pure text compositions. The 50’s mark a period in Leupin’s career of spontaneous, draught-like, colourful designs with countless associations to the advertised products, the brands and the companies. For Milka chocolate for the Chocolate firm Suchard SA in 1952, Leupin drew what was to become the famous Milka cow on a green background. For Burger Söhne AG’s Rössli Cigars, he depicted a cigar - smoking horse, a pun on “Rössli”, the Swiss German word for “small horse”. Not surprisingly, animal protectionists were not happy with the choice of subject.
Probably one of Leupin’s graphically most beautiful posters was his 1955 advertisement for the Tribune de Lausanne, a morning paper. This favourite poster shows the silhouette of a coffee pot – and the reader is invited to enjoy his morning paper “chaque matin”; every day. At the same time, Leupin’s ideas for the Zirkus Knie started taking shape. One of his most popular motifs is, doubtlessly, the image of the Knie-clown balancing the letters “KNIE” on his knee.
The 50’s epitomized Leupin’s creative work, designing advertisements for the Reemstma cigarette firm and demonstrating his originality on countless posters for the Pepita grape fruit drink, or the socially critical newspaper Tat.
In the 60s, Leupin created cultural posters for the Basler Stadttheater (the Basle theatre) and in the 70s he increasingly started dedicating his time to non-commercial artistic work. The boundaries were often blurred between his advertisements and his more artistic posters. By the 80s and 90s, Leupin had almost stopped designing posters, only occasionally sketching out a logo or a brand name for a company.
Two of his most impressive posters of this time were an advertisement for the Federal Swiss Railways in 1978, and a poster commissioned by the manufacturers of Felix-furniture. The poster advertising the Swiss Federal Railways was created in response to the oil crisis and caused much unease amongst the car lobby. The poster was only displayed for two weeks. As to the furniture poster, the little dog “Felix”, named after the company, deserves to be mentioned here in commemoration of Leupin’s last works.
Herbert Leupin’s poster art was marked by his passion for graphics, his enthusiastic diligence, and his charming, humoristic and bright colourful style. He took the aspirations of his employer seriously, whilst not neglecting the requirements of the consumers. Several of his nearly a thousand posters were honoured by the Swiss Federal Interior Department as “Best Swiss Poster of the Year”. The best of his posters tell a short story which frequently highlights the connection between the company name and the picture.
Many of Herbert Leupin’s posters were shown at national and international exhibitions in Chicago and Germany where they frequently received prizes and awards, such as the 1960 Medal Award of the Art Directors Club Chicago.
In many respects, the artist Herbert Leupin from Basle is embodied in the posters of the 50s. These pointedly humorous and stylistically versatile works have influenced many of his Swiss contemporaries. From 1970 until his death in 1999 he worked exclusively in Southern Switzerland.