Atelier Grapus was a French graphic design collective that collaborated from 1971 until 1991. The founding members met in 1968 in Paris, a climactic year when the city became a focal point for the revolutionary Sixties. As an offspring of the Polish poster school, the Atelier Populaire and the experimental Institut de l'environnement, Grapus was influenced by the radicalism and spontaneity of its generation. In the context of this prevailing ethos, the group was motivated by an exploration of the graphic image as a catalyst of emotions and a rediscovery of the poster medium as a vehicle for political and social change. In this context, clients were selected according to specific ideological and political convictions. Grapus therefore directed its attention towards Leftist organizations, labor unions, trade associations, educational causes, municipalities and the French Communist Party.
Though they were not exclusively affichistes, posters became the collective's trademark. Grapus did not conform to traditionally accepted aesthetic norms, but developed a highly distinctive style best described as a bricolage of disparate techniques and mediums (photography, painting, typography). Designs were conceptually multidimensional through a vast symbolic vocabulary and mastery of the emerging disciplines of linguistics and semiology. Re-occurring elements of design were the use of handwritten typography, sensual forms, bright colors and high-spirited visual 'pranks' which always imbued a sense of irony or humor.
In the late 1980s, the collective reached a personal and ideological crossroads, a crisis prompted by a commission to design the graphic identity of the Louvre Museum. As a result of this, Grapus's collaboration drew to a close in January of 1991.
The primary aim of this thesis is to explore Grapus' work in relation to issues of nationalism, propaganda and political persuasion against a backdrop of the fertile cultural climate of France in the 1980s. Once social graphics had been successfully appropriated by the wider cultural establishment, this seemed to challenge the collective's very raison d'être. The status of Grapus's designs shifted from a powerful agitational tool to that of an object that was inherently caught up in the institutional framework of the State. Through case studies of Grapus' designs, this thesis charts the transformation and fragmentation of the group in conjunction with the rise of hegemonic culture. Grapus asserted an authorial artistic presence aimed to transcend the professional rhetoric of design as a netural, anonymous activity, challenging institutional cooperation. In this context, Grapus also provides an opportunity to consider theories of identity and authorship in relation to post-modern design practice.
French contributions have been largely marginalized within the canon of graphic design history in the post-modern period. Although Grapus has been briefly mentioned in several survey texts, there has been no substantial study of the group and their work. The findings of this thesis are primarily based upon interviews that were individually conducted by the author in Paris during September of 2010 with seminal Grapus members: Pierre Bernard, Gerard Paris-Clavel, François Miehe, Alexander Jordan and Jean-Paul Bachollet. Le Fonds Grapus (The Grapus Foundation) was also an important resource for primary source materials. Located in the archives of Aubervilliers, in the suburbs of Paris, this is the most comprehensive collection of Grapus's output and related documents, consisting of 748 posters, unpublished drawings and artists proofs.