Theft or Homage? Inspiration or Plagiarism?

The discussion regarding homage and originality in art and design has permeated throughout history, fascinating creatives for centuries. Over the past two decades, the art world has witnessed a new wave of fascinating explorations in appropriation and the role of digital technologies in reimagination. A particularly fascinating example of this is that of contemporary designer Alex Turnwall’s interpretation of Karl Gerstner’s iconic Swiss graphics. This melding of the classic Swiss Style with contemporary user interface design produces a rich and thought- provoking commentary on the boundaries that set appropriation apart from theft, and the evolution and future of design.

Karl Gerstner was one of the most influential pioneers of graphic design of the 20th century, redefining designers’ approaches to visual problem solving, composition, and typography. His programmatic and fastidious practice contributed to the shaping of the Swiss Style in the 1950s, based on principles on neutrality, objectivity, rationality, and clarity. Graphic designer Richard Hollis posits, “If Müller-Brockmann can be seen as the popularizer of the grid, it was Gerstner who gave it the most thought.”1 Born in Basel in 1930, Gerstner studied at the Basel School of Arts and Crafts before training at Fritz Bühler’s advertising studio. In 1949, he opened his own graphic design studio, and took up painting three years later. His self-taught artistic practice paralleled his commercial design career, both informing the other. His redesign of Swiss magazine Werk’s November 1955 issue “presented [Swiss design], for the first time, as a logical development of Modernism.”2 With the dream of establishing “a Bauhaus business,”Gerstner and fellow advertiser Markus Kutter formed their advertising agency G+K in 1959. Their principles outlined: “Good publicity does not add words to a given illustration, nor does it make a picture to fit a given text. Illustrations and text spring from the same idea, they affect and explain each other.”4 Four years later, architect Paul Gredinger joined the studio, and it was renamed GGK. Gerstner was infamous for his strict, meticulous, and rigorously consistent approach. His seminal book Designing Programmes, published in 1963, provided a detailed insight into his creative approach based on astronomer Fritz Zwicky’s ‘method’ for scientists. Gerstner’s precise, mathematical system of organization, problem solving, and designing amalgamated art and science, contributing to the core theories of the Swiss Style and allowing him to produce endlessly unique yet consistent designs.

In the early 1960s, G+K was beginning to garner international attention. The duo’s firstinternational client came in 1960: German Christian Holzäpfel was producing ultramodern office furniture and dominated the market. Gerstner writes, “Our style ... was a perfect match for his,”5 and GGK designed the company’s visual identity, logo, advertisements, packaging, and print collateral. The structured logo is indicative of the ‘H’ in Holzäpfel and reminiscent of an empty room in need of furnishing. The iconic brochure for Holzäpfel’s Tische table is one of Gerstner’s most quintessential designs. A strict grid system, a principle that permeates Gerstner’s oeuvre, is established through the subtle yet powerful use of photography and typography. Photographing the table from above and the side, perspective is skillfully used to present the desks as diagrams, establishing a sense of objectivity and clarity. Only the essential information is provided. In the cover photograph, the ashtray, pipe, matchbox, and the table on which they sit become fundamental compositional elements, the right angles and straight edges defining the space on the brochure. Even the horizontal grain of the table’s wood adheres to Gerstner’s grid. The skewed angle of the brochure in the photograph is the only element that breaks the grid, adding an element of surprise and interest, activating the space. The high contrast between bright whites, darker tones, and solid black lines further emphasize the grid. Furthermore, the warm orange typography contributes to the grid structure. The ‘Ti’ of Tische is precisely aligned with the elevation of the table, the monoline of the Akzidenz-Grotesk typeface mimicking the bold lines of the diagram to the left of the photograph. The ‘h’ seems to extend into the photograph, morphing into the pipe, and the smaller typography to the right is aligned with the edge of the matchbox. This brochure perfectly demonstrates Gerstner’s hyperattention to detail and his unparalleled understanding and control of composition, scale, and form.

Gerstner’s influence on graphic and communication design is evident in the 21st century, his principles of rationality and clarity transcending time. A particularly fascinating reinterpretation of his work is Alex Turnwall’s website homepage. Based in Boston, Turnwall is a graphic designer, web developer, and brand strategist. When redesigning his website in 2014, he found his sketches “looked a bit too familiar,”6 the organized, knolled7 elements resembling Gerstner’s Holzäpfel brochure design. He embraced the similarities as an opportunity for creative experimentation in reinterpretation and adaptation. His derivative design raises pertinent questions concerning appropriation and originality, particularly in the digital age. The overall composition, use of black and white, and the pop of color in the typography, clearly mimics the Holzäpfel brochure design. Gerstner’s ashtray, pipe, matchbox, and brochure have been updated to a notebook and pen, smartphone, and iPad, indicative of Turnwall’s practice as a contemporary designer in the digital age. These elements are interactive, adding to the playfulness of the interface. The text has been moved to sit above the photograph as it is better suited to the format of a website; however, the seamless relationship between typography and photography in Gerstner’s original design is lost. Rolling the mouse over the small question mark in the corner of the image, Turnwall addresses the user directly, asking, “Does this scene look familiar?” He writes in his blog post titled ‘Paying homage to (or stealing from) your inspiration: Gerstner’s work in my homepage’, “I wanted to explore how an entirely new medium (the web, interaction) can alter the original.”8 He posits fascinating questions about how digital technologies have altered the ways in which graphic designers approach their practices and ponders how the revered Swiss designers of the 20th century would utilize these tools.

Turnwall’s reinterpretation of Gerstner’s iconic design contributes to a rich and multifaceted conversation regarding homage and originality. This discussion has permeated throughout art and design history, and will continue to do so, especially with the ever-changing role that digital processes and the Internet play in design. Voltaire proclaimed, “Originality is nothing but judicious imitation,”9 and the art and design world is fraught with instances of appropriation, borrowing, and theft. Picasso was accused of copying Degas’ work; Warhol was sued by photographer Patricia Caulfield for stealing her hibiscus photograph, yet it is arguable that his commentary on the binaries of manmade and natural raised by his mechanical reproduction deems Flowers as appropriation; Richard Prince’s 2014 series New Portraits, a collection of prints other users’ posts on his Instagram feed, prompted a lawsuit and ignited a fierce debate surrounding authorship, ownership, and the Internet’s role in reshaping these definitions; earlier this year, C.J. Hendry printed her hyperreal illustrations of Prince’s controversial work on t-shirts and distributed them around several cities in boxes that read ‘Copyright Infringement – Trash Only’, using Instagram to announce the locations and create participatory, city-wide races.10 All of these prolific artists drew inspiration from another, with the influence exhibited directly in their works, challenging the notions of appropriation, and theft. The recontextualization of the sources adds and changes meaning, redefining the works, deeming them appropriations rather than plagiarisms or copyright infringements.

However, ethical questions are inherently raised when the intellectual property of others are borrowed or referenced. In 2018, fast-fashion giant H&M, notorious for producing controversial and offensive designs, was involved in a lawsuit with street artist Jason ‘REVOK’ Williams. One of the brand’s advertisement campaigns featured Williams’ graffiti art in the background, without crediting the artist. The issue of ownership and copyright protection was further complicated by the fact that Williams’ street artwork was considered “a product of criminal conduct,”11 and its protection under intellectual copyright laws remained unclear. H&M went on to file a lawsuit against Williams, provoking uproar from the public (the street art community in particular) and calls to boycott the Swedish brand. While H&M appropriated Williams’ original design, the lack of credit to the artist, and the public nature of the work, makes it an interesting case in the comparison between borrowing and stealing, calling the fundamental definitions of ownership into question.

Turnwall claims his homepage is an homage to Gerstner and the iconic designer’s widely influential practice and methodological design approach. He explains, “At some point, I think we have to admit that much of the work produced in our industry is very similar to both our contemporaries, and influences ... If you are going to copy, try to do it with intent.”12 The combination of Turnwall’s intention – a creative experiment in appropriation - and the historical and contextual significance of the work that he references deems his derivative design an admiring homage rather than a crude theft. It is fair to assume that a visitor to the designer’s website would recognize and understand his playful appropriation, and if not, Turnwall has made both his intention and source of inspiration evident through the easily accessible blog post. Creative practitioners do not work in a vacuum. Every act and idea, particularly in the creative field, draw inspiration from ones before, but it is the acknowledgement and reimagination of these sources that differentiates appropriation from theft.

In conclusion, the comparison of Karl Gerstner’s iconic brochure for Holzäpfel’s Tische table with contemporary graphic designer Alex Turnwall’s website homage offers a rich insight into the ever-changing discussion surrounding appropriation and plagiarism in art and design. The morphing of the Swiss Style into a digital user interface provokes fascinating questions into the recontextualization of designs and challenges the notion of authorship. When drawing inspiration directly from the works of others, a conscious and deliberate effort in reinterpretation and acknowledgement is crucial in distinguishing works and ideas as appropriation or homage from theft.


1. Richard Hollis, Swiss Graphic Design: The Origins and Growth of an International Style, 1920 – 1965 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 181.

2. Richard Hollis, “The designer as programmer,” Eye, no. 43, vol. 11 (Spring 2002): 77.

3. Karl Gerstner, Review of 5x10 Years of Graphic Design etc., ed. Manfred Kröplien (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2001), 56.

4. Hollis, Swiss Graphic Design, 229.

5. Gerstner, Review of 5x10 Years of Graphic Design etc., 57.

6. Alex Turnwall, “Paying homage to (or stealing from) your inspiration: Gerstner’s work in my homepage,” Alex Turnwall, last modified February 21, 2018,

7. ‘Knolling’ is the visual organization process of arranging related objects in parallel or 90-degree angles. The term was coined in 1987 by Andrew Kromelow, a janitor at Frank Gehry’s furniture shop. Gehry was designing for Florence Knoll at the time, and Kromelow is said to have been inspired by her angular work. Contemporary artist Tom Sachs later popularized the phrase “Always be Knolling” as the organizational method became fundamental to his practice.

8. Turnwall, “Gerstner’s work in my homepage.”

9. François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire) quoted in; Louis Mayeul Chaudon, Historical and Critical Memoirs of the Life and Writings of M. de Voltaire (London: G.G.J. and J. Robinson, 1786), 260.

10. The first iteration of this performative, participatory work came in 2018, when Hendry was threatened for copyright infringement for her illustrations of Warhol’s infamous Polaroids on shirts. Instead of destroying the products, she scattered them around New York City in tins dressed up as Campbell’s soup cans. Ironically, the shirts are now sold online for thousands of dollars, adding another fascinating layer to Hendry’s exploration of appropriation and ownership.

11. Marc Bain, “H&M made a big mistake going after a graffiti artist,” Quartzy, March 16, 2018, accessed November 25, 2019, Turnwall, “Gerstner’s work in my homepage.”

I respectfully acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land on which I work, learn and live – the Gadigal people of the Eora nation – and pay my respects to Elders past and present.

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