I live in Switzerland and believe that this country has some of the best-designed banknotes in the world. The series currently in circulation has been phased in gradually between 1995 and 1998 and features motifs of Swiss artists like architect Le Corbusier, artists Sophie Tauber-Arp and Alberto Giacometti, or writer Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz.
Earlier this year, the Swiss National Bank announced its intention to introduce a new series by 2010, and invited twelve designers into a competition, asking them to represent "Switzerland open to the world". The entries are just in, and the least that can be said is that both the designers, the jury and the commissioning bankers must have been sniffing glue. More below, but first take a look at the winning entry, by Zurich-based graphic designer Manuel Krebs (click on the picture to enlarge):
What you see there are a rendering of the AIDS virus (on the 200 Swiss Francs bill), of a skull (on the lower-right corner of the 1000), of an embryo (on the 100), and other similar motives. Think of having a fun dinner with friends at a nice restaurant, and then hand over to the waiter a 200-Francs bill representing the AIDS virus.
Why someone would think that such images belong on banknotes, I can't really fathom. How exactly they relate to the theme "Switzerland open to the world", and how they would signal to the world that these bills as Swiss, also totally eludes me. And considering the history of Swiss banking, one cannot help but make the connection between the gold bar on the 1000-Franc bill (the gold of African dictators hidden in Swiss vaults) and the skull on the same bill (that of their victims). The jury was chaired by Jean-Christophe Ammann, the art historian formerly director of the Museum of modern art of Frankfurt. Here is, verbatim, what he had to say about Krebs' work (the jury chose it unanimously as the best one):
The chosen images are relevant and all address difficult issues such as AIDS. In addition to being very clear, the proposed designs are universal and will remain topical in the future. The sense of cohesion in this homogeneous series is very strong, with the themes moving from the macroscopic to the astronomical (from red blood cells to the universe) and the relationship between the obverse and reverse of the banknotes proving very perceptive. This portfolio is the type that breaks with tradition, offering an element of surprise. The semantic value is very pronounced.
Amman did acknowledge that:
The only point not in its favour is that certain images could lead to confusion.
And to the press he later said:
In Switzerland, money has a special status. It is a numbered, signed piece of graphic art.
At least on this point, one may agree with him. Bills aren't just money: they're a representation of a country, a rendering of its identity, they carry emotions. As the Neue Zurcher Zeitung wrote (that's the best Swiss daily newspaper and the one read by bankers): there is an eroticism of money. This new design has none of that: it's a, nonsensical, uninspired, slightly repellent exercise in condescension.
Now, to be fair the designers were given a tough task by the bank: they could not represent individuals, inventions or achievements. Rather, they had to find ways to convey a different attitude:
Switzerland as a platform for dialogue, progress, humanitarian commitment, exciting experiences, creativity and the search for practical approaches to solutions within organizations. (...) Six topics have to be depicted, namely the activities of negotiating and exchanging; teaching and researching; helping and meditating; enjoying and relaxing; creating and designing; and deciding and implementing.
A tough script to follow. And indeed the other designers submitted equally unoriginal and quizzical proposals. On the right is a selection. From top left: some sort of unidentified mechanical creature; an office cubicle; a girl gymnast; a whistle; women working in a rice field in some Asian country; and a strange "nature morte" with bread and candles. I think I can get the reference to "Switzerland open to the world" inscribed in the rice fields, but: a cubicle? A whistle?
The Central Bank is not bound by the jury's decision, and last time they changed the look of banknotes they indeed chose the third-placed design. But given the very poor judgement they exhibited in defining the boundaries of the competition, the possibility that someday soon I may have to hand over a skull or an embryo or a whistle to pay for a book or a sandwich is frighteningly real.