Warja Lavater's "imageries": Little Red Riding Hood


There’s a particular kind of aesthetic experience which comes when you are in the presence of things that are both simple and complex at the same time. It’s that feeling you get when gazing at an apparently uncomplicated artistic solution and suddenly realizing all the complex problems and processes and concept hidden behind the apparent simplicity. I think about it with a word borrowed from writer David Foster Wallace — who in turn borrowed it from Keats — the word is “click”. As DFW explained in an interview, sometimes that feeling came to him as “a gorgeously simple solution to a problem you suddenly see after half a notebook with gnarly attempted solutions”. To me the “click” is always similar to an “eureka!” imbibed in bewilderment and joy (literally, it usually makes me laugh and hit my forehead at the same time).

I’m telling you all this because 1) it allows me to perform my daily David Foster Wallace invocation and 2) it comes very close to the feeling I got when I came across one of Warja Lavater’s “imageries” for the first time. That transition from stupefaction to joy is an experience none of you should miss and I’m feeling a rather sad guilt already simply by thinking I’m about to spoil it to you. So if this is the first time you come across Warja Lavater’s name or hear about her “imageries”, I beg you — for my conscience’s sake — to stop reading this at once, try and get a copy, fiddle with it for a while and come back afterwards.

… … …

Since getting one of these books is neither easy nor inexpensive, you’ll probably be here still (that is, if you can endure online text longer than two paragraphs). I appreciate it and I’m not really feeling that guilty either. So let’s proceed.


Warja Lavater (1913-2007) was a Swiss graphic designer whose work was particularly concerned with the linguistic function of graphic devices. She developed an ongoing research involving ways in which their expressive and communicative potential could be used in a similar way to words. Considering graphic elements by their communicative value rather than as mere decoration doesn’t sound very revolutionary now, but during the thirties it really wasn’t the most run-of-the-mill idea you could heard.

In the thirties Warja Lavater studied at Kunstgewerbeschule Grafik Zürich with professor Ernst Keller, considered one of the fathers of the “Swiss style” in graphic design. Based on the principles of the economy of forms, strict grid format and visual structure, Ernst Keller’s design system emphasized design’s communicative function and would clearly influence Warja Lavater’s later work.

Lavater’s life was quite nomadic. She lived in Winterthur, Moscow, Athens, Zurich, Stockholm, Basel, New York and Paris — taking this experience into account, her interest in pictographic symbols as elements of a potentially universal language does not seem estrange at all. When she moved to New York in the late fifties, her solid Swiss graphic identity encountered the climactic moment of American advertising. It was there that she really delved in the use of symbols as linguistic elements. Her two first “imageries”, based in the stories of William Tell and Little Red Riding Hood, where created in New York and published by the Museum of Modern Art in 1962. She would later complete the series with four more titles created for Adrien Maeght Publisher (Tom Thumb in 1965, Snow White in 1974, Cinderella in 1976 and Sleeping Beauty in 1982).


These “imageries” are pictographic books, stories without text which are narrated by means of abstract graphic devices such as color, geometric forms and their position on the structured space. All of this notwithstanding, the “imageries” are not abstract works of art but rather graphic stories responding to the traditional basic narrative structure of the tales, forming a perfect Freytag pyramid (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and denouement). Warja Lavater put her graphic stories in a leporello book, an accordion fold reaching almost 4 meters long when spread out. This book form is also used by Lavater to embody both the temporal and spatial axis of the stories comprised.

Shown above are images of Lavater’s “Chaperon Rouge” (Little Red Riding Hood) “imagerie”. The book is coded in what is perhaps the simplest visual code among the “imageries”. As Lavater progressively attempted to work with narratives including more characters and tried to instill their corresponding symbols with as many of their distinctive characteristics as possible, the codes in her “imageries” grew more complex — some of the symbols combining shapes and colors —, thus rendering the reading experience less immediate. Due precisely to its simplicity, Little Red Riding Hood is the better working “imageries”.

All its narrative elements are rendered in basic flat colored geometric figures — all of them circles or rectangles (see img. 3 above). Each character has a distinctive color, shiny for the female characters — red for Red Riding Hood, blue for granny and yellow for the mother — and opaque for the male characters — the wolf is black, the lumberjack a dull brown. Trees in the woods, the grandmother’s and Red Riding Hood’s homes and granny’s bed also become narrative contextual elements with their own graphic translation — green circles, brown rectangles and a u-shaped rectangle form, respectively — which do their bit in framing the narrative space.

Along the 22 accordion fold panels in which the story develops, the reader/viewer’s perspective on the scenes is always that of a bird’s-eye view. The fact that we watch the plot develop from above places us outside the tale rather than being immersed in it. By placing us in this position Warja Lavater gives us control over the narrative but she also forces us to find our own way of telling this story, our own way of filling the symbols with a significant meaning. You cannot read the tale without building it at the same time, without also being its author in some sense.

In this bird’s-eye perspective we follow Little Red Riding Hood as she walks through a green dotted wood, its trees in perfect vertical and horizontal alignment filling the whole panel. The homogeneous grid pattern of green dots is suddenly broken by the appearance, in opposing margins of the panel, of a red circle and a black circle — the little girl and the big bad wolf — which grow progressively closer and finally meet in the center of the page (img. 4). Warja Lavater then zooms in on the scene then, she gets us closer to it so that we can appreciate one new feature in both characters, their size: although all circles had seemed equal to us until then, we now find out that perspective was deceitful. The wolf is enormous, even bigger than the trees. Compared to it, Red Riding Hood is really tiny.

The following panels, the central panels of the leporello, correspond to the climactic scenes in the story (imgs. 5, 6 & 7). In them Lavater keeps shifting the reader/viewer’s perspective, alternating between two even closer shots. In the tensest moments of the story, those of the wolf eating the grandmother first and Little Red Riding Hood afterward and finally the one of the lumberjack killing him, we get to be so close to the scene that the wolf ends up filling the whole page and our view completely. Between those scenes Lavater zooms slightly out — although not enough to give us a general view —, as if letting us gather our breath again after our screams. The visual composition is charged with rhythm and tension by means of this alternately zooming in and out. In the scene of the wolf’s death the uniformity of the geometric shapes is also broken, and the wolf’s black circle torn apart into a bright red and yellow colored dough (img. 8).

The following panels seem, by contrast, the quintessence of calm after the storm. Lavater starts to zoom out and the composition progressively recovers its gridded serenity and ends in a very similar panel to the opening one: the limits of the woods, formed by the perfectly aligned green tree dots (img. 9).


Now then, what Warja Lavater gives us as readers/viewers is just a temporal and spatial axis, some clues about the atmosphere and a code, but the job of articulating all this into any meaningful tale is left to us. Lavater didn’t think of her work as of that of an illustrator, her aim was not to compose a set of images accompanying the tale but building a whole new visual narrative. In this respect she stated she wanted to create an open story where “pictographic writing can be interpreted by its audience in their own view” [1].


In case you want to know more about Warja Lavater and her imageries, here are two easily accessible essays with some interesting insights:
— Sandra L Beckett, When Modern Little Red Riding Hoods Cross Borders… or Don’t
— Christophe Meunier, “Les imageries de Warja Lavater: une mise en espace des contes…”

[1] Warja Lavater in a letter to Clive Phillpot, August 6 1986. Quoted by Christophe Meunier in his beautiful article “Les imageries de Warja Lavater: une mise en espace des contes…”. Read it here

Comments (1)

This is one of the best explanations of Warja Lavater’s work that I’ve read - well done. As a long time collector of her work, readers should heed the suggestion to actually get their hands on one of her leporellos (an interesting term in its own right).

I first ran across her work in 1983 at the Rizzoli Bookstore in Newport Beach, California. My wife-to-be and I saw this boxed set of six, very odd, fan folded books in separate plastic cases. Each told a different fairy tale in symbols. At the time, we thought that $85 was pretty steep on our budget, but figured we’d never see this set again (we haven’t).

I now own 20 leporellos by Lavater, as well a supporting cast of related works including one of her mother’s novels (sparingly) illustrated by her young daughter, Warja. The book is entitled: Die Befreiung, eine Novelle (1951).

Raleigh Muns

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