Pioneers of German Graphic Design is a weighty 400-page tome by Jens Müller, on how art, minimalism, and commerce spawned a new form of visual communication. The book, published by Callisto, is the definitive text on how German designers influenced and shaped modern day graphic design starting in the late 19th century, and it’s pure coffee table eye candy. A deeper read reveals how the culture highs and ultimate societal lows in 20th century Germany bled into every aspect of life, including the field of graphic design.
In the introduction, Müller chronicles the introduction of graphic design following the industrial revolution. As early as 1848, when the German government stopped censoring printed matter, doors opened for the printing of persuasive materials, such as newspapers, magazines, and ads. By 1877, over 3,700 magazines and newspapers were printed in Germany. As the movement toward trademarking became popularized in the the US, UK, and Germany, graphic design as a field was set in motion. In Germany, the rise of corporate identity coincided with the rise of the Bauhaus school, which emphasized the relationship between art, technology and industry. The book focuses on the work of 14 innovative German designers who introduced new approaches to the field. It includes careful study of each of their contributions to the craft, and accompanying illustrations.
As graphic design emerged as a field, the early pioneers were not always acknowledged for their work, such as architect Peter Behrens, who designed logos, book covers, and magazines, in addition to products and buildings. Julius Klinger introduced a playful style in his work depicted in a series of satirical characters for Autumn Aviation Week Johannistal. Lucian Bernard revolutionized the style of minimal pictorial posters, and designed for the automotive suppliers such as Bosch, Audi, and General Motors.
Müller doesn’t shy away from focusing on the more sinister impacts of state controlled propaganda under the Nazi regime and the way it stunted design. The Nazis banned the work of designers who did not adhere to their standards and employed others who were willing to further their nationalistic intentions. Graphic design propaganda played a substantive role in the spreading of the Nazi doctrine. Müller writes that a “key aim of this book is to examine closely the turbulent early years of graphic design in an attempt to help the reader develop a fuller, more in-depth understanding of the subject as an omnipresent everyday form of aesthetics,” and goes on to examine how Hitler used the swastika as a branding mechanism and and how Joseph Goebbels’ used propaganda to popularize their agenda.
One such designer with a more sordid history is Ludwig Hohlwein, who created early poster work for Audi and Mercedes. Hohlwein, who had an extensive portfolio, later designed propaganda art for the Nazis. Examples of his Nazi propaganda work include an exuberant smiling blonde woman waving a Nazi flag for the League of German Girls in the Hitler Youth and a 1933 Poster of an iron hand, a swastika, and the text, “Don’t donate, sacrifice.”
Müller explores the ways some designers escaped the repercussions for their actions during Hitler’s Third Reich. Herbert Bayer was a leader in the Bauhaus school and served as art director for the German edition of Vogue. Boyer was at very least shrewd, if not complicit during the Nazi reign, and made work celebrating German culture throughout the 1930s. After later immigrating to the US he distanced himself from his Nazi affiliations, and went on to organize exhibitions for the Museum of Modern Art and continued to be a leader in the field in the US.
After the end of the Second World War, designers helped reestablish credibility of German companies through works such as an airy 1950s poster for a sailing regatta and a 1962 campaign for Lufthansa. But it was the American advertising firm DDB that created the iconic Volkswagen campaign of 1959 that reimagined Hitler’s people car as a more pedestrian family fun vehicle. Eventually this firm opened offices in Germany, and set the tone for a new era in German advertising.
While the imagery is striking and bold, the history is more nuanced and complex. In a only a few key decades, German artists evolved from generalists into the specialized profession of art direction and graphic design. All of the primary subjects featured in the book happen to be men, a byproduct of the era when women weren’t offered opportunities to work in industry. A list of further pioneers included in a final chapter, however, includes four women: Kathe Kollwitz, Dore Monkemeyer, Anne Koken, and Anna Simons, who made influential statements in their graphic design work, despite the odds against their success.
Photos Courtesy of Callisto Publishing