Monday, October 16, 2017


"The early twentieth century was the most significant period of all in the development of modern design....  The design profession was born, and with it came the beginnings of corporate and graphic design as we know it today."        
                                  -- Jens Müller,  Pioneers of German Graphic Design
The first few decades in 20th century Germany were tumultuous years, a veritable Cambrian explosion of innovation which shaped the world of visual communication that we now take for granted.

For example, they introduced the "object poster" which filled public spaces with large colorful images for the first time. They were fun and eye-catching, persuasive and entertaining.  Most of all, they were visually easy for strolling crowds to read.  The poor man's art museum, they transformed public boulevards into art galleries and revolutionized the worlds of advertising and design that followed. 

Then there was the new use of design to embody corporate identity, including the invention of the modern corporate logo. 

Modern typography was invented and the rapidly developing science of photography was applied in new ways, such as photomontages.

I've previously written on this blog about German designer Peter Behrens, the visionary who met the industrial revolution with comprehensive designs for the new man made environments. But I never appreciated the cumulative role that Behrens and his contemporaries in Germany played in transforming modern visual communication until I read the admirable new book by Jens Müller, Pioneers of German Graphic Design. (Callisto Publishers, 2017).

The 1,000+ high quality illustrations in this encyclopedic book speak for themselves, and make a highly persuasive argument.

This 1925 car ad could easily appear in a magazine today, nearly 100 years later.

But beyond the images, Müller's text is a well-written, thoughtful analysis of the ingredients that gave rise to an era of such artistic ferment.  He writes:
"To trace the history of modern visual communications and explore why such major innovations came from Germany requires a detailed understanding of the social and economic circumstances of the Epoque and order to identify the developments generated demand for modern commercial design in the first place."
Müller's exploration centers on fourteen pioneers of design, most of whom were previously unknown to me but all of whom I found deserving of attention.  I was particularly impressed by the work of Julius Klinger and Wilhelm Deffke.

He tracks how the industrial age changed production, transportation and distribution of goods, which contributed to vast social and economic change (and sharp divisions between social groups).  The new accessibility of printing helped to evade the constraints of previous far reaching government censorship of printed materials. These and other elements fused to transform advertising form and content, and amplify the role of graphic design.  Müller's expertise in discussing these issues is truly impressive.

Many of the readers of this blog are already familiar with the brilliant German graphic art publications of the era, Jugend and Simplicissimus, which were so influential on American illustrators.  Pioneers of German Graphic Design shows that those two publications were just the tip of the iceberg, and how German innovations in design later transformed the field.


Paul Sullivan said...

This is a great post. I've studied the graphic design of this era and have been a great admirer of German graphics throughout my career. The great age of American graphic design, during the 60s and 70s, had its origins in German design of the 1920’s and early 30s.

Anonymous said...

Great images. Can you show more examples?


David Apatoff said...

Paul Sullivan-- Many thanks. I didn't appreciate that "the great age of American graphic design, during the 60s and 70s, had its origins in German design of the 1920’s and early 30s" but looking at the examples in this book, it's undeniable. I've often talked on this blog about the importance of understanding our roots and respecting our sources. That includes sources that are a little further back in time and a little more geographically distant.

Anonymous / JSL-- More examples of work by the artists I've mentioned are available on line. There are others in the book, such as Kathe Kollwitz, who are more familiar, and who we have discussed before.

Anonymous said...

Art worth remembering. (Unlike the unimaginative, emphatic, tacky Nazi era art and propaganda stuff).
Unfortunately Nazi Germany represented a sad ending for this generation of German/Austrian artists (Kley dying in 45, Deffke a few year later and the terrible, inhuman fate of the brilliant Julius Klinger).

varshini devi said...

Wonderful explanation about the artwork of Germany. After going through this I have planned to undergo German Language Classes in Chennai

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