Single currency

Graphic Design in Germany: 1890-1945 by Jeremy Aynsley does something very significant: through the example of Germany, it explores the context of the birth of graphic design.

Aynsley starts his history in the 1870s, when the energy released by the unification of Germany led to a huge, enduring commercial boom, known as the Gründerzeit (‘the founding period’), that made new demands on printers and commercial artists. They had to create increasingly aggressive and distinctive packages, advertisements and magazines, and invent what we now call ‘corporate’ identities.

There are a few rare and wonderful pictures from the early 1900s: windows full of packaging, and Peter Behrens’ first modern identity on an AEG showroom. At first, the commercial pressure led to an increasingly adventurous and ‘technically-driven fascination for special effects’ (no change there). Then, the realistic, coloured drawings, the exuberant forms of Jugendstil (‘the style of youth’) gradually surrendered to a ‘culture of restraint’, and what we would all recognise as the single currency we use now: abstract forms, asymmetry, photography, stark typography, white space. The great success of the book is that you literally experience this evolution, from page to page.

The new activity needed a new name. In 1927, designer Fritz Ehmcke coined a term Gebrauchsgraphik (‘graphics for use’), which he said was ‘a collective term, that 15 years ago did not exist, although what it describes is ancient’. What he meant by ‘ancient’ were the practices of painting and drawing posters, and designing lettering, books, and publications which suddenly converged into a single profession drawn together by mass circulation printing. This is similar to American William Addison Dwiggins’ term ‘graphic design’, coined in 1922 and defined by him as ‘printing for purpose’.

Aynsley holds on to the paradoxes that arise in any examination of graphic design; is it art or commercial craft, inherently moral or immoral, and are its styles best understood as a localised national phenomena or are they part of larger international developments? He says that design is best understood as being complex and contradictory, and therefore a mixture of all these binary opposites. The national versus international question is best highlighted when Aynsley examines typefaces. At the end of the 19th century, Roman type was associated with the Catholic Church and, therefore, ‘unGerman’. The (almost illegible) fat black gothic Fraktur was preferred as the typeface for the proud new nation.

But, gradually, the clearer Roman forms were adopted and made acceptable by being ‘germanicised’ with pen shapes and flourishes. It was the machine-worshipping Bauhaus school that finally threw away the constraints of a ‘national’ typography and experimented with increasingly spartan, geometric and universal typefaces. ‘There is no tradition in technology,’ said Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. (The Nazis first tried, and failed, to impose a return to gothic type Volksschrift and then condemned it as ‘Jewish-Schwabacher’.)

The design of this book about design is a real disappointment, the result of the publisher padding out the book to be able to charge more. It has a large typeface, almost children’s book size, with that extremely big inter-line spacing wildly popular in 1983. There are not many pictures, either, and, given the giant page size, you might imagine the posters and shopfronts would be shown at a size that might hint at their actual effect. Alas, this is not so. Aynsley’s hard work is wrapped in an insipid and clumsy package: the content and its form do not match.

If only Thames & Hudson had read the book. Buy it anyway.

Graphic Design in Germany: 1890-1945 will be published on 6 November by Thames & Hudson, priced £36

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