The machine aesthetic

Matthew Valentine finds that a new book examining German graphic design between the wars throws up some surprising aspects of the national character.

While heeding the mantra “Don’t mention the war” is a useful way to ensure polite conversation with Germans of a certain age, it is not so helpful when discussing graphic design from the German Modern period.

The style, intricately tied up with the Art Deco movement, reached its zenith in a period neatly framed by the two world wars. The unfortunate economic conditions Germany was plunged into during this period even gave rise to some unique outlets for the form, including emergency bank notes issued during bouts of rampant inflation.

A new book, German Modern, takes a retrospective look at the hybrid-deco style with the aid of more than 200 illustrations. Many of them have never been previously published in book form.

According to the book’s foreword, German Modern invented “a visual wit all its own”. If you were under the impression that a typical German joke is invading Poland, you may be surprised by the accuracy of the claim. Although hardly a riot, the book does raise the odd chuckle. The laughs are generally at the expense of somebody else though – glue is advertised by sticking a bird to a tube of it, and Kaffee Hag was advertised in 1910 by an image of a snake having its head chopped off with an axe as it emerges from a pile of coffee beans.

There is an overt industrial influence behind many of the illustrations. When most people think of German Modern design they arguably picture posters urging the workforce to strive harder for Germany. Seemingly abstract patterns on advertising posters often prove, on closer inspection, to be gears or rollers from engines or machinery. In many posters the machinery takes pride of place.

The images in the book are unmistakably German. Their mix of efficient machines and bold statements of power and purpose have direct descendants in, say, the BMW car of today.

German Modern by Steven Heller and Louise Fili is published by Chronicle Books. Price 12.99.

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