Paint it black
No one ran pictures bigger, cropped them tighter or had a darker vision than Willy Fleckhaus, the art director’s art director
The aim of Willy Fleckhaus’s work, as he said at a symposium in 1980, three years before his death, was to ‘illuminate words’ – to make them shine. And no one else did this quite like him. Fleckhaus broke down the white of his base material – paper – into 48 powerful spectral colours, creating a totally new, visually abstract, series of paperbacks for the German publisher Suhrkamp in which the whole Modern spectrum unfolded: a rainbow from Proust to Enzensberger, from Strindberg to Marx. Clearly different colours were used for different series, and yet the gentle, barely perceptible transition from one tone to another made for a homogenous design.
Suhrkamp’s famous Rainbow Series brought Fleckhaus’s work into the public eye. The colours pass from purple through red to orange, and from there slowly to yellow, then green, then blue, and finally back to purple. To date there have been more than 40 complete cycles – and there is no sign of them waning before the millennium is over.
Born in Velbert in 1925, Fleckhaus was probably the most influential book and magazine designer in post-war Germany. He was a typographer who saw type at best as a tool that allowed him to realise his essentially visual dreams. ‘For me, typefaces are in the truest sense of the word the building blocks that I use and buy. But I have to say that I am prepared to build something even if the material is very poor. So if no good blocks are available, I simply cut out the letters myself and make something out of them.’
All his life Fleckhaus mistrusted the conventional models, or at least anything bearing the ‘Made in Germany’ stamp. Many of his designs express his continual attempts to make a fresh start for himself. A friend, Adolf Theobald, explains: ‘Drafted by Hitler into the armed forces, and cheated out of his youth, Fleckhaus used graphics to re-live the youth that he had been denied: protest, opposition, liberalism, sentimentality, pleasure – all these things were worked out, processed through the layout.’
The rebellious young Fleckhaus sought his inspiration in Amerika Haus, a US-sponsored cultural institute. He studied its library avidly, and discovered magazines that sold mainly on their visual content. These influences came to the fore when, at the age of 28, he took over the design of Aufwarts, the youth magazine of the German trade union movement. Within a short time, a conventional union paper had been transformed into a fresh, topical journal. ‘Should girls wear long trousers?’ was the lead story in Fleckhaus’s first issue.
Telling stories in pictures
Though a trained journalist, Fleckhaus did not like writing. So he began – as far as was possible within the limits of trades’ union journalism – to tell stories with pictures. In this way, he developed the foundations of an aesthetic that was later applied with legendary success in Twen magazine – bold, short reports, little text, but a lot of photographs, many of them large. Aufwarts became one of Germany’s first lifestyle magazines. The secret of its success was the practical exclusion of day-to-day trade union politics. When it was necessary to incorporate longer pieces of text, the writer took pains to lighten up the sad blocks of type. He undermined their strong geometry with areas of grey and, later on, colour; sometimes he picked out isolated paragraphs in red or blue. Colour highlights adorned the cover photo: Audrey Hepburn, black and white, on a bright orange bicycle. One of Fleckhaus’s few maxims was that the magazine should be decorated like a well-laid table and glow with a lustrous order.
Concepts first formulated in Aufwarts were perfected in the 1960s, during his time as art director (and occasionally also chief editor) of Twen, the magazine for ‘people in their twenties, from 15 to 30’. Twen didn’t just stand for the broader target group. Its letters, as a colleague of Fleckhaus once said, also stood for the first letters of the German words ‘Typographie Weckt Enorme Neugier’ (typography awakes enormous interest).
Twen caused a sensation with its very own sign language, which appealed to the purchaser’s senses and to the ‘grand emotions’ (in Fleckhaus’s words). The small trumpet graphic that preceded many provocative texts was a signal: ‘Pay attention, this is a magazine in step with the times; it’s chipping away at the old taboos.’ On the cover were appeals and questions such as ‘How should I behave in a bikini?’ and ‘Love in a car’.
Twen dispensed with the usual homilies on the pleasures of rambling, but instead carried car tests, and heaped abuse on some of the most popular authors in Germany.
Fleckhaus knew how to package such inflammatory material in an attractive way, like a colourful cracker. Even critics of the magazine had to admit that it was immaculately presented. In 1961, the magazine was taken to the high court in Munich, charged with being ‘more dangerous than a hundred nude magazines, breeding a superindividualism with no regard for society or morals’. But ultimately, an expert witness had to concede that Fleckhaus’s journal was ‘impeccably readable’, with ‘a host of different graphic and typographic devices, a generous use of space, an original application of black background tints, and an appealing solution for each double page spread’.
Time and time again, type was used to build up effects, such as tension. ‘If I take a short word – t, o, t [dead] –and make its three letters 30cm high, it has an extraordinarily dramatic impact.’ He did not use ready-made material, but worked things out for himself by means that today appear almost incomprehensibly antiquated. Individual characters were painstakingly enlarged, and then pasted down with the minimum space between them.
Racy headlines provided an effective contrast with the harmonious calm of Fleckhaus’s photographs: girls posing, windswept, in the open countryside; softly drawn portraits of lovers; pictures of women reduced to a stereotype of mouth and eyes. ‘What have you got against brains?’ asked one subscriber. ‘Dear Willy, don’t start leaving the cranium out of all your portraits on principle, please.’
Fleckhaus did not allow himself to be deterred – not by his readers, and often not by the reports that accompanied his visual designs. In an interview Fleckhaus said that he moved further and further away from the ‘traditional’ idea of the layout: ‘I love double-page photos!’ Sometimes this approach produced some very idiosyncratic solutions.
When Twen ran a cover story on Paragraph 175, which made homosexuality a punishable offence, Fleckhaus’s visuals focused exclusively on heterosexual couples. This was a concession to the readers’ tastes, but it was also a deliberate provocation. Fleckhaus was interested in making the printed page an artwork that stirred up emotions and unrest. ‘I try to make the photos as large and self-contained as possible.’ His favourite method was to pack a whole series of highlights close together.
If Fleckhaus could not tell the story with a string of pictures, he would concentrate all his energies on encapsulating it in a single, memorable image, and banish most of the text to the left-over section at the back of the magazine.
Here Fleckhaus displayed the same capacity for abstraction that characterised his work as a book designer, a second career whose impact on the face of German literature is still visible today, eight years after his death. But the Rainbow Series was not an isolated stroke of inspiration, and Suhrkamp publications still appear in this format.
‘Extreme simplicity and clarity in all things’ was the aim of Fleckhaus’s work in both magazines and books; he achieved the greatest variety with the most economical means. One famous example is his treatment of Paul Nizon’s Canto and Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s Tynset. Twice he used the same black Garamond against a white background. In Canto the title is placed up high, a typographical translation of the novel’s high register; but in Tyneset, set in a fictitious location at the end of the world, the title is moved to the lowest edge of the cover – a play on the same element, resulting in two fundamentally different designs.
In this way, Fleckhaus designed more than a thousand titles. At first glance, these seem quite different. Some are in black and white, some in glowing colour. Some are full of type, others as empty as possible. Yet they share common characteristics, although these are hard to put into words. Siegfried Unseld spoke of a ‘common climate’; Fleckhaus of a ‘contemporaneity’ of authors, which had to be matched by a contemporaneity of cover design. The Modern Classics (Suhrkamp’s slogan for the series) had to appear timeless: even the typography would rise above prevailing fashions.
This becomes clearer if one takes a look at the most radical of Fleckhaus’s designs – the jacket for the new German translation of Ulysses in 1980. This work was the culmination of his techniques of graphic reduction and reduced letter-, word- and line-spacing. The title was a neon-lit composition, which joined in new ways letters that had previously been unconnected, creating completely new semantic linkages. With inspired ease, Fleckhaus made the cover express the Joycean art of montage.
But even at this stage in his career, the design of book jackets was only one of many activities. Over more than twenty years in the field, Fleckhaus had perfected routines which brought him free time and space that he must somehow fill up: ‘I believe,’ he once stated, ‘that progress was invented by lazy people who said: now I need to invent something that will let me have some free time soon. But the point is that these inventors and innovators then do not relax, but go on inventing new things all the time.’ In Fleckhaus’s case, the novelties included the Frankfurter Allgemeine Magazin, a weekly newspaper supplement with no hard news (its slogan: ‘Colourful entertainment each Friday in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Magazin’).
In Frankfurter Allgemeine Magazin Fleckhaus once again made use of highlighting devices. He established aesthetic ground rules that are still used by the best designers in the field. By now Fleckhaus had not only had extensive practical experience, but also taught in colleges in Essen and Wüppertal. He asserted, in a provocatively simple way, that a newspaper should be an ‘experience’. ‘And when we make typography, we should really understand that we are not just dealing with characters – that this is not just a simple matter of bold or light Futura, but rather that our real goal is to give people pleasure, to inform and entertain them.’
The scene had changed since the time of Fleckhaus’s first magazines. There was more emphasis on culture; less on love. The Twen generation had grown up. But what remained constant was the dominance of stunning picture stories, now in colour, rather than roughly screened in black and white. In addition to the photographs, the graphics were also sharp and clear. Expectations were greater, but then so were means of meeting them. There was, however, one throwback to the old Twen days: the black frame on the cover, now made broader, to further highlight the contrast with the photography inside it.
Illumination was Fleckhaus’s guiding principle right up to his last major work, Suhrkamp’s White Series. In spring 1983, Suhrkamp reissued 33 books representing 33 years of publishing. The breadth of the programme called for a special, unified form of presentation. To achieve this Fleckhaus also returned to his origins, redeploying an old trick. In the Rainbow Series of 1963 he had broken down white light, as though through a prism, into 48 colours. Now, when it came to making a summary, he reunited the individual pieces in a symbolic whole. And everything turned white: 33 white covers. An involuntary end.
First published in Eye no. 3 vol. 1, 1991