Winter 2005

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Jürgen Holstein’s volume of rare Weimar-era jackets and covers is an extraordinary labour of love

Weighing in at a little over five pounds, Blickfang: Bindings and Dust Jackets of Berlin Publishing Houses, 1919-1933, a 25 x 28 cm, 550-page clothbound tome with more than 1000 colour illustrations (and two ribbon bookmarks) published in July 2005, is the first collection of its kind. Compiled, edited, introduced and published by German antiquarian book dealer Jürgen Holstein (with visual material from the collection of Jürgen and Waltraud Holstein), Blickfang, the German word for ‘eye catcher’, lives up to its title.

Even for the non-German reader (there are eighteen essays – with but one in English), this critical mass of Weimar-era dust jackets and covers (from books, magazines, pamphlets and manifestos) will make eyes pop. Like many of the covers included by John Heartfield, Georg Grosz, Otto Arpke, El Lissitzky, Georg Salter, Lucian Bernhard, Hans Bellmer, as well as lesser known artists and designers, whose persuasive and alluring graphics commanded browsers to ‘buy this book’, Blickfang demands the reader savour this ignored trove of visual literature.

Contemporary graphic design histories routinely include a few key artifacts of German book cover design – such as Heartfield’s Upton Sinclair photomontage jackets for the Malik-Verlag or his cover for Kurt Tucholsky’s Deutschland Deutschland über Alles, and occasionally Georg Salter’s jackets for German novels – yet the majority of specimens created for leading publishing houses are lost. The dust jackets for Büchergilde Gutenberg, Der Syndikalist, Die Schmiede and Bruno und Paul Cassirer have been relegated to obscurity for good reason: even the most startling were mere advertisements and in most instances destined for the discard bin immediately after being purchased. However, as graphic design historians are well aware, jackets, despite their ephemeral nature, provide a wellspring of typographic and design innovations. Heartfield’s covers are now considered masterpieces of avant-garde practice. They, along with those created by exponents of the New Typography, including Jan Tschichold, Johannes Molzahn, Paul Renner and László Moholy-Nagy, reveal how Modernism emerged as an ambient visual language that influenced other media of the period.

The examples in Blickfang are vivid illustrations of a broader historical narrative that addresses how political and commercial publishing companies appealed to their audiences during this critical epoch, when left and right were battling in the streets for public dominion and political power. For leftwing publishers like the Malik-Verlag and the Verlag für Literatur und Politik the jacket was a recruitment poster that used the persuasive languages of socialist realism or polemical symbolism to seek readers who might pick up the banners of revolution.

Blickfang’s emphasis on leftwing publishers (though a few early Nazi books are discussed) is balanced by an interest in apolitical designs that incorporate Modern art idioms. German dust jacket design was a sponge that soaked up formal influences and conceits. Cubist and Expressionist graphics were common, but photomontage, collage and closely cropped studio photography were the most frequently applied methods. Even some of the radical children’s books incorporated photographic elements. Also of note is the widespread rejection of blackletter in favour of quirky hand-lettering and sans serif typography, underscoring German publishers’ willingness to break from tradition.

Blickfang, an expensive book (198 Euros), was a mission for Holstein, who in 2002 self-published a monograph on Georg Salter. ‘I was aware of the narrow market for such a book and thus the financial constraints that would be in place for such a title,’ he told me. Moreover only a few publishers were actually interested in taking on this book and in each case it meant compromises, that might affect the quality of layout and design, which was carried out by Doren + Köster in Berlin.

When Holstein and his wife found a mint copy of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) with its rare, Georg Salter-designed dust wrapper, he got the idea ‘to collect privately in this generally neglected area of Berlin book culture which embodied so much the spirit of the time as well as the period’s high level of graphic design.’

In Germany dust jackets tended not to be kept and are scarce. Also, German books were published in comparatively small editions. The first us edition of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) was an edition of 50,000, while the first edition of Robert Musil’s Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (1930) was produced in an edition of 5000. Thomas Mann’s Joseph und seine Brüder (1933) was a relatively large edition at 10,000 copies. ‘It is a curious phenomenon of print and design culture interest that more and more monographs and exhibition catalogues are produced in Germany dealing with the poster, whereas for the dust wrapper (a mini-poster), there exists but a handful of monographic pamphlets and poorly illustrated catalogues,’ says Holstein.

The reason is obvious. Despite the digital revolution, the cost of producing a book with 1000 colour illustrations in an edition of 400 copies was almost beyond Holstein’s means. Blickfang took three years to produce. Holstein says there will not be a second edition or printing by him, nor will it be licensed to a commercial publisher for publication in a condensed, less expensive format. ‘Once the book is o.p. that’s it,’ he says.