Birthe Steinbeck

“I’m crazy for
type,” confesses Birthe Steinbeck. “I feel like a nerd
sometimes for looking at it so closely, collecting it, loving it. One
day I was coming out of the airport in Stuttgart and I saw a new sign
for Bosch. I had never seen a ‘B’ sooooo big! It was
six car lanes in width!” As you might have guessed, Steinbeck is
excitable—she has big, brown eyes, dirty blonde hair, and uses
lots of exclamation points.

She’s navigated separate cultures
all her life. Her father worked for IBM—which, she says, stands
for “I’ve Been Moved”—and these travels took
Steinbeck to kindergarten in Connecticut; grade school in Deufringen, a
small, south German town; high school in Vermont; and secondary school
and university in Stuttgart.

After finishing her degree at Stuttgart
Academy of Fine Arts, Steinbeck moved to New York, where she worked for
Studio von Birken—run by Katia Kuethe and Philipp
Muessigmanndesigning the studio’s publication, E&A. She has
seen Argentina by car and spent several months in southeast Asia. For
the past two years, she has been living out of a suitcase. “You
could call me a global design nomad, a designing gypsy, or
picture-making vagabond,” she says.

Likewise, Steinbeck’s
visual influences pull from all over the map: Joseph Cornell, old circus
posters, Aubrey Beardsley, Russian suprematism, tattoo design, medieval
manuscripts, instructional posters, and ’70s California
billboards. Steinbeck’s obsession with typographic ephemera is
evident in the art direction, design, and illustrations she’s done
for a number of German publications, including Süddeutsche
Zeitung Magazin
, Zeit Leben Magazin, ICON,
Amica, and Utopia.

Steinbeck has developed two very
divergent visual styles for her editorial work. One, for collage, often
looks like funky, Flash-inspired versions of Kurt Schwitters. The other
is for illustration, for which she’s best known; her work has a
starkness reminiscent of Charles Burns or R. Crumb.

But Steinbeck says
her biggest stylistic influence is Neue Sachlichkeit, the “new
objectivity” movement in German art (think Otto Dix and George
Grosz) that highlighted the urban world’s detritus with a
concrete, if ugly, realism. Steinbeck’s illustrations improvise on
this idea. Sometimes they are printed on old newsprint, often in bold
black lines of undulating widths that create caricatures seemingly aware
of their own rendering—particularly in the drawings of friends she
calls “Onur” and “Monika.” Unlike Neue
Sachlichkeit work, however, Steinbeck’s illustrations have a
gentle beauty and whimsy to them; she chooses to play rather than
uglify. “It’s healthy not to take design or myself too
seriously!” she says. She cultivated this attitude under her
teacher Hans-Georg Pospischil, himself a student of Willy

She’s now working on a limited-edition artist’s
book inspired by Futurist design, featuring typographic innovations,
shaped text, and varied paper weights and colors. “It’s a
vast collection and fusion of assorted visual and verbal content,”
she says; “a combination of many disparate media: collage, ink,
and some nice anarchic coloring.”

And where is she now? Off in
Berlin, where the vibrant art scene has lured her. And no wonder:
It’s where Neue Sachlichkeit flourished.