Albrecht Dürer: The First Post-Modernist Designer

Self portrait

Albrecht Dürer was the very epitome of a Renaissance man. Born in 1471 at the height of the German Renaissance, he excelled at painting, woodcuts, engraving, typography, book-making and writing. Having studied the family trade of goldsmithing, he went on to apprentice with his godfather Anton Koberger, the publisher and printer of the heavily illustrated Nuremberg Chronicle, published in 1493. While still in his twenties he established himself as an important illustrator with his chiaroscuro woodcuts, notably “The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse”.

One of his lasting innovations was the poster. In 1515 he created a woodcut based on a sketch and written description by an unknown artist of an Indian rhinoceros that he sold as a Broadside poster. Having never actually seen a rhino, he depicted the animal as wearing armor, replete with breastplate, rivets and gorget.

Anonymous woodcut published in 1515, on which Dürer based his rhino

Dürer’s rhino

Which brings us to post-modernism. Dürer actively utilized historical and cross-cultural influences in his work. His influences included the Greeks, the Italians and the Aztecs. He applied Da Vinci’s proportions of the human body, as well as the mathematical theories of Euclid, to typography (you can read more of my writing on his typography here). He created textile pattern books for others to follow, and kept swatch books of others’ textiles. His “knotwork print” was itself based on Da Vinci’s own “knotwork roundels.”

[Related: Magazine Covers by Famous Artists: Dali, Picasso, Braque & More | The Graphic Design Work of Henri Matisse]

Da Vinci

Dürer applies Da Vinci’s proportions to typography

Da Vinci knotwork roundel

“The Fifth Knot” Roundel by Albrecht Durer, circa 1498

Significantly, thanks to booty the explorer Cortés sent back to Europe, Dürer came to view the work of the Aztecs. He was so moved by the experience he wrote in his journal, on August 27, 1520:

“At Brussels is a very splendid Townhall, large and covered with beautiful carved stonework, and it has a noble, open tower. . . . I saw the things which have been brought to the King from the new land of gold, a sun all of gold a whole fathom broad, and a moon all of silver of the same size, also two rooms full of armor of the people there, and all manner of wondrous weapons of theirs, harness and darts, very strange clothing, beds, and all kinds of wonderful objects of human use, much better worth seeing than prodigies [myths, fairy tales]. These things were all so precious that they are valued at 100,000 florins [guilders] All the days of my life I have seen nothing that rejoiced my heart so much as these things, for I saw amongst them wonderful works of art, and I marvelled at the subtle Ingenia of men in foreign lands. Indeed I cannot express all that I thought there. ”

Dürer, created the following year, 1521

A lasting work of Dürer’s is the monogram of his initial letters, which lives on in the Art Director’s Club logo still in use to this day.

Dürer’s family coat of arms, with a pun on “door”

Dürer’s monogram

Latest iteration of the Art Director’s Club Global logo


One thought on “Albrecht Dürer: The First Post-Modernist Designer

  1. egiova

    This rhinoceros, offered by an Indian sultan to the King of Portugal in 1515, is named “Ulysses” by the sailors who accompany him to Lisbon.
    Its arrival is a real attraction: it’s the first rhinoceros on the European continent since Antiquity!
    However, Ulysses doesn’t exactly resemble the engraving made by Dürer: it’s an ordinary Indian rhinoceros, with no horn in the back or scales.
    This gap with reality is surprising when we know that Dürer has produced many works representing animals in a very realistic way. The reason is simple: Dürer never met Ulysses …
    Yes, when one lives and works in Nuremberg in Germany, Lisbon seems far away! How to represent a rhinoceros when one has never seen it?

    Dürer Post_modernist? The thesis is interesting, I suppose it will depend on which side of Story one is posted. Personally, I do not subscribe to the thesis. For me Dürer is a “Modernist”, not a “Post-Modern”. Debatible apparently.

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