Erik Nitsche, Design Auteur

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There was never an unnecessary layout in any of his books. Precision was his middle name. Erik Nitsche (1908 – 1998) had a healthy ego when it came to his work, but he never claimed to be a pioneer of modern graphic design. Consequently he is not as renown today as his contemporaries, Saul Bass, Lester Beall, Alexey Brodovitch, or Paul Rand. Yet he was their equal. Had it not been for certain asocial tendencies (“I preferred to do the work, not talk about it,” he once told me) and some poor business decisions (“I turned down a little job at IBM that later went to Paul Rand”), his name might have been etched earlier into the porous stone of design history.

He worked for many of the same modern design patron-clients that hired his contemporaries, including Orbachs, Bloomingdale’s and Filene’s department stores, Decca and RCA Records, Fortune magazine, The Museum of Modern Art, and Container Corporation of America, and produced some formidable design. In 1947 he was also vice president of Germany’s largest advertising agency, Dorland International, and if blazing trails is an indication of stature, in 1949 he was art director of Mademoiselle magazine before Bradbury Thompson took over. From 1955 to 1965 design director for General Dynamics Corporation for whom he produced the iconic “Atoms for Peace” poster series that helped give this Cold War producer of high technology weapons its positive industry public relations. In addition to posters (and corporate annual reports) he also conceived and designed an opus history of General Dynamics titled Dynamic America, a picture book so lavish in size and scope that it ultimately raised the bar for other non-fiction picture book design and became the gold standard for information design. Doing the General Dynamics book inspired Nitsche to start his own ambitious publishing business, initially as one of other sidelines, yet later as a fulltime book packager of three multilingual series of illustrated scientific, music, and world history books, which he edited, designed and packaged throughout the 1960s and early 1970s.

Nitsche helped pioneer the concept of design authorship – and not just the navel-gazing books about and for designers (he never published a monograph) – but books that had broad audiences. Of course design was endemic to every subject he covered and his books were designed in an elegant contemporary manner. Design was but a frame with which he presented unique themes. Nitsche’s goal with, for example, The New Illustrated Library of Science and Invention, was to avail the reader of fascinating, subjects, like “A History of Ships and Seafaring” and “A History of Archaelogical Discoveries.” Through accessible formats these books were (and still are) “reader friendly” because the typographic and graphic entry-points were conceived to provide unique sensory experiences. This may sound a bit pretentious, but Nitsche’s books were anything but. Instead their elegance was a point of pride and a selling point for the reader. Another way to describe them is “generous:” Nitsche was indeed generous with white space and pictures alike. Whether addressing physics, occult sciences, fashion, or social progress, each 112-page volume generously presented a wealth of material in a sophisticated but not haughty manner.

He was passionate for images, which he personally selected for every book to heighten understanding and provide rational narrative flow. The type – he was compulsive about finding the perfect cuts of the quintessential faces – was classic, always justified, but routinely with a modern tweak in the column width and leading. Every book also contained a handsome timeline (he was truly the master of timelines) as a contextual signpost.

His unique approach to book design (and publishing business) came after spending many years in Europe and the United States honing skills as illustrator, photographer, typographer, advertising and editorial art director – he was a staunch gadfly. Indeed, Nitsche’s design instincts, which lead to his auteurship, developed fairly early during a life that is as absorbing as the books he produced.

During Nitsche’s earlier career he was a skilled studio photographer and editor of photographs, which came in handy while editing General Dynamic’s annual reports, which directly foreshadowed his book design. Since he emphasized cinematic pacing in all his layouts, and followed a principle of dynamic flow based on scale, repetition, and juxtaposition, the reports were more like books than brochures. In one of the finest of these specimens Nitsche presents a virtual panoramic view of General Dynamics’ accomplishments by using photographic images of all its divisions so meticulously juxtaposed and modulated as to transition from sea to sky through the turning of pages. Text bars explaining the different divisions were intermittently inserted as short sheets of paper interrupting every other spread.

Nitsche would always design each book spread in miniature – at 35mm size – allowing him to freely edit and approximate the movement of film itself. In fact, the first color proofs without text (which Nitsche retained in his archive), were just as readable as if they had a verbal narrative. The pictures were laid out as though equivalent of complete sentences, phrases, and paragraphs. This became his modus operandi for future books as well.

For some, book publishing was akin to the Internet of the sixties and seventies, a means of communicating information to large numbers in large volumes. In this milieu Nitsche practiced design auteurship before it was given a name, and the body of work he produced is extraordinary even by today’s standards. After moving to Geneva in the early 1960s Nitsche Founded ENI, S.A. (Erik Nitsche International) to produce some of the finest illustrated history books ever designed. The first series, a twelve volume The New Illustrated Library of Science and Invention, with a multilingual print run of over two million copies, covered the histories of communication, transport, photography, architecture, astronomy, and the machine, and flight. Like Dynamic America, the pictures drove the text (although the text was written by esteemed authors). Nitsche dove headlong into the research himself and unearthed thousands of rare and never-before-seen archival images. In his mind’s eye he saw precisely how each image in concert with the next would tell the story. The second ENI series on the History of Music was even more ambitious — twenty volumes — that covered an expansive range of musical experience from composition to instrumentation, from classical to jazz.

Nitsche’s work is decidedly Modern, but he is not an orthodox Modernist. Precision craftsman is a better description. Indeed the printed page was his canvas, and visual data his medium. Nitsche’s book design had a simple beauty and didactic clarity. Headlines were small and discrete, captions were prominent but not overbearing, even the overall size (6 3/4 inches x 10 1/2 inches) exuded visceral pleasure (neither coffee table nor academic). Dynamic silhouettes and dramatic vignettes of important artifacts were key compositional elements. Through clever juxtaposition he could make historical engravings and paintings look contemporary. Framing vintage images in fields of white space removed the mustiness. Even the most old fashioned prints had contemporary relevance. Nitsche’s signature, illustrated timeline at the end of each volume gave the reader additional textual and visual information. The books worked together as a series and stood alone as well. The format was tied them together, but each had integrity. Nothing was overdone; each book was a gem.

Yet business was not Nitsche’s forte. ENI ultimately collapsed when a former partner established a competing packaging company doing the same kind of books. “He even stole my design,” Nitsche complained abo
ut identical looking volumes. The ensuing legal machinations left him in debt, so when he was offered the opportunity to edit and design L’Epopee Mondiale D’Un Siecle, a five volume history of the Twentieth Century, he jumped at the opportunity and moved to Paris where the publisher, Hachette/Paris Match, was headquartered. Meanwhile, he alternated his time between Paris and Hamburg, Germany, where he redesigned Stern magazine. In the late 1970s Nitsche returned to Ridgefield, Connecticut to design children’s books and worked on special effects for a film called “The Color of Man.” In 1981 contracted with Unicover Corporation (based in Cheyenne, Wyoming) to design over 200 philatelic first day covers (between 1985 and 1987). Approaching eighty years old, for this assignment he turned from abstract illustration into an exquisite realist. He did, however, leave book design and packaging behind, at least temporarily

(The example here is his History of Communications – a joy for the eye. Every spread engages the reader with visual notations. The final spreads in each book are always a detailed timeline.)

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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →