40 years ago you couldn’t give away a book on graphic design history—well, actually you couldn’t even find one; Phil Meggs‘ A History of Graphic Design was first published in 1983. Today, in fact right now, there are at least four major new tomes, including two on The New Typography and Weimar design culture, a massive two volume set covering the full spectrum of commercial art and design, a third edition of a history seen through an art historical lens, and my own forthcoming Teaching Graphic Design History (Allworth Press) which will be out this summer. Am I missing anything?
Of course, with so many volumes there is bound to be redundancy in both text and image. And while libraries should have them all, many readers do not have the money (or space) to buy (or store) them all. So to help make your decision, here is a brief description of each and their comparative merits.
Deep Dive Into a Wide Pond
In this two volume Graphic Design set, author Jens Müller and editor Julius Weidmann exhaustively cover 140 years of graphic design, designers, typography styles and fashions from the late 19th century to the present. Year-by-year spreads are supplemented with sidebars on hundreds of important projects, form-giver profiles and visual timelines of each decade. By any measure this provides design history scholars (and fans) an overview on steroids.
The scholarship is basic but accessibly useful. The extraordinary number of reproductions, in addition to breaking the rights and repro bank, is an essential resource. The only downside is the size and weight of each volume (9 9.7 x 14.6 in., 480 pages) it is like having four volumes in two (and for the money it is reasonably priced). If you can find a shelf large and strong enough, it is a must have.
Looking Forward to Weimar’s Design Legacy
Alston Purvis’s latest design history contribution (with design by Cees W. de Jong), The Enduring Legacy of Weimar: Graphic Design & New Typography 1919-1933 (Prestel), dives into the well of essential documentation and is a welcome tutorial about this critical period, the dawn of Modernism and its impact on commercial culture.
The texts are more than adequate background for the student looking for a contextual history and while many of the visuals can be found in the other books discussed here and already in print, there are quite a few that I had never seen before (see below) representing groups and movements in Weimar, Germany, and elsewhere in European design culture that are indeed revealing.
New Type of History
Paul Stirton’s Jan Tschichold and the New Typography: Graphic Design Between The Wars (Yale University Press) is a stand-alone companion to the excellent exhibition of the same name at the Bard Graduate Gallery (on view through July 7). In a way it is a shame that the Purvis and Stirton books are published in the same season. They are each different (Stirton’s is a more scholarly exploration into the reasons for and ramifications of the “movement”).
Both are valuable for students. Stirton raises instructive critical issues, particularly about Bauhaus involvement (or lack thereof) in the New Typography, that challenges some prior assumptions while Purvis covers more of the geography covered by the movement. Stirton’s prose is a pleasure to read and expands nicely on the Purvis approach.
Another Stab at a New History
Stephen J. Eskilson’s third edition of Graphic Design: A New History (Yale University Press + Laurence King Publishers) is obviously a contender with the Purvis-authored sixth edition of Meggs’ classic A Graphic Design History (Wiley) and as I had written in the Times about the seond edition “each author brings a singular perspective. As an art historian, Eskilson looks at design from the art perspective more than the others do,
which is valuable because design does indeed intersect with art movements.”
Yet while their respective points of view are different, the need to have both volumes in the classroom is debatable. That said, The apparent enthusiasm publishers have for general and specific aspects of design history is encouraging. The history tidal flow has turned into a tidal wave. That’s a good thing.