The Daily Heller: A Small Book of Big Ideas

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During the late 1980s, I started to randomly but actively dig through boxes and piles of late 19th-century graphic design in popular satiric and comic magazines, books and newspapers from Western and Eastern Europe—and, of course, the Northeastern United States. There, I stumbled upon a private book dealer by the name of Arthur Cohen who, with his wife, the designer and artist Elaine Lustig Cohen, ran Ex Libris. I hoped I might find some rarities and arrived without an appointment, and a gracious Mr. Cohen (who I later learned was a scholar of Judaica and European Modernism) opened the door and asked me what I was looking for.

As I began rattling off the names of 19th-century publications, he shook his head a few times and said with a smile, “Don’t be so antiquarian. Why not join me in the 20th century?”

I was a rube in an art and design world I knew nothing about, and told him that although I live in the 20th century, studying caricature, cartoon and satiric pubs from the previous epoch was my passion. It was then that he met me halfway: He pulled out of a drawer 10 exquisite copies of Paul Iribe’s early 20th-century illustrated périodique satirique, Le Mot. I was informed that Jean Cocteau (using the nom de crayon “Jim”) was Le Mot‘s primary cartoonist. Since the mags were on the periphery of Cohen’s interest, he let me have them cheap. As I was leaving, happy I had scored what for me was a rare find, he said jokingly, “when you’re ready for avant garde 20th-century design, call me.”

Over a year later I did just that and was invited to his new Ex Libris office on East 71st Street, where I was greeted by Elaine and taken on a private tour of the Cohens’ incredible collection of graphic design and typography from the early to midcentury modern. I was in a heaven that I had no idea existed.

The reason for my historical awakening (and impetus for visiting Ex Libris) came while rummaging through the 4th Avenue used book bins, coming across a slender, square hardcover volume that was destined to open up new realms of research and collecting. Such a revelation could have been found in a few books that were available at that time (including Pioneers of Modern Typography by Herbert Spencer [1969] or Graphic Design in Revolutionary Russia by Szymon Bojko [1972], among them), but I just happened to find Functional Graphic Design in the 20’s by Eckhard Neumann first. It sent me on a long search that resulted in acquiring many other books addressing the period’s progressive aesthetics and politically charged tenor of the times.

I recalled seeing similar material at Ex Libris. Elaine opened the door to her ground floor “showroom” and gave me carte blanche to rifle through the wealth of documents that today are the foundation of Western graphic design studies. And there was much more, too, including book art, periodicals, catalogs, monographs and rare printed artifacts galore. I was able to fill two-thirds of the first of four editions of Graphic Style, a book I co-authored with Seymour Chwast, with materials I either bought or borrowed from Ex Libris (and more valuably, I continued to be a friend and colleague of Elaine after Arthur passed away in 1986).

When I first found Neumann’s book I didn’t even comprehend the concept of “functional.” I hadn’t understood what Arthur was offering to me. It was Neumann, an advertising manager/art director, editor and pedagogue, who became my gateway to graphic design history. His book gave me the rudimentary language to converse with Arthur, Elaine and many others about this historical phenom that has largely grown into a field where today one can easily get lost in the weeds.

There are many entry points now, but if you come across Neumann’s book online, at a book fair or in a swap shop, get a copy—for it’s one of the first to rekindle interest in the study of avant garde, functional graphic design. In other words: It’s invaluable.