Günther Kieser is one of Germany’s most important graphic designers—he was the go-to man for music posters in the 1960s, from Jimi Hendrix to the Grateful Dead and The Who. The retired, 86-year-old designer has never had a retrospective, until now. “Kieser, Posters” recently opened at the Bröhan Museum in Berlin and runs until July 23.
Jimi Hendrix Experience Tournee, Lippmann & Rau Concerts, 1969 © Günther Kieser
Cecil Taylor Free Jazz, 26. Jazz Festival Frankfurt, 1995 © Günther Kieser
Curated by Tobias Hoffmann, the show features 30 posters from the 1960s to 1999 in the museum’s Blackbox, a special section devoted to graphic design and photography. Here, some of Kieser’s most famous music posters are on view, including one of a skull transforming into a dove, which is also in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and a sculpture of a “mission impossible,” multi-pipe tuba.
Jazz Head, Frankfurter Jazz Festival, 2000 © Günther Kieser
He first started out studying at the School of Applied Arts in Offenbach am Main from 1946-1949, then kicked off his career working as a freelance graphic designer for a local radio station. In 1953, Kieser started working with fellow graphic designer Hans Michel and together, they created the Michel + Kieser agency, where they worked on several commercial projects, as well as showing their graphics at the Documenta art festival in the design section back in 1964.
In what led him to music, Kieser working for the concert agency Lippmann + Rau, who organized the German Jazz Festival in Frankfurt, which led him to designing posters for Jimi Hendrix, The Who and Miles Davis. He also created countless album covers for the Blue Note jazz record label, which released titles from John Coltrane to Ella Fitzgerald.
“Kieser is the most famous German poster designer, who is known for music,” said Hoffmann. “For him, it’s easier to do a poster for theatre and operas because there is already something visual to work with. But how do visualize music? This was his problem.”
He managed to make music posters by visualizing the imaginary. “All of his work was done before the digital revolution,” said Hoffmann. “Everything was made by hand and taken by a good photographer.”
For example, his most famous poster, the one of Jimi Hendrix for a 1969 concert in Germany, was made with colored wires set into a portrait of the musician, while his Frankfurt Jazz Festival poster from 1995 has dismantled piano keys arranged in a way to spell a messy letter “S.”
Ella Fitzgerald, Norman Granz, Jazz at the Philharmonic, 1959 © Günther Kieser
Jazz Festival Frankfurt, 1994 © Günther Kieser
Dolls were specially handcrafted for his Grateful Dead poster from 1974 and his Fleetwood Mac poster from 1977. “In the context of German graphic design, he is one of the most popular,” said Hoffmann. “His way of fantasy is his specialty with the picture. Kieser really hates words on his images, so he always puts the typography away from the picture, which is the most important thing.”
Most of the posters have words written right at the very top or marginalized at the very bottom. Like on his Jazz Fest Berlin poster from 1991, all the words are in the shadow of one central musical instrument on a rose-colored background.
“It’s much easier with digital design,” said Hoffmann. “It was all done without a computer; many people are surprised. But it was a good thing because this made him more creative, you have to be more daring.”
Newcomers in Jazz, 16. Jazz Festival Frankfurt, 1978, © Günther Kieser
Charles Minus Epitaph, Gunther Schuller, Jazz Fest Berlin 1991 © Günther Kieser
The posters on view are all limited edition, as only 300 posters were printed per image and Kieser still doesn’t have all of the posters. Some came on loan from private collections to show in this exhibition.
But this graphic designer could never have done iconic posters for psychedelic rock if he didn’t start by loving the music first. “I don’t think he would do a poster for a kind of music he doesn’t like,” said Hoffmann. “I asked him how he starts designing and he said he always listens to music every day, all day, and that he has to listen to the music before designing for it. And from the music, the image comes.”
Some things never change and Kieser is still pretty old school. “He doesn’t even have an email address,” said Hoffmann. “He says ‘If you want to contact me, just call me.’”
“Kieser, Posters” runs until July 23, 2017 at the Bröhan Museum in Berlin. Broehan-museum.de.