• Michael Dooley

Germany’s Golden Age of Book Cover Design

The 1920s were, by far, the most rip-roaring decade for graphic design. Art Deco was jazzing up the whole world. The folk in Russia turned Constructive, geometrically speaking. Western Europe dallied with the Surreal thing. And of course, Germany rocked the Bauhaus, but that’s not all it did: this country also had book jackets extremely well covered, as amply evidenced within the contents of The Book Cover in the Weimar Republic, just published.

Sacco und Vanzetti. Berlin: Mopr-Verlag, 1928. Cover by Pewas.

The book’s sizable 450 pages, with English and German text, are filled with a variety of manifestations of all the above avant-garde design movements. A large variety: in total, there are one thousand striking covers, jackets, and bindings, all handsomely printed. They span from the World War I recovery period of the late ‘teens to the early ‘30s, as Hitler rose to power and the country’s flourishing creative arts became one of his first fatalities. In today’s Amazon-driven environment, with its crowd-sourced reviews and thumbnail-sized graphics, it’s essential that we remember an era when publishing was at its peak and the cover was the book’s most vital marketing tool. And for that, this volume serves an indispensable function.

In assembling Cover/Weimar, editor Jürgen Holstein skillfully selected from his own, vast personal collection. He offers a wide diversity of fascinating approaches to illustration, layout, and typography, from Dadaist George Grosz’s grotesquely spot-on caricatures to the bold Plakatstil graphic treatments of Lucian Bernard. They all serve as point-of-purchase sales tools for an international array of authors like Brecht, Gorky, and Camus as well as Americans such as Faulkner, Twain, and Dos Passos.

There are an assortment of John Heartfield photomontages, including his iconic bleak Chicago factory landscape overlaid with receding red block letters for Sinclair’s The Jungle. And additional covers reveal his surprisingly keen typographic dexterity, which Peter Nils Dorén astutely analyzes, along with New Typography’s Jan Tschichold and other designers, in the most engaging of the book’s enlightening essays, “The Art of Eyecatching: Typography and Lettering on Book Jackets and Covers.” Heartfield’s influence can be seen on others like Moholy-Nagy student Peter Walter Schultz (“Pewas”), whose Sacco and Vanzetti cover [above] replaced the Statue of Liberty’s flame of enlightenment with an electric chair.

Ignatz Straßnoff. Ich, der Hochstapler Ignatz Strassnoff. Berlin: Verlag Die Schmiede, 1926. Cover by Georg Salter.

Alfred Döblin. Berlin Alexanderplatz. Die Geschichte vom Franz Biberkopf. Print run: 41–45,000. Berlin: S. Fischer, 1931. Cover by Georg Salter.

George Salter’s works include the subtly interlacing text-and-image Berlin Alexanderplatz design that made him world-famous; the book’s caption helpfully notes that the jacket “was widely imitated and became the most reproduced, copied, and plagiarized book cover in the entire history of German publishing.”

Then there’s Tschichold, whose Otto Neurath-style infographic figures plot out One-Third of Humanity. There’s El Lissitzky, globe-trotting Soviet propagandist, with his hand-lettered catalog cover for Berlin’s monumental First Russian Art Exhibition, which introduced Chagall, Rodchenko, and Tatlin to Western culture. And there’s kids’ book illustrator Walter Trier, whose starkly-lit plaza, kiosk pillar, and long shadows for Emil and the Detective has an inviting innocence, overlaid with the unsettling eeriness of a de Chirico painting.

Otto Mänchen-Helfen. Drittel der Menschheit. Berlin: Der Bücherkreis, 1932. Cover by Jan Tschichold.

Erich Kästner. Emil und die Detektive. Ein Roman für Kinder. Berlin: Williams & Co. (1931). Cover illustration by Walter Trier.

The book covers are organized and subdivided within categories such as politics and society, literature and authors, and art and artists. The only drawback is that the titles aren’t translated into English. So in instances where multilingualism and caption descriptions are insufficient, you’re left with the evocative images and expressive type treatments to fabricate stories in your own imagination. Just browsing through the pages can easily transport you into a huge bookstore in early 20th Century Berlin, well-stocked with just about every genre of fiction and non-fiction you can imagine.

In retrospect, the atmosphere in 1920s Germany might feel toxically foreboding. But to enjoy the pleasures and glories of the golden age of the region’s visual — and literary — arts, you can blissfully immerse yourself for hours in The Book Cover in the Weimar Republic.

All images copyright © Taschen.

Erste russische Kunstausstellung, Berlin 1922. Galerie van Diemen & Co., Berlin: Verlag Internationale Arbeiterhilfe, 1922. Jacket illustration by El Lissitzky.

G. Zeitschrift für elementare Gestaltung. Edited by Hans Richter. No. 5/6: Film. Berlin (independently published, 1926). Cover by Paul Leni.

Polyphem. Mit dem rechten Auge. Berlin: “Der Deutschenspiegel” (1925). Cover illustration by Garvens.

Um uns die Stadt. Edited by Robert Seitz and Heinz Zucker Berlin: Sieben Stäbe-Verlag, 1931. Cover by Martin Weinberg.

Stefan Lorant. Wir vom Film. Berlin: Theater und Film Verlagsgesellschaft (1928). Cover drawing by Dugo (András Szenes).

Egon Erwin Kisch. Klassischer Journalismus. Berlin: Rudolf Kaemmerer, 1923. Cover illustration by George G. Kobbe.

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