“I’m crazy for type,” confesses Birthe Steinbeck. “I feel like a nerd sometimes for looking at it so closely, collecting it, loving it. One day I was coming out of the airport in Stuttgart and I saw a new sign for Bosch. I had never seen a ‘B’ sooooo big! It was six car lanes in width!” As you might have guessed, Steinbeck is excitable—she has big, brown eyes, dirty blonde hair, and uses lots of exclamation points. She’s navigated separate cultures all her life. Her father worked for IBM—which, she says, stands for “I’ve Been Moved”—and these travels took Steinbeck to kindergarten in Connecticut; grade school in Deufringen, a small, south German town; high school in Vermont; and secondary school and university in Stuttgart. After finishing her degree at Stuttgart Academy of Fine Arts, Steinbeck moved to New York, where she worked for Studio von Birken—run by Katia Kuethe and Philipp Muessigmanndesigning the studio’s publication, E&A. She has seen Argentina by car and spent several months in southeast Asia. For the past two years, she has been living out of a suitcase. “You could call me a global design nomad, a designing gypsy, or picture-making vagabond,” she says.
Likewise, Steinbeck’s visual influences pull from all over the map: Joseph Cornell, old circus posters, Aubrey Beardsley, Russian suprematism, tattoo design, medieval manuscripts, instructional posters, and ’70s California billboards. Steinbeck’s obsession with typographic ephemera is evident in the art direction, design, and illustrations she’s done for a number of German publications, including Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin, Zeit Leben Magazin, ICON, Amica, and Utopia.
Steinbeck has developed two very divergent visual styles for her editorial work. One, for collage, often looks like funky, Flash-inspired versions of Kurt Schwitters. The other is for illustration, for which she’s best known; her work has a starkness reminiscent of Charles Burns or R. Crumb.
But Steinbeck says her biggest stylistic influence is Neue Sachlichkeit, the “new objectivity” movement in German art (think Otto Dix and George Grosz) that highlighted the urban world’s detritus with a concrete, if ugly, realism. Steinbeck’s illustrations improvise on this idea. Sometimes they are printed on old newsprint, often in bold black lines of undulating widths that create caricatures seemingly aware of their own rendering—particularly in the drawings of friends she calls “Onur” and “Monika.” Unlike Neue Sachlichkeit work, however, Steinbeck’s illustrations have a gentle beauty and whimsy to them; she chooses to play rather than uglify. “It’s healthy not to take design or myself too seriously!” she says. She cultivated this attitude under her teacher Hans-Georg Pospischil, himself a student of Willy Fleckhaus.
She’s now working on a limited-edition artist’s book inspired by Futurist design, featuring typographic innovations, shaped text, and varied paper weights and colors. “It’s a vast collection and fusion of assorted visual and verbal content,” she says; “a combination of many disparate media: collage, ink, and some nice anarchic coloring.”
And where is she now? Off in Berlin, where the vibrant art scene has lured her. And no wonder: It’s where Neue Sachlichkeit flourished.