The Books of Ernst
A 2013 exhibition at Columbia University Library, Ernst Reichl: Wide Awake Typographer, was organized by 12 themes. Professor Emeritus of Graphic Design Martha Scotford, of North Carolina State University, was the curator.
From Scotford’s biography: Reichl (1900–1980) was a German-American book designer, active and prominent in New York/American publishing from the 1930s into the 1970s. He came to the US in 1926 with a PhD and experience in book publishing and design in Germany. He was a “whole book” designer, believing in the harmonious totality of the package and the value of one design vision for all its parts. He rose to become one of our top trade book designers, prolific and award-winning, actively promoting the profession and high standards in book publishing, by example and through writing, teaching and exhibitions.
This exhibit is down, but the website is worth exploring, particularly the novel thematic organization. I asked Scotford to take us through the genesis of this historical project.
What prompted you to devote research time to Ernst Reichl? At the time of discovery I was open to a new research project. Once I started reading the cards and comparing his comments to the books, I was hooked. But not at all sure what to do the information. Scanning the comments and making notes did not work. His handwriting was European, he used lots of typographic abbreviations and he mentioned many names (and some I did not know). I could tell that there was great variety in the comments and to me they were amusing, informative and valuable combined with the book examples. The cards are hard to read but particular in their style and content, and I had to make the commitment to transcribe them all—to see what the whole story might be.
They provided what I think is a unique working portrait of a designer. I realized at an early point that I was not aware of any other book designer who had so assiduously commented on and critiqued his own work. The cards provided this window into his working methods and ideas, into his personality a bit, the publishing world of the ’30s through ’70s in US/New York. He turned out to be the kind of designer I most admire: someone who reads the book and seeks to bring it to the reader in its best form.
I knew of some of his books, including the quite striking Ulysses jacket (Columbia has the original drawing of this above). How did you come to learn about his work? When I was reading [renowned food critic] Ruth [Reichl]’s first book sometime in 2008 and she mentioned her father Ernst was a book designer, I realized I had heard of him and could remember a few books, primarily Ulysses. But I had noticed mention of him in general book design history sources. I thought the connection amusing and intriguing. I googled him to find out if there was more about him. That is when I discovered his archives were at Columbia University Rare Books and Manuscript Library—donated by the family when he died. I couldn’t get a very good sense of what might be there from the finding guide, so when planning for the next time I would be in New York I requested all the materials to be on hand in the archives (they have to come from long-term storage in New Jersey). I first saw the materials in March 2009 when I made a general description for myself of the archives’ contents (seven boxes, some flat to hold portfolio, some document size, some card catalog/index card size). And his library/collection of the books he had designed. That is when I discovered the index cards with his comments that had been found tucked into many of the books.
How would you position him in the “canon,” or the timeline, if you prefer, of pre- and postwar designers? Reichl was very aware of other designers and book designers in New York and on the West Coast—Merle Armitage. He was in healthy competition and mentions the work of Dwiggins, Georg and Stefan Salter. He knew everyone in New York and often felt a bit put down by those who ran independent presses or worked for individual publishers—while he worked for H Wolfe that, as I understand it, provided design and production services for many publishers. Reichl worked in the “trade” and did not apologize for it. Given his reputation, through AIGA 50 Books winners, invitations to do workshops, writings on book design, involvement with a lot of professional activities, I would put Reichl among the best of the book designers who were producing hundreds of books for the postwar boom. He had a “name.” I think he may have been unusual in his enjoyment of new technologies and materials; he tried out a lot of new ways to produce books.
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