• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: Ephemera That is Not Ephemeral

Graphic design is often not worth the paper it is printed on, at least if you check out the prices at past sales and auctions that have been devoted to everything from posters to postage stamps (and the envelopes onto which they are adhered). To the contrary, graphic design is sometimes worth ten to a hundred times more than the paper and ink.


There is a robust market for paper collectibles—not that this is new, but interest from private collectors in everything from original sketches and comps to logos and labels has exponentially increased as the field has become larger, broader and more digital. So many factors account for collecting and hoarding printed material, not least of which is the thrill of owning a piece of history. The concurrent elevation of design history as legitimate cultural scholarship, and the exceptional expansion of college classes and conferences and popular exhibitions of design artifacts, has played a role. Whether the rationale is academic or enjoyment, designers are natural hoarders of their own and others' work.


This coming May, two significant auctions (out of others later this year) will be held at the Swann Gallery under the direction of Nicholas Lowry. No stranger to the field, the Swann has been a major source of rare books, posters and graphic design/typography. On May 12 at noon (ET), the first auction of selections from the Letterform Archive will go on the block (see the lots here), and on the following day at noon, the gavel will pound for the most recent Swann Graphic Design sale (see the lots here). Lowry is a veteran of these treasure-trove events, so with his vast experience as a purveyor of the art and craft of graphic production, I've asked him to comment on the phenomenon of collecting graphic design.


(Author's Warning: Do not click on any links if you suffer from chronic visual overload, obsessive-compulsive consumption or uncontrollable fits of envy.)


Lot 216 / Swann. Lupus (Hans Wolff, 1892–?) Rikola bücher. 1924.
Lot 226 / Swann. Otto Baumberger (1889–1961) Forster Teil Ausverkauf. 1928.
Lot 230 / Swann. Ernst Keller (1891–1968) Das Neue Heim. 1928.

What is this increasing interest, allure and passion for graphic design artifacts?

I think that graphic design artifacts (which I interpret to mean ephemera, brochures, book jacket designs, magazines, etc.) have always been eagerly sought after by a very specific area of the collecting world. What is new, in my opinion, is not the interest or the allure but the increased availability of information on these kind of items and the possibility to find them for sale in mainstream venues. Quite frankly, books like The Moderns (Heller, D'Onofrio), Graphic Design in America—A Visual Language History (Walker Art Center), Taschen's A Visual History of Type Faces and Graphic Styles and others have all helped expand the graphic buy items in a lower price bracket range than, say, the tens of thousands of dollars required to buy a Bauhaus poster.

Lot 255 / Swann. Herbert Bayer (1900–1985) Die Kamera / Ausstellung fur Fotografie Catalogue. 1933.

Do you believe that other than the "decorative" aspect of posters, type and typography is leading the race in acquisition popularity?

There have been so few mainstream auctions dedicated entirely to typography and type that it is hard for me to gauge their popularity. But anecdotally, in the past few days since we have published online the catalogue for the Letterform Archive auction [including the specimen sheets below], I have heard from way more people than I imagined both thanking us for providing such a visual feast for typographically curious intellects and delighted clients (new and old) self-identifying as "typography nerds" (said of course in the most wonderful and positive of ways!).



Posters have long been ascribed values that can be measured. But what about even more ephemeral artifacts? Why are brochures, specimens, proofs, labels, etc., earning such attention?

Typographic and design ephemera, I believe, is garnering more attention now because of its low price point (relatively) but also the surprises it can bring even to those who are initiated in the field. Specifically I can point out several items in the sale which literally floored me. In the Letterform Archive auction the selection of issues of Westvaco (West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company) magazine (sale #2567, lots 139-142), which are such a tour de force of printing and design that each page of each issue strikes a reverberating chord within me and I can't wait to turn the page and see what's next. In the Graphic Design auction itself I had a similar reaction to Herbert Matter's cover designs for Art & Architecture (sale #2568, lots 259 and 260). Perhaps less obscure than the Westvaco publications, they were still unknown to me and established themselves in my mind as a "new discovery," making them all the more alluring. Because of the ephemeral nature of magazines I was overjoyed that these had been collected and saved in such good condition.


Lot 225 / Swann. Otto Baumberger (1889–1961) Art. Institut / Orell Füssli. 1928.

How is ephemeral culture valued? What is the measuring apparatus?

As in all areas of collecting, prices are based on a simple supply and demand scale. However, in the case of much of this ephemera, it has rarely come to market, and so comparable prices are difficult to come by. Auctions are a universal form of capitalism, in which willing buyers set the prices for items that they want to acquire. Through this process, eventually, prices will be set for more of the ephemeral material.


How much of a role does scholarship play in the viability of design?

While I think scholarship is crucial for expanding the knowledge base about designers and design movements and design theory, etc., it is my belief that absolutely nothing can beat the primal feeling of coming across an item that is so unexpected in its design that a euphoric feeling pervades your synapses.


Lot 211 / Swann. Designer unknown. Leipziger Reklamemesse. 1920.
Lot 73 / Letterform Archive: MOLNAR, WOLFGANG [FARKAS] Bauhaus Ausstellung Juli – Sept. 1923 Weimar.
Lot 67 / Letterform Archive: BASCHANT, RUDOLF Bauhaus Ausstellung Juli – Sept. 1923 Weimar.

RECENT POSTS: