Publicist and academic Jörg Stürzebecher died in Frankfurt am Main on 16 August 2020 at the age of 58. In memory of him, we are republishing his article “Bold Condensed on a grid”. It first appeared in 2003 in “Anlage.1 spezial”, pp. 21–32, a publication editorially devised by Stephan Ott to mark the 50th anniversary of the German Design Council.
Bold Condensed on a grid
By Jörg Stürzebecher
ANYONE WHO REFLECTS on German graphic design and visual communications over the past fifty years will certainly remember Willy Fleckhaus, the art director of twen magazine and Suhrkamp books; ulm with Froshaug and Aicher; the Kassel School with picture creators Hillmann and Rambow, not forgetting Chruxin, Schmidt and Schmidt-Rhen who experimented with type. He will highlight the influence of Stuttgart on industrial graphics and international corporate images – Stankowski, Kapitzki and Duschek – and make reference to type designers like Günter Gerhard Lange and Kurt Weidemann but one thing he won’t do is emphasize the special significance of the German Design Council in relation to typography and graphic design. He may pause briefly at this juncture and recall that what the Council stands for, in design terms, as far as its seif-image is concerned, is product design. And then, in this context, he will determine that no graphic design equivalent exists in Germany. Nevertheless the Council has issued a considerable number of its own publications over the past fifty years and it would therefore seem worthwhile to look at the extent to which the graphic trends of the time are reflected in those publications.
The first publications produced by the Council, apart frorn the Deutsche Warenkunde, a publication following up the activities of the Werkbund, were the annual reports of the first chief executive Mia Seeger. Book type flow text in a light sans serif, with proper names set in capital letters and semi-bold used for highlighting. Headings and subheadings were set in condensed, semi-bold type, with plenty of space available for the page numbers and large capital letters on the back margin. The first publications made without illustrations. The reports were printed on pale yellow non-coated paper and the finished article was inserted in a cover of tinted mould-made paper. This may not be exactly exciting hut the contents were about reporting, to which such plainness is well suited, rather than events. This type of design was known as werkgerecht (fit and appropriate for the purpose) when first used, the only detracting feature being the rusty wire binding. The tall, slim lettering used in the symmetric block style title and the recurring outline of the facade of the business premises serve as a reminder of the reconstruction. Material and typesetting convey unembellished import. The report is not, after all, like a pro-spectus which can be leafed through between the main course and the dessert. Mould-made paper is extremely dirt-sensitive. In typographic terms the presentational style of the report is a farniliar one, the slim lettering familiar from commercial advertisements, with the yellow paper used for the inside and cover reminiscent of the sophisticatecd fiction and poetry of the day. This combination is certainly impressive, for when Mia Seeger reports on say industrial design, she does so in highly individual language and does not shy away from using the word “I”.
Any initial design uncertainties are soon resolved. In the report for the year 1959/196o, the award categories are reduced in size and the cover filled asymmetrically with sans serif job printing. Something decisive occurs, however, with the Informationsschrift 2, published in 1960. Grid typography, with which the trade was familiar frorn magazines like ulm (Anthony Froshaug) and Neue Grafik (Richard P. Lohse, Josef Müller-Brockmann, Hans Neuburg, Carlo Vivarelli), first published in 1958, made its mark on the Council. Hans Haderek used the pictures and short texts on the inside pages in a vivid specialist booklet, which covered far more than just Council-related topics, carrying the latest news on everything from ships’ rudder stands to silver salvers. The inside grid is left out of Anton Starikowski’s cover design, which instead illustrates the principles of the typographic grid progressively in a constructive depiction. Shortly thereafter, Stankowski went on to design the Design Council logo still in use today.
The rectangular format invented in 1960 for compact information bulletins characterised Council reports and the Bundespreis [German Federal Award for Product Design] catalogue Gute Form [Good Design] right up to the 198os, with the design of the 1972 and 1973 Gute Form catalogue impressing as a result of the superior aesthetics of the materials. The designer of both publications, Christian Ahlers, had the Gute Form logo lit in a light bulb, using a technical printing process, whereby the back of the foil cover was silkscreen printed in black and the following page in yellow. This experimental use of material and colour is reminiscent of the newest art movements of the time, the orientation of which lay between kinetics and pop-art. A year later the block setting favoured hitherto by the Council came to an end with the advent of typeface.
lt is the period around 1968, after the anti- authoritarian revolts, a time of multifarious protests arid initiatives, when contemporary discussion was in demand rather than perpetual values. Everyday university life was defined not by complete works but by notes, the content of which „Paper” was more important than the design and pirated or copied papers were in circulation. In many circles, design was considered suspect or just treated with contempt. The Council did react to some extent to this change in interests, by thematicising the basic requirements in the home category for the 1973 federal award.
Christian Ahlers designed the Prize catalogue as a montage, highlighting the diverse origins of the text and picture material, which was no longer set in a grid. Here a letter is autotyped and text composer-set to start with before being typed on an ibm-selectric typewriter. Typically, the word Gute Form is forced into the background and the content packaged in printed wrapping paper. The fact that design equals information, as Hans Rudolf Lutz stated in 1977 and that typeface can be used formally and innovatively (in this context we are reminded of the early children’s book designs of Ann & Paul Rand und the typewritten typography of Helmut Schmidt-Rhen, Wolfgang Schmidt or Christian Chruxin) was not a discussion topic at the Council in the mid 1970s. When the first Design-Report was published in 1972, bearing a Letraset designed title (the early typography for non-typographers), economical information processing was what was called for. lt was printed single-sided on cheap paper using high-speed offset and the whole thing stapled together für quick separation. This does justice to the information rather than the original and suits a design concept, which rejects hand flattering design as imprecise postulating instead that “design is measurable”. Adrnittedly, the Council was not alone in its general use of reduced design. Some of the big publishing companies used the latest high-speed typesetting transforming wood-based paper into avant-garde potency in series like Fischer Format, hanserrnanuskripte and Luchterhand Typoskript.
The 198os can be characterised, in terms of both product design and graphic design, on the one hand, by the continuation of late functionalism, which was not infrequently solidly set in convention and, on the other, by the celebration of experiments, most of which were only in production for a short period, if at all. The boundaries between fashion and design become increasingly blurred in the public con-sciousness, a fact which is also apparent from the overblown use of the term design. This lack of definition is also evident in Council publications. In this context, the Design: Vorausdenken für den Menschen [Thinking ahead for men] (1984) catalogue can be seen as an example of the continuation of the functionalist tradition. The designer Eckhard Neumann makes use of this first presentation of FRG-design in the GDR to introduce superior technology as the norm and to arouse desire. Neumann, a former HFG ULM student and researcher of design traditions, mainly in the field of “constructivism’ assesses functional design potential in Germany, typeset in Futura, whilst totally neglecting Neues Deutsches Design [New German Design] trends.
The fact that design undoubtedly has a social impact is also reflected in the decision to use colour illustrations alone in the catalogue, a move clearly intended to emphasize Western superiority, when one considers comparable GDR publications.
New production techniques are also invented alongside these perennials. Much of what was produccd during the period between the early and mid-198os, under the New Wave label borrowcd from Pop music, is a remake of significantly older design. The work of the Basle teacher Wolfgang Weingart, in particular, was ignorantly plundered from Los Angeles to Berlin to provide a suitable outfit for the new lack of transparency. Even the Council bowed to chic lifestyle dictates, as demonstrated by Peter Gornig’s catalogue for the 1985/86 Bundespreis Gute Form for textile design. Surface layering and geometric indentations are used to illustrate the ingratiating language of the catalogue which poses the question at the end: “No interest in good design?”
The relocation of the Council to the Frankfurt Fair & Exhibition Center in 1987 marked a break in content terms. The new chief executive Michael Erlhoff took obvious pleasure in disconcerting the commercial designers who had, up to that point, played a decisive role at the Council, for example by the temporary presentation of Capitello seating (Studio 65) in the Council foyer on the day the committee was scheduled to meet. Whether Italian anti-design or the welded metal shelves of the “Black & Decker generation” Erlhoff anticipates rather than pursues the spirit of the times, aware that design can arouse curiosity thereby contributing to innovation. He invests in sideways movers and young employees, makes space available in the Design Report for special interests and values detail as a quality standard. Diversity of format becomes the norm in Council publications, primarily thanks to Michael Lenz who was then still a student in Offenbach. The object character of these publications starts – here with the compact, small format of the international edition (1988; Elisabeth Budde), there with a thick cardboard cover, to which the small number of pages adds little weight, analysing the utility value in the Die Anschaulichkeit des Unsichtbaren [The clarity of the invisible] catalogue (1988; Michael Lenz), in which the unusual format conceals a rigid grid. And even if the information about the author is inadvertently omitted, you’ll find a handwritten signature and the ironic quote of an artist’s book in the basic information. Michael Lenz’s work is proof of the design pluralism of Council publications over the past fifteen years.
In 1992, in Der breite und die schmalen Wege [The broad and the narrow ways], Christof Gassner and Catharina Bormann succeed in contrasting recyclable paper with the glossy look. In 1997 Tibor Kalman/Kim Maley gave the chairman Rolf Fehlbaum illustrations in the best Fake design style of the MTV generation. A year later, Surface was a disaster, with endless capitalized lines, incorrectly set omission marks and illegible text and picture inserts, in the catalogue for the Bundespreis Produktdesign [German Federal Award for Product Design].
At the Council, some design publications, designed to do justice to the term ‚Design’ which made its mark in the sixties as an expert statement, are now closely akin to art, especially art books. The design for the anthology Beyond the Borders (Dorthe Meinhardt/Sven Voelker), for example, reminds us of the text illustrations and sculptures of Peter Downsbrough and Lawrence Weiner. In this context, the Council shows an affinity for the spirit of the times, which finds motorbikes exhibited in Art Museums and Craft Museums renamed as Museums for Applied Art.
And as for the present day? Today’s designs commissioned by the Design Council have to be contemporary, whether or not they are in tune with the times is not something the author wishes to assert. He doesn’t have to. The current evidence lies in the hands of the reader.
First pulished in: ANLAGE.1 Spezial. 50 Years of German Design. Edited by Andrej Kupetz for the German Design Council, Frankfurt/M., 2003
Credits: German Design Council