The German visual artists who worked during the Weimar Republic — among them George Grosz, Hannah Höch, and Otto Dix — are celebrated the world over for their stylistic inventions and brutal critiques of bourgeois life. Less well known today, though, are their book designer contemporaries, who helped turn 1920s Berlin into an epicenter of experimental publishing. Weimar book artists mashed up the styles of new art movements — Expressionism, New Objectivity, Constructivism, plus photography — to design unique and politically provocative covers and jackets.
The Book Cover in the Weimar Republic, published by Taschen, is the first compendium of book covers from Germany’s doomed era of creative progress. It presents 1,000 designs from 1919–33, all culled from the collection of bookseller and collector Jürgen Holstein. Selections range from a magazine cover featuring the robot protagonist of sci-fi film Metropolis to caricatures of Hitler, to Georg Salter’s famous jacket design for the best-selling novel Berlin Alexanderplatz.
These Weimar covers are a reminder of the aesthetic wonders of analog design techniques, especially in the age of ebooks. “No computers existed to help out designers back then, but it’s also true that no computer has yet been able to match the signature styles of such artists, not to mention their unique handwriting,” writes historian Christoph Stolzl in the book. “It was all done by hand: letters were drawn by hand before they were cast in lead, collages were assembled with scissors and glue, lithograph illustrations were laboriously inserted amid the already lengthy printing process, and embossing plates were carefully led down. What these designers created, with what we now consider fairly primitive techniques, is simply breathtaking.”
Many of the rare books in this trove were declared “degenerate” and “unGerman” and publicly burned by the Nazis in May 1933, after which many artists and bibliophiles fled the country. This context makes The Book Cover in the Weimar Republic more than just another “special collection” of graphic design eye candy. As a whole, the collection is a “monument to the breadth and variety of intellect that ‘Weimar culture’ fostered,” Stolzl writes, a monument to the hectic hub of creativity and intellectualism that was Berlin between the world wars. Stolzl continues:
[The collection] is a monument to the sense of what was possible in the better Germany that existed between 1918 and 1933. [It] proves that democratic Germany had every chance to become a model incubator for an ideal global culture. It had so many spirited, courageous publishers, so many original perspectives, and was so open to dealing with any and all issues! From the debates surrounding socialism to women’s liberation and youth issues, from politically engaged travel journalism to the “Jewish question,” from architecture to urban planning to film—[these books reflect] the freewheeling, curious mindset of the time … There was no going back after January 30, 1933, when most of this culture was trampled and burned, its creators persecuted or driven out of the country.
With this background, looking over the book’s designs today calls to mind current threats to free speech and artistic expression, whether Trump’s fascist rhetoric or the heritage-destroying ISIS. The collection serves as a reminder not to take something as seemingly simple as a book jacket for granted. “Looking at this monument,” Stolzl writes, “who can help feeling quiet and wistful, saddened by such an auspicious beginning that was denied the chance to progress?”