In the years between the First and Second World Wars, Germany experienced an unprecedented era of creativity in everything from literature to painting to music to book design. A new book from Taschen, The Book Cover in the Weimar Republic, zeros in on the latter, offering over 1,000 book covers from the “heyday of German book culture”–and a surprisingly fresh source of inspiration for book designers today.
Inspired by movements like Dada, Expressionism, Constructivism, and the Bauhaus, book designers in Germany between the years 1919 and 1933 (then called die Meister des Kleinplakats, or “masters of the small poster”) produced work that would look just as fresh and avant-garde on today’s bookstore shelves. Flipping through the thousands of book covers by more than 250 publishing houses in Berlin, you’ll find modern techniques regularly employed by contemporary book designers: big, sans-serif typefaces, photomontage, bold color ways, and striking gradients.
As famed cover designer Peter Mendelsund wrote in The New York Times, even the blood splatter imagery common with contemporary crime fiction was used first by Weimar Republic designers (as explored in the section “Blood—A Delicate Design Motif”). “Reading this encyclopedia of interwar-years German books,” writes Mendelsund, “We [contemporary book designers] are introduced to the discomfiting fact that many of the tools we thought to be uniquely ours—the gestures and rhetorical flourishes we deploy on our own covers and jackets—are in fact old hat.”
Using them first were designers like Fritz Helmuth Ehmcke, Georg Salter, Emil Rudolf Weiss, all popular designers during the years of the Weimar Republic. Modernist artists like Max Beckmann, George Grosz, Rudolf Schlichter, El Lissitzky also freelanced as book designers during that that post-war, pre-war period. Even American classics like Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle got the Weimar treatment with edgy imagery and bold typography.
These days–when big commercial publishers often resort to cliches or derivative design in hopes of ensuring another bestseller–ingenuity in cover design is more pressing than ever. For inspiration, look no further than the stunning designs in The Book Cover in the Weimar Republic, on sale here.