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From New Architecture to New Celebrations
by Jörg Stürzebecher | 4/14/2016
Moonshine Romanticism transposed into graphics: Typographical calendar images for the month of May, by Lieselotte Müller
© Sammlung Albinus at Museum Angewandte Kunst Frankfurt/M.

Graphic design is all the rage. More and more young people want to study visual communications, information design, graphic design or whatever the subject gets called. In the news, bar charts regularly reflect “How the electorate would vote”, pie charts tell us about desire and reality, and then there are all those little images on our smart phones that claim to arrange random items in an oh-so-orderly fashion. Graphic design is a consequence of our consumer and information world and has become an indispensible element of urbanization since the second Industrial Revolution. Making it roughly 150 years old.

Frankfurt’s Museum Angewandte Kunst is now attempting to illustrate this development starting with the first colored advertising posters, which dates back a little over 100 years, using graphic design either created in Frankfurt or which has a connection with the city. A justifiable undertaking that extends far beyond local history, given that at least twice Frankfurt stimulated cultural developments that had a global impact. Firstly, there was the social reform thrust of the New Frankfurt movement, which promoted modern apartments with many practical improvements for the home including the kitchen known as “Frankfurter Küche”. Nor should we forget the techno and club scene that emerged in the 1990s. Both attracted people from far away, in the first instance architects, philosophers, sociologist and directors, and then, later, DJs, music and fashion producers. Both had an impact on graphic design, or was it perhaps graphic design that occasionally took the lead? It would surely be fascinating to pinpoint such interactions, say between typographic and architectural design, or the overlap of graphic surfaces and music sampling, in an effort to reflect a particular zeitgeist in objects, but visitors to the show in Frankfurt are left to make their own conclusions, as the exhibition does not provide any such information.

Moonshine Romanticism transposed into graphics: Typographical calendar images for the month of May, by Lieselotte Müller
© Sammlung Albinus at Museum Angewandte Kunst Frankfurt/M.

One of the reasons for this omission is possibly that the exhibition theme proper was altered several times and the choice of exhibits was so subjective that neither a chronological nor a regional overview was possible. And indeed in the current issue of “artcaleidoscope” the exhibition is still called “Typography and Graphic Design in Frankfurt and Rhine-Main from 1910 to 1990”, although, for example Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences, Darmstadt’s Institut für neue technische Form with its epochal shows, or Helmut Lortz, who decisively shaped West German graphic design in the 1960s are all omitted, and only the University of Art and Design in Offenbach, where two of the show’s curators teach/taught is included.

As nothing is said about the show’s reference to the present day in “artcaleidoscope”, one can assume that the relevant section of the exhibition must have been created in recent months. Largely curated by Peter Zizka, this section seeks to intervene in the historical sequence, to disturb things, to unsettle things. So having just nostalgically immersed yourself in the 1960s at the show you suddenly find yourself confronted with a light installation, and should you want to find out what that is all about you need a smart phone to open the QR code.

Juxtaposing historical positions in this manner with 13 practicing design offices from Sandra Doeller through to vier5 is not without its charm, and probably also helps attract more young people to the presentation. That said, the large formats of these “disruptions” tend to dominate the somewhat smaller sized and smaller-format works on paper in the sections on graphic design history.

Constructive in red and black: two designs by Max Bittrof, on the l. the poster “Initials” (around 1930), on the r. the invitation card “Municipal Councilor May on Advertising” dating from 1927 © Sammlung Friedrich Friedl Frankfurt/M.

This central section of the exhibition begins with historical advertising stamps, but sadly without even mentioning or including as originals their immediate predecessors, the large-format posters with identical themes. These are followed by workshop pieces, then examples of individual designers from the 1920s, arbitrarily selected and by no means only for their quality; any kind of concept is sacrificed to showing a mere assemblage. Rather than say comparing Hans Leistikow’s design of the magazine “Das Neue Frankfurt” with its advancement by Willi Baumeister from 1930 onwards, several Leistikow works are squashed into a display cabinet with those of Albert Fuss. The latter was the only Frankfurt graphic artist to be acknowledged 1930 by satirist Hans Reimann in “Was nicht im Baedeker steht” (What you do not find in Baedeker) and praised for his design for the Societäts-Verlag publishing house; yet these photo and typography montages are nowhere to be seen. Moreover, there are absolutely no posters by Leistikow, although there is a comprehensive collection on the 1927 “Summer of Music” to be found in Frankfurt’s University Library. Many of the works described as “attributed to” or “unknown” could easily have been verified, either by comparing them with articles in the graphic design magazine “Gebrauchsgraphik” or for the years after World War II, by making local enquiries.

Unlike Leistikow and Baumeister, whose works are spread about here and there, an entire room is devoted to the mediocre Art Deco designer Max Bittrof, accompanied by an abstruse text on the wall about his affinity with Russian Constructivism. Bittrof’s pleasant adverts have nothing in common with the New Typography, which Tchichold spelled in the book title 1928 quite naturally with a “ph”, and which treated illustration as information and not as emotive instruments. Only the fact that his estate is owned by one of the curators can explain his being assigned so much more space than the actual designers of the New Frankfurt, namely Leistikow and Baumeister, not to mention the embarrassingly poor treatment of Walter Dexel and Robert Michel.

Constructive in red and black: two designs by Max Bittrof, on the l. the poster “Initials” (around 1930), on the r. the invitation card “Municipal Councilor May on Advertising” dating from 1927 © Sammlung Friedrich Friedl Frankfurt/M.
From figurative to abstract: New Year’s Card (1952) by Max Bittrof and the cover for the catalog “Mercedes-Benz 1929” © Sammlung Friedrich Friedl Frankfurt/M.

Such a lack of balance is characteristic of the entire show. Admittedly, the numerous works from the workshop classes taught by Philipp Albinus have never been shown before, but comparable works were printed aplenty in the “Typographischen Mitteilungen”, incidentally also from the class of Albinus. Moreover, it would have been better to devote a cameo show to Albinus, rather than distracting people’s attention from works that were actually printed and impacted on the public. And, fair enough, it is generous to include Liselotte Müller, whose set of typefaces proved popular, above all, among women during the opening. Yet when push comes to shove, until the introduction of the Apple MacIntosh, the history of typography is dominated by men, and excellent designers such as Muriel Cooper at MIT were the exception rather than the rule.

From figurative to abstract: New Year’s Card (1952) by Max Bittrof and the cover for the catalog “Mercedes-Benz 1929” © Sammlung Friedrich Friedl Frankfurt/M.

What is also irritating is arguably how the most important type design of that era, Paul Renner’s Futura, is dealt with; in fact, visitors must walk long distances to experience the so-called Kramer sans serif typeface, and the documentation on Kramer is ascribed to the 1960s. The show includes a woman’s derby (hat) from 1930, which was made by Kramer’s father and bears a typographical label to that effect. Though this is the only actual old hat in the exhibition, metaphorically it is full of them.

Clear things: New Year’s card for 1927 by Adam Schick by the Frankfurt Local Group attached to the League of German Book Printers
© Sammlung Albinus at Museum Angewandte Kunst Frankfurt/M.

These omissions and discrepancies are continued after 1945 – there are no illustrations from the 12 years of the Third Reich, which is rightly only given brief mention as it produced no real design highlights. It is nice that Wolfgang Schmidt is dealt with in such depth, but given that the exhibition’s title talks of a reference to Frankfurt, his work for the underground, which together with the Nordweststadt meant something like the connection to the New Frankfurt of the 1920s, definitely deserved a mention. True, Gunter Rambow is showcased, but nothing is said about his being currently omnipresent in Frankfurt with his opera posters; and his poster design for a Ferdinand Kramer exhibition was for Berlin’s Bauhaus archive, and not for the Deutscher Werkbund, and was ten years earlier than 1992.

Here, too, the research and precision could have been better. The names of some designers are missing, the lettering of the Rambow/Lienemeyer poster “Egoißt” appears in the middle of Wolfgang Schmidt’s “Lebenszeichen”, information on locations such as “göppinger galerie” are not further explained. Or film posters are followed somewhat illogically by book covers, while the network of Frankfurt’s graphic design scene remains invisible.

Clear things: New Year’s card for 1927 by Adam Schick by the Frankfurt Local Group attached to the League of German Book Printers
© Sammlung Albinus at Museum Angewandte Kunst Frankfurt/M.

That could have been done differently. Visitors could, say, have been shown breaks and continuities in design taking the example of the Suhrkamp Verlag publishing house, for which both Hans Leistikow and his student Rudolf Kroth worked in the days of Peter Suhrkamp. Baumeister student Peter Zollna in Frankfurt should also have been mentioned in this context. But for the curators Suhrkamp design is Willy Fleckhaus, not a Frankfurt resident, whose “edition suhrkamp” developed under Siegfried Unseld broke with the usual practice in which publication year equals design year and the design ran ahead; similarly no mention is made of the break with calligraphic design by Ulm Design School graduate Ann Lamche (made simultaneously with that of Fleckhaus). After all, Peter Suhrkamp and Siegfried Unseld had very different ideas about how books find their way into readers’ hands, and after Suhrkamp’s death that was reflected in the design. But if both publishers are included in the large wall text on Peter Unseld (!) then such insights remain hidden, of course. And if you feature Suhrkamp, why not also have publishing house “Neue Kritik”, for which Berlin’s Christian Chruxin supplied some of the most exciting designs of the years of upheaval around 1968?

One could continue in similar vein, especially as many similar failings are to be found in the catalog. Accordingly, anyone familiar with the topic is likely to feel rather angry, even though the show also offers much that is very worth seeing, in addition to things that are really new, such as the Albinus estate. But as we know, according to Brecht, the anger that so distorts the features is preceded by annoyance, and is followed by melancholy, the sadness over so many missed opportunities. Despite all of that: This show is to be warmly recommended to anyone interested in graphic design, but only on account of the material. All too often selection, presentation and catalog are misleading for visitors.

New Everything – A Century of New Typography and
New Graphic Design in Frankfurt am Main
Museum Angewandte Kunst, Frankfurt/Main
Runs until 21 August, 2016
Catalog, available from Edition Stuttgart, costs EUR 39.00

www.museumangewandtekunst.de

Three times G: New Year’s card for 1927 by Vocational College III for Graphics and the Design Trade © Sammlung Albinus at Museum Angewandte Kunst Frankfurt/M.