The Book Cover in the Weimar Republic
August 24, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
Compared to other aspects of the book arts—typography, binding, tooling—the dust jacket is a pretty recent innovation. Depending on whom you ask, it was born either in 1833, to adorn an English novel called Heath’s Keepsake, or it was an earlier, French invention, a maturation of the yellow paper jackets their softcover books often came wrapped in.
In any case, the dust jacket didn’t come to Germany until around 1900—but by the birth of the Weimar Republic, nineteen years later, German artists were doing incredible things with the medium. The Book Cover in the Weimar Republic is a catalogue of the Jürgen and Waltraud Holstein collection, comprising the covers of a thousand books published between 1919 and 1933 by some 250 houses in Berlin. Between the two world wars, the city enjoyed an astonishing expansion in its book production and its libraries: from 1920 to 1927, about three hundred new publishing houses emerged, many of them intent on printing books that experimented with the latest advances in art and design. As Steven Heller explains at Design Observer, there was a practical reason for the design boom, too:
To use their presses to capacity, newspaper publishers like Ullstein, Mosse, Scherl expanded their publishing programs to include illustrated journals and magazines and also founded book publishing divisions that competed with the existing book publishers. Consequently commercial artists were put to work designing jackets and covers in prodigious quantities—and without the oversight of marketing departments.
Drawing inspiration from Dada, Expressionism, Constructivism, and the Bauhaus, cover artists produced work that remains startling in its vision and creativity: the use of sans-serif typefaces, photomontage, and aggressive imagery makes a lot of these designs more lively than most anything on bookstore shelves in 2015. And in their imagination and energy, the Weimar Republic editions of novels by Hemingway, Faulkner, Dos Passos, and Upton Sinclair rival their American originals.
The book is also a tragic record of a bibliophilic tradition more or less stamped out by the political tumult of the thirties and forties; as Jürgen Hosltein’s introduction points out, publishing in Germany has never again seen such a fruitful period. The collection opens with a salute to the book as a fetish object from the Hungarian critic Béla Balázs, who apparently once warded off the urge to kill himself simply by sitting down with “a typographically flawless” edition of an early text by Tacitus. “Those who rightfully possess a library know,” he wrote,
that books have not only readable content, but their own palpable atmosphere as well, their won mood, their own visible aura; their typography, binding, and cover are their physiognomy, and form a face that warms the hear much like the portraits of friends hanging on the wall.