Searching through the dusty shelves of second hand bookshops in Berlin, I’m sometimes lucky enough to stumble upon a black paperback spine marked tellingly with an indented white line that looks like a lightening bolt. I’ll be rummaging through a pile of hardback tomes covered in illegible blackletter script, then suddenly see this telltale shape. It means I’ve discovered one of the 270 books belonging to a series of international literary reprints called “Spektrum” produced by the former GDR’s Volks und Welt publishing house between 1968 and 1993. If I’m very lucky, the cover image will be one designed by the GDR’s most famous graphic designer and former Volks und Welt art director, the enigmatic Lothar Reher.

Reher’s photomontage covers are often gothic in nature, depicting masked men, nooses, or black cats bearing crosses. If there’s a skull in a story, you can count on Reher to have rendered it on the monochrome cover, as Shakespearean-style skulls are a particular favorite motif of his. His choice of a matte black background was heavily debated in 1968, but Reher insisted it be used; over time a second name caught on, and Spektrum became known as the “Schwarze Series” (the Black Series).

“Photography allows almost infinite possibilities for expression,” Reher told designer Wayne Daly in a recent interview. “Color photography was not an option for me. It was too expensive. The only available film in the GDR was for home use, and not good enough quality for other purposes. I could control the series in black and white.”

Design: Lothar Reher. Photo: Courtesy of A Shelf for Lother exhibition.
Skulls for Spektor, Volks und Welt. Design: Lothar Reher. Photo: Courtesy of the “A Shelf for Lother” exhibition.

Dusty German bookshops aren’t the only place I’ve been spotting Reher’s moonlit collages recently; I’ve seen two exhibitions highlighting his work in only the last month. The first was a small show dedicated entirely to his Spektrum work, then wandering through Berlin’s idiosyncratic design haven, the Museum of Things, last weekend, I spotted a shelf featuring examples of Reher’s “Schwarze” covers in a new exhibition about graphic design in the former GDR.

Called “Masse und Klasse: Graphic Design in the GDR”, the show features commercial graphics for mass production that shaped the state’s visual environment. Speaking with the show’s curator Florentine Nadolni helped me understand the context and significance of Reher’s work. Nadolni explains how Volks und Welt were operating in the great publishing capital of Leipzig, a city that boasted the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst (Academy of Graphic and Book Arts) as well as multiple annual competitions like “The GDR’s Most Beautiful Books”.

“Spektrum had a total circulation of 4.9 million copies,” Nadolni tells me. “The cover was meant to be long-lasting and instantly recognizable. The publishers wanted it to endure, and to raise interest in the next releases. Every year, 12 new books were added to the series.”

When Spektrum began, the cover design was commissioned out to freelance designers, but Reher loathed the drafts he’d get back. He found them only temporarily attractive—they didn’t seem to endure like the publishers wanted. For the next 20 years, he used under-represented techniques like photography, collage, and montage to design every single cover himself. East German poster design master Klaus Wittkugel, who worked with photography in a particularly modern and distinctive way, was a key influence.

With small budgets, Reher would borrow props from friends working in museums, and other cultural institutes. Access to typefaces was also limited—Garamond was the most usable option available to Reher because many of the printers owned it—and so the covers are a testament to the designer’s imaginative resourcefulness.

“Reher was one of the most important graphic designers of books in Leipzig at the time,” asserts Nadolni. “He created the modern face of over a thousand books. He also promoted young and controversial designers and artists; probably everyone who had anything to do with book covers in the GDR worked with Reher at some point.”

Reher continues to inspire and inform young editorial designers today. Book designer Wayne Daly and typographer Adrian Vasquez, the curators of the “A Shelf for Lothar” exhibition that was recently shown at the 27th Brno Biennale, discovered the Spektrum series in the same way that I did—finding and buying copies in second hand bookshops across London and Germany. “Compositionally they are highly controlled while permitting a generous assortment of image treatments, and they are beautiful objects to hold—humble and inexpensive,” say Daly and Vasquez.

As neither of the designers can read German, the project began with an interest in the visual richness of the series rather than its content. Instead of literary associations, Daly and Vasquez grouped the books in the exhibition based on the subject matter on the jackets. “The more we looked into the Spektrum books, it was interesting to see repetition of subject matter being revealed—in most cases, relating to the content of the books, but you can also see Reher’s own interests and idiosyncrasies at play,” they explain.

“Some of these groups are quite immediate, for example the covers featuring skulls. Some are looser and more playful, like a collection of assorted circular objects and photographs.”

Reher’s eye and mind means the Spektrum series should be remembered as the gothic, twisted, less popular but more intriguing friend of the approachable Penguin Orange Collection. These black books are modern looking, not because the aesthetic is fashionable again, rather because it was always aiming for the timeless.