From a certain generation of Germans, the name Klaus Staeck conjures a wry, knowing smile, but outside of this demographic it’s all blank looks. Yet Staeck is a man who has been taken to court over 40 times for his provocative brand of agitprop—an accolade that should demand the attention of a design culture in need of rediscovering its critical punch.
A new exhibition, curated by Boris Brumnjack and Götz Gramlich, is attempting to increase Staeck’s recognition outside of his home country so that a fresh cohort of international designers and students will come face to face with his confrontational style. Their hope is that audiences will realize that, far from being a political relic, Staeck’s approach is as vital today as it ever was.
Born in Pulsnitz, Germany in 1938, Staeck studied law, passing the German bar in 1969. A self-taught artist, he began using woodcut printing before moving on to screen printing in the late 1960s. His work was published through his own imprint, Edition Staeck.
Doubtless the result of his lack of formal training, Staeck’s style is almost anti-design. As Gramlich puts it, “The message is more important than the form. The message is always priority number one.” And that message is always political. Since 1960, Staeck has been a member of the left-wing SPD party, campaigning on issues like poverty, the environment, and peace.
Staeck first stoked controversy by taking a well-known painting, Albrecht Dürer’s Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, and juxtaposing it with the question ‘Would you rent a room to this woman?’ In 1971 the city of Nuremberg was celebrating the 500th anniversary of Dürer, but Staeck believed the attention given to the artist to be excessive, symptomatic of an exclusive art market, and aimed to challenge it. During this time there was also public discourse about the use of free rooms—Staeck’s mash-up subverted both of these issues, asking vital questions of his public in the process. “It was remarkable for him,” Gramlich explains, “as the style which began with this work would go on.”
A larger public profile was to come Staeck’s way a year later. In his most famous work, striking composition, bold colors, and smart use of typography combined with knowing irony. “German Workers!” the poster pronounced, “The SPD will take away your mansions in Ticino.” As German citizens well knew, the average worker could never afford the luxury of a holiday home, and working-class, left-wing SDP supporters would enjoy the idea of repossessing the rich’s assets. “He’s always playing with misunderstanding in context between the text and the picture,” says Gramlich.
The composition evokes the joy Staeck takes in subverting stereotypes. With no client to speak of, he can afford to be risky, and rough around the edges; the image of the mansion was simply cut from a lifestyle magazine. In the studio Staeck works quickly, signing off work without fine-tuning, keen to produce a raw-looking poster rather than a refined graphic artefact. He still works in collage, producing new material daily that never even sees the light of day.
“He shits on known aesthetics,” Gramlich tells me, proudly.
Initially Staeck would print his posters and distribute them himself. Due to his legal background, he was careful to not fly-post, and always booked legitimate spaces. He would, however, go on to become well acquainted with the authorities.
Throughout his career Staeck has spent almost as much time in the courtroom as his studio, facing over 40 court cases as a result of his posters. The highest sum he was sued for was 150,000 Deutsche Marks. Had he lost the case he would have been bankrupted.
One case saw the German military suppliers sue for damage to their reputation. The poster in question read, “Everybody is talking about peace…we aren’t,” and is illustrated with a picture of the staff of German defense contractor, Rheinmetall. Printed on A1 and displayed very publicly, the military were not amused. Staeck won the resulting court case, as he would on every occasion, using freedom of speech as his defense. For a political designer, a law degree does have certain benefits.
In Germany, Staeck is seen as an important figure in the history of creativity, and in the art world his influence can be seen most clearly in the work of Barbara Kruger. Similarly the post-punk design movement of the 1980s, as exemplified by Malcolm Garrett and Neville Brody, owes a debt to Staeck. Its confrontational, anti-establishment approach pays homage to his oeuvre, as does the uncompromising, and jarring pairings of image and text.
Staeck’s most recent collaboration with Götz Gramlich sees them superimpose the leaders of the right-wing AFD party a onto a rasterized image of an Aryan family. The word ‘Leitkultur’ written above describes a hypothetical, monocultural vision of German values. “It’s an absolutely absurd word,” says Gramlich, “if you use it with the image of the AFD it becomes even more absurd.” The poster will take its first outing at Weltformat 2016, and will no doubt stoke debate half a century on from Staeck’s first public interventions, but whether his legacy inspires another generation of political poster activists remains to be seen.