Whether you get all judgy about book covers or not, recently we’ve been wondering if book covers alone are enough to tell us something deeper about a culture. Then we discovered (and instantly began drooling over) some 1,000 vintage dust jackets and bindings in The Book Cover in the Weimar Republic (Taschen), a visually stunning catalogue of Berlin’s nascent book art culture between the world wars.
From illustrated works to typographic designs, and Art Deco to proto-modernist styles, the book is a library of eye-catching covers from some 250 Berlin-based publishers. Together, they show how book cover design from 1919–1933 in Berlin was influenced by the important movements of the period—Expressionism, Realism, New Objectivity, Constructivism, and photography—and retell how this young German republic was what the book’s editor Jürgen Holstein calls “a testing ground for modernity” until the second world war cruelly ended it all.
The 452-page tome reads like a visit to an antiquarian bookstore, specifically that of Holstein who has been in this business for almost five decades. But there’s none of the mustiness and stuffiness one might expect. The book lets the covers take prominence, while keeping each lightly anchored by meticulously researched captions in English and German that detail the books’ physical dimensions and creators, as well as tidbits on their origins.
Beyond just a feast for the eyes, the book gives some semblance to this collection of covers amassed by Holstein over a decade by loosely organizing them around themes such as sports, the Soviet Union, flight, children’s books, amongst many others. There are also sections of books by specific publishers, authors, designers, as well as types of design production methods. But given the sheer number of covers, the book largely remains a visual reference rather than a serious reading of what these covers tell us of the Weimar Republic.
Three essays attempt to provide context on this ephemeral medium, which, despite its vivid exterior, was treated as mere advertisements and was often, sadly, thrown out after purchase. In his introduction, Holstein recounts the prosperous and stable Germany in which these covers were produced and examines the rise and fall of book arts in the country. Diving deeper are separate essays, including graphic designer Peter Nils Dorén’s examination on the typography of these book covers, and antiquarian Frank Hermann’s historical retelling of avant-garde publishing house Die Schmiede. This publisher was founded by Julius Berthed Salter, the brother of legendary George Salter, a designer who cut his teeth working on books covers for Die Schmiede and their Berlin competitors before emigrating in 1934 to the United States, where he later revolutionized American book cover design.
Salter was just one of several Berlin-based book cover designers featured in the publication who emigrated to the United States during the second world war, including the likes of Lucian Bernhard and Herbert Bayer. The book is a glimpse into what came before the post-war boom in graphic design, as the Weimar Republic was also home to now iconic designers such as El Lissitzky and John Heartfield.
The Book Cover in the Weimar Republic is based upon an earlier edition Holstein self-published a decade ago, and that has since become a rare collectible, selling online for upwards of £400. BLICKFANG: Bucheinbände und Schutzumschläge Berliner Verlage 1919-1933 (Eye Catcher: Bindings and Dust Jackets of Berlin Publishing Houses) was a labor of love that took Holstein three years to produce, and was limited to just 400 copies retailing for €198 each. Then, Holstein told Eye magazine he wouldn’t reproduce this book once it went out of print. Fortunately for us, he changed his mind.