In Germany during the 1930s, there was just one lifestyle magazine that every young woman had to have. An essential for those donning flapper skirts, cropped haircuts, and dramatic eyeliner, die neue linie first appeared on the newsstands in 1929 with a sensationalist lowercase masthead and tips on everything from fashion and home decor to sports. Art directed by the Bauhaus’ Herbert Bayer—and featuring work by László Moholy-Nagy and Walter Gropius—the stylish women’s monthly was as modern as it came. Working on the magazine alongside those celebrated men of Modernism was one lesser-known designer: she went by the name of Söre Popitz.
Born Irmgard Sörensen in 1896, Popitz is the only known woman to have pursued a career in graphics after studying at the Bauhaus. The designer and artist passed away in 1993 at 97 years-old; her life encompassed nearly the entirety of the 20th century. And when she first began freelancing in the ’20s, it was almost unheard of for a woman to work in graphic design. Through a unique set of circumstances, Popitz slipped through a crack and into the field of commercial arts, learning her craft from the originators of German Modernism, and going on to pursue her own career.
When Popitz first enrolled as a student at the Bauhaus in October 1924, she’d just completed a seven-year degree in draftsmanship at the prestigious Academy of the Arts in Leipzig. There, she studied under the seminal Modernist type designer Jan Tschichold and was one of only a handful of women permitted into the school. When she moved on to the Weimar Bauhaus, the school had also progressively allowed women into the classroom, though they were encouraged to pursue weaving rather than the male-dominated mediums of painting, architecture, and typography. Popitz enrolled with the hope of meeting kindred spirits, and participated only in the school’s first year preliminary course taught by Moholy-Nagy and Josef Albers. She left after only one semester, never reaching the point in the curriculum where she would likely have been ushered away from graphics and into the weaving workshop.
It was because this early turn of events that Popitz was ultimately able to succeed in an industry where other women struggled to get a foot in the door. It’s not completely clear why Popitz didn’t continue studying at the Bauhaus when the school moved from Weimar to Dessau at the end of her first semester. Reading between the lines of her diary, held at the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation archive, it seems likely that she didn’t align herself with the school’s new motto: “art and technology—a new unity.” Nevertheless, when Popitz moved back to Leipzig to set out on her own, she brought her Bauhaus training to commissions for publishers, household appliance companies, and other local businesses. And although many of her commercial designs bear the unmistakable influence of her male Modernist mentors, Popitz also embellished her work with blocky characters that represented a range of female experiences, lending her designs a distinctively feminine gaze.
“Since I Could Think:” Söre Popitz’s Early Years
It was Popitz’s grandmother who first inspired her to pick up a paintbrush, according to the designer’s diary. “I am often asked, ‘Since when have you painted?’ Answer: ‘Since I could think!’” she writes, going on to describe her painted illustration for her grandmother’s folkloric stories. As a teenager in Kiel, Popitz attended the city’s craft college, deciding in 1917 to fully commit to a career in advertising draftsmanship and moving to Leipzig to attend the Academy of the Arts. A class photograph from the time shows her and a few other women peeking out from a dense hedge of suits.
According to Steffen Schröter, a Bauhaus Dessau Foundation staffer who was the first to research Popitz’s estate, the academy’s professor and graphic artist Hugo Steiner-Prag was responsible for opening enrollment at the academy to women. Steiner-Prag’s stance, however, was heavily disputed by his colleagues, and it took Popitz two application cycles to receive a placement.
Once finally enrolled, Popitz’s work quickly caught the attention of the local design community. Her designs were displayed in an exhibition of advertising art, and in 1920, she won a prominent poster competition. The style of these pieces was in keeping with the period’s decorative, flamboyant illustration, though Popitz’s figures also revealed a level of abstraction, pointing towards the stripped-backed, linear aesthetic that she would later embrace along with her fellow Bauhauslers.
During her studies at the Academy, Popitz became acquainted with Tschichold and sat in on his lectures. After visiting the first Weimar Bauhaus exhibition in 1923, Tschichold had became an emphatic advocate for Modernist design, making it likely that Popitz first came into contact with early Modernist thought through him. As soon as she graduated from the Academy in 1924, she married a Leipzig-based physician and anthroposophist named Friedrich Popitz. But her curiosity in Modern design had been piqued, and she became increasingly interested in the school that was gaining a reputation for its experimental design pedagogy in the nearby town of Weimar. Popitz set off westwards to find out more. “I went to the Bauhaus because I was keen to meet like-minded people,” she wrote in her diary.
Material Sculptures: Student Life at the Bauhaus
At the start of their studies, all students at the Bauhaus received a year of basic training as part of the preliminary course, during which they experimented with color, shape, and material. While Popitz was a student in Weimar, the course was team-taught by Moholy-Nagy and Albers. Moholy-Nagy’s lessons focused on construction, balance, and materials, while Albers taught craft techniques. During one of Moholy-Nagy’s workshops on balance and the visual principles, Popitz created a study from glass, wire, metal, and wood, which is structured so that a black box and white beam appear to float in space. A few years later, Moholy-Nagy published a photograph of her piece in his seminal book, From Material to Architecture.
In her diary, Popitz writes only briefly about her time studying under Moholy-Nagy: “Yesterday I had to complete what Moholy buried us in. He wants the highest aim to be the mathematical calculation of form. For example, balance is calculated mathematically by so much red, so much blue, so much yellow […] Art and mathematics must become one and the same, uniting in such a way that there is no ‘art per se’ any more. This has given me something to think about.”
Tellingly, she concludes her diary entry with the declaration that she doesn’t have to busy herself with this philosophical question about the new direction of art because “no woman can have anything to do with art.” Her statement reveals the patriarchal stronghold still dissuading women from intellectual and artistic pursuits, despite the increasingly inclusive politics of the more progressive schools.
As part of the preliminary course at the Bauhaus, students also attended color theory lectures by Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. Popitz’s abstract paintings during her time in Weimar—and also later in life—bear the unmistakable influence of Klee’s artistic sensibility.
“The lessons with Klee, the color seminar with Kandinsky, and the material sculptures with Moholy-Nagy were all very important to me. But I could not join in with the Bauhaus’ next developments,” she wrote cryptically in her diary.
Designing New Lines: Freelancing in Leipzig
On returning to Leipzig in 1926, Popitz printed business cards that described herself as a specialist in “advertising design.” One early commission was an ad for a local gymnastics studio run by her close friend Charlotte Selver-Wittgenstein. The poster’s concise lettering on a clear, geometric grid seem to splice together a Tschicholdian approach to typography with the forms that Moholy-Nagy used in his Bauhaus communications.
It’s especially clear how formative Popitz’s brief time at the Bauhaus had been when looking at the stripped-back, linear ads she produced for a household appliance company named Thüngia. Popitz’s series depicts different figures standing beside Thüngia’s sinks or stoves—a stick-figure doctor, a husband and wife, a group of girls. Further ads feature a range of different types of women, from young girls in patterned dresses, to housewives in aprons, and lean figures dressed in stylish frocks, feathered hats, and glamorous earrings.
These playful, geometric stick-figures recall the costumes in Bauhaus professor Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet. The household appliances on each poster are drawn in elegant, thin black lines and lack detailing, which, along with the unfussy typography, communicates cleanliness and efficiency. Everything about these designs would have conveyed modernity, functionality, and simplicity: ideal for the modern consumer with their newly electronic, gas-heated, fully-functioning apartment. And Popitz’s stylish stick-women, rendered abstractly but with detailed clothes, ranged from the traditional to the modern, appealing to housewives and working women alike.
In her early years as a freelancer, Popitz also worked with the Leipzig publishing house Otto Beyer, which published die neue linie, a collaboration she would continue for 20 years. One of her most technically impressive designs for the publisher was an advertising brochure. In it, her use of photomontage mirrors Moholy-Nagy’s own (Popitz likely experimented with the technique as a student in the Bauhaus’ preliminary course). It’s a sophisticated piece of design, employing silver foil, die-cut letters and thin, embossed figures stamped into the light paper.
As with her Thüngia ads, each delicately rendered female figure is dressed in a different outfit, from an apron, to a school-girl’s skirt, to a fashionable evening dress. What all figures have in common is the large publication that they hold open in their hands. With the design, Popitz suggests that all women can read and see themselves in Otto Beyer. The multiplicity of her figures attempted to reach not an everywoman, but every woman.
It was through working with Otto Beyer, and her acquaintance with Herbert Bayer, that Popitz first began to work for the popular die neue linie (which translates to “the new line”), the publisher’s flagship title. The cover of its very first issue featured a photomontage by Moholy-Nagy depicting a woman in a fur coat looking out of a large glass, lattice window towards a mountain range. The cover linked the modern architecture of the times—with its emphasis on dramatic, glass windows—to the style of the new, modern woman. The “new line” of the magazine’s name referred to Modern design as much as it did the new female silhouette. According to Schröter, Popitz likely put Otto Beyer in contact with her former teacher for the commission.
Popitz’s own commissions for the title ranged from illustrations and collages to the design of the back cover, as well as advertising pages in which type treatments are merged with tiny spot-drawings. She would create just one front cover for die neue linie: a 1931 photo-montage that clearly gestures back to Moholy-Nagy’s inaugural cover in its use of a mountain range background. In front of the snow-peaked landscape, an illustrated woman with stylish cropped hair and a cap stands on a platform. This balcony, with its three thin, horizontal poles against a white wall, instantly recalls the design of those punctuating the white walled student dorms of the Bauhaus building in Dessau, which Popitz had visited a few years prior. The inclusion of this distinctly modern architectural detailing was especially fitting for the issue, for it featured an article by the Bauhaus’ own director and Dessau building architect Walter Gropius.
Real Pictures: The War and Post-War Years
Otto Beyer remained Popitz’s sole employer during Germany’s Nationalist Socialist years. To better tolerate the hardships of wartime life, Popitz turned to decorative painting. She drew flowers, detailed self-portraits, and other politically harmless illustrations, writing in her diary that she lacked any inspiration for “real pictures.”
At the beginning of the Nazi regime, Popitz had attempted to hide all of her Bauhaus studies in the basement of her husband’s doctor’s office, yet they were still destroyed later during the bombing of Leipzig. The majority of her early work is lost. What exactly she produced for Otto Beyer during the war years also remains a mystery, as the publishing house was heavily damaged as well. Due to all these losses, Schröter notes that the true scope of Popitz’s commercial output will remain unknown.
After the Soviet occupation of East Germany, the Popitz couple fled to Frankfurt am Main. Friedrich died only a few months after their escape. From 1949 onwards, Popitz worked as a draftsman for the Schwabe publishing house, a branch of Otto Beyer, and seemed to have stopped pursuing work in advertising. For the next half of her life, her largest body of commercial work was the design for a number of patterns for Insel-Bücherei, a book series where each title is wrapped in an abstract background.
Browsing any second-hand bookstore in Germany, today you’ll find piles of the ubiquitous Insel-Bücherei series in dusty corners, and it’s within these stacks that you’re most likely to come across a design by Popitz. Her patterns from the ’50s and ’60s depart from her previous style and feature dense, expressionistic tangles of leaves, wispy brushstrokes, and deep blue waves of solemn paint. What was once modern must have have seemed long ago.
When Popitz died in 1993, her estate went to the Wuppertal gallery, which later handed it over to the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation as a loan in 2011. Thank you to the Foundation’s inventory staff and especially Steffen Schröter, who shared his thesis research on Popitz with me for the purpose of this article. All translations are my own.