You can’t have a discussion about the history of the logo without invoking Milton Glaser’s I Heart NY, Saul Bass’ Quaker, and John J. Graham’s NBC peacock. But you’d be forgiven for blanking on the name Wilhelm Deffke, the German designer many consider the godfather of the advertising logo. Between the wars, Deffke did his best work on brochures for German appliance company AEG and the iconic J.A. Henckels zwilling (“twins”) logo, among others. He also ran with some of Berlin’s most notable designers, including Peter Behrens, Kurt Schwitters, and Walter Gropius.
Rather than a boldface name, after his death in 1950 Deffke became a footnote in his industry, insightful and accomplished, yet tangential to his celebrity cohorts. Now, however, he’s earning some of that elusive recognition, albeit posthumously. Wilhelm Deffke: Pioneer of the Modern Logo, edited by collector and dealer Torsten Bröhan, delves into the rich archives of the unheralded designer amassed by his daughter.
The new monograph follows Deffke’s development in the early 20th century, beginning with his beginnings as a patroneur, or point paper designer, and success in the German book-art movement. He went on to design for Otto Elsner, making his mark with a highly stylized 1914 calendar. His prospectus for Hapag-Amerika Reisen that same year depicted New World destinations with vivid silhouettes against abstract landscapes, a romanticized gesture that treated Niagara Falls like a stop on the Grand Tour.
Thereafter, his illustration style shed its detail and gained a graphic precision that became his calling card. As a partner with Carl Ernst Hinkefuss at Wilhelmwerk, he wrote a primer on the corporate logo. His logos for Reemtsma cigarettes are among the most recognizable in Europe, and likely earned him the Art Prize of Berlin, which he was awarded just before his death.
Bröhan leaves almost no work unexplored (we’ll get to that in just a sec). And though the text can be a slog (Bröhan edited his own work, and that of 10 co-writers), it touches on the fascinating geopolitical situation during Deffke’s Weimar heyday.
Which brings us closer to why some readers may take issue with Bröhan’s volume. Deffke’s claim to fame, if he ever had one, was his design of the “sunwheel,” a precursor to the swastika. Bröhan barely touches on the symbol, first printed in Deffke’s 1917 trademark book Handelsmarken und Fabrikzeihen, nor does he discuss the controversy around the Nazis’ appropriation of it.
Bröhan misses a trick here. He alludes vaguely to Deffke’s “complete collapse brought about by his participation in the war.” (He also suggests the designer’s true downfall was an accusation of plagiarism, which gradually eroded his partnership with Hinkefuss.) Yet these themes are never explored. Whether Deffke tweaked his original “swastika in a cogwheel” specifically for Hitler’s trade union front remains a mystery. We’re told that “Deffke’s estate does not contain any proof to this effect. However, one of the cogwheels he occasionally used in corporate signets also has fourteen projections, as does the official Arbeitsfront symbol.”
Was there room in the 400-page tome? Certainly. Yet most readers will be content to finally see the old master’s oeuvre in all its distilled simplicity, getting the right kind of recognition.