When I was a graduate student completing my art history thesis, I found that the best archives were the ones that didn’t contain glamorous or rare materials, but rather the ephemera of everyday life. At the time, I was working part-time in an analog painting archive gluing down pictures of paintings on greying cardboard and filing them alphabetically in dusty boxes. And as you might guess, I thought the most interesting pieces weren’t the well-known paintings, but the sketches by unknown, untrained hands that recorded completely ordinary things like horses in a stable or milk jugs in a pantry. Somehow these gave me an insight into the day-to-day reality of life in different periods of history, a look into the ordinary that the great masterpieces of an epoch often don’t provide.
I’m not alone in my love of the mundane. Over the past few years, a group of students at the Burg Giebichenstein University of Art and Design in Halle, Germany, have been collecting ordinary scraps of printed matter from the past 100 years of German history. “Each piece has got it’s own value and charm,” say Zettelwerk Archive founders Sarah Fricke, Lisa Petersen, and Lea Sievertsen, who got the idea for the project when visiting another archive of “printed matter from everyday life” at the University of Reading in the UK—the name of the archive translates roughly to “paper-work.”
Most often these pieces have been scavenged from the drawers of family and friends, junk shops, or dumpsters. Loose requirements of the ephemera included in the archive are 1. that the piece was mass produced, and 2. the piece wasn’t created to become a collectible. This results in a collection of postcards, stamps, receipts, laundry tickets, sugar packets, flyers, wrappers, and make-shift maps—the type of pocket litter that’s accumulated at the bottom of handbags and pressed into the wallets of Germans over the last century. Zettelwerk encourages us to read the hidden stories that they tell.
Last year, the recent design graduates released their first book documenting examples from the now 1,000+ piece collection. Different contributors were asked to curate a series of images pulled from the archive: Erik Spiekermann honed in on printing techniques and typography; sociologist Rolf Lindner considered the traces of use that objects show, like coffee stains and pin holes, and what these markings reveal about ourselves.
“From a designer’s perspective, the printed objects are visually interesting, but we also see the archive as an institution for historical research in the context of a changing society,” say Fricke, Petersen, and Sievertsen.
“We think it’s important to save these underrated objects, especially in a future that’s becoming increasingly digitalized.”
I ask the founders to select a few of their personal favorites, and their first pick has particular value from a social history point of view. It’s a flyer from the 1960s that calls for a mass protest against the imprisonment of a student, Fritz Teufel, who was placed in custody after attacking the former U.S. vice president Hubert H. Humphry with pudding. “The flyer is like a witness of an interesting time period and recounts a complex story,” explains the archive’s team.
The graduates are also enthralled by the dramatic shifts in the visual language of German design over the years. “The design of the former GDR was influenced by the limited printing techniques and materials available,” they say. “Those objects, with their slight flaws and visible traces of manufacture, are particularly interesting, especially because in today’s graphic design people take such inspiration from that period.”
Archiving junk and raising its status to a collectable with historical significance is, of course, an ideological statement. As Susan Sontag said of the practice in the latter half of the 2oth-century, “We now make history of our detritus. And some virtue, of a civic kind appropriate to a democratic society, is attached to this practice… Our junk has become history.”
The tradition of championing the everyday and overlooked is a firmly rooted one. In the 70s, Gordon Matta-Clarke made art out of waste; A. J. Weberman popularized the notion of “garbology” when obsessing over Bob Dylan’s trash’ and in 1997 Don DeLillo’s masterpiece Underworld deftly traced the stories of New Yorkers through stray scraps in the monstrous Fresh Kills landfill. It seems particularly relevant again now, in a time when print is relished so fervently. And while many design archives have a niche audience at best, Zettelwerk is truly an archive for the masses, full of ephemera that arguably reveals more about what makes us human than the finest of fine art collections.