Pioneers of German Graphic Design Shows Links to Chicago’s Graphic Design History

Pioneers of German Graphic Design by Jens Müller is a deep dive into the early history of graphic design and demonstrates why Germany (and Austria and Switzerland) are so important in that history. The 400-page coffee table book is a beautiful gallery of early design and the work of 14 prominent designers—and provides insights into Chicago’s role in graphic design history. That role is wrapped up in the history of the Bauhaus, the most influential modernist art school of the 20th century—first in its German years in Weimar, Dessau and Berlin and later in its Chicago reincarnation after the Nazis forced founder Walter Gropius and other designers to leave Germany. Bauhaus design was rejected for being “degenerate art” with “cosmopolitan modernism” and communist influences. (Hitler preferred the classics.) Chicago’s Bauhaus legacy starts with Lazslo Moholy-Nagy moving to Chicago to establish the U.S. version of the famous German citadel of design. Moholy-Nagy was followed by other artists and designers who moved to Chicago (including Ludwig Mies van der Rohe). The New Bauhaus went through many name changes and locations and in 1949 became part of the Institute of Design, later IIT. Mies’ arrival in 1938 cemented IIT’s reputation as a preeminent architecture and design school. The book, published by Callisto Publishers, a German publishing house that focuses on design, art and architecture, has in-depth chapters on 14 graphic designers who originated the field of graphic design 100 years ago. Among them are Herbert Bayer and Jan Tschichold, both important figures in typographic design and the development of “universal fonts”—bold sans serif fonts with no capital letters—and other sans serif fonts and geometric graphic design. The book opens with an excellent 40-page introduction describing the earliest elements of “commercial art” and graphic design in Germany. The accompanying graphic examples are art-nouveau-esque at the beginning and gradually become more severe and geometric as the new typography and the Bauhaus gain influence. The introduction also features a timeline of important events in history, design and technology from 1855 to 1970. The book’s 1000-plus illustrations show examples of iconic design, many of them important unpublished or forgotten pieces. An important element in Chicago’s graphic design history was the design vision of Container Corporation of America, a Chicago-based paperboard/box company famous for its modernistic advertising and corporate design. Walter Paepcke, founder and longtime executive of CCA, hired Herbert Bayer to create a corporate design program for his Aspen Institute and sponsored Moholy-Nagy’s development of the New Bauhaus. Paepcke also hired Bayer to create the World GeoGraphic Atlas for CCA in 1953. It was a 368-page compendium of business and design including 120 full-page maps and 1,200 diagrams and graphs. CCA printed it in small quantities for schools, libraries and collectors. Bayer later became famous for his development of the corporate design program and art collection for Atlantic Richfield Company. One of Bayer’s designs was the 1968 poster for the 50-year Bauhaus anniversary exhibit, first shown in Stuttgart and then at IIT’s Crown Hall in Chicago in 1969. The image above is Bayer’s poster; the one below is my beatup copy of the exhibit catalog. (See “Memories of Mies” here.) As a writer inspired by graphic design and architecture, attending the 1969 Bauhaus exhibit at IIT was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. My copy of the 1969 Bauhaus exhibit catalog. The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art mounted an exhibit, Chicago’s Bauhaus Legacy, in 2013. The exhibit included about 150 pieces by 90 artists and designers, including painting, sculpture, photography, architecture plans, furniture and design pieces. Pioneers of German Graphic Design is available from the publisher for $95 or from some online booksellers for ~$65. (Published in April 2017, it’s 9x12, hard cover, and weighs 5+ pounds.)
Picture of the author
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.