Back at the end of the 1970s, young graphic designer Roland Matticzk was sat in a pub in Kreuzberg having afterwork drinks. Sketching on the back of a beer mat, he drafted a paw print as an idea for the logo of the newly founded left-wing newspaper Die Tageszeitung – a logo that the paper is still using today. A new book by German publisher A5, called West-Berlin Grafik-Design, has uncovered many origin stories like this for the very first time, as part of its attempt to document the rich graphic design history of West Berlin. Featuring more than 500 design projects, the book charts the trends and cultural impact of the enclave, told through extensive interviews with the people behind the iconic designs.
Masterminded by designer and educator Jens Müller, what’s so incredible about this wide-reaching project is that it was carried out in collaboration with his students in the department of design at the Dortmund University of Applied Sciences. In groups of between three to five, the students researched a number of topics, creating nine mini books that have been brought together as part of the publication. From the posters of the Berlin International Film Festival and the logo of consumer electronics show IFA to the posters of the Free Radio Berlin, many of the iconic designs are still in use today, while others no longer exist – just like West Berlin itself. Some, like Erik Spiekerman’s design system for the metro, were in planning for many years but only came into existence after the wall came down.
“I think that the selection is very much influenced by the perspective of the present,” says Jens. “The students were very much interested in the creation of works without the computer, for example. For the designers of that time it was a matter of course to have created complex posters with scissors and glue, but today it is nearly exotic.”
Jens first had the idea for the project when he was researching A5’s last book, about the history of German poster competitions, and came across the work of designer Jürgen Spohn. Jens says, “His posters got kind of forgotten after he had died in the early 1990s. So we visited his widow, still living the same bungalow that she and her husband had moved in to during the mid-1960s. It was a bit like a time travel back to how West Berlin must have felt before the wall came down.” It sparked the idea to further research the visual culture of a very specific time in the Berlin’s history, one that has somewhat been lost following reunification.
For Jens some of his favourite works in the book are posters by Sigrid von Baumgarten, Hans Förtsch and Reinhart Braun for Sender Freies Berlin, the public radio station of the city, which held concerts with some of the leading figures in modern music like Karlheinz Stockhausen or Pierre Boulez. “The designers used geometric elements or played with typography to interpret the abstract music,” says Jens. “With this approach they created outstanding poster designs that were much more than just announcements for the concerts but became art pieces themselves.”
Although all of the designers have a very strong personal style, part of the project was to look for connective elements in work of the era to try to pinpoint the characteristics of West Berlin style. “One of the most striking things we spotted was the intensive use of neutral typefaces like Helvetica in many many works,” says Jens “Of course, you could say that this can be explained by the zeitgeist and you could point to similar works created in Canada or Switzerland. However, I found the explanation of a designer quite convincing, who pointed out that the more uncertain the times are, the less experimental basic elements appear in the design. And West Berlin was right in the centre of the Cold War when those works arose.”
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