While studying a master’s degree in graphic design at Halle’s Burg Giebichenstein, Markus Lange became interested in the university’s extensive poster archive of over 1,400 designs. Examining the deep archive, one man’s poster designs stood out in particular for its bold and original use of typography: the work of 20th century German designer, Karl-Heinz Drescher.
“When I held the first poster in my hands, and saw the colour application of the letterpress, I was impressed,” Markus tells us. “I could literally feel how he picked up the poster from the printer and what a feeling he must have had with every finished poster.” Immediately intrigued, from that moment, Markus wanted to know more about Drescher’s work, not only for its exceptional execution, but also for the personality injected into each design.
For almost 40 years, from 1962-99, Drescher worked as a graphic designer for theatre at Berlin’s notable Berliner Ensemble founded by Bertold Brecht. “Being an in-house graphic artist for such a long time is almost unimaginable today,” says Markus on this impressive stint. But after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, much of Drescher’s work was lost in the sociopolitical upheaval of former East Berlin as a large part of the theatre’s archive was swept away with the atmosphere of departure. Either disposed of, or sold at flea markets, Markus recounts that in one of Drescher’s written anecdotes, the designer rescued a number of posters for his personal archive. But in spite of what still exists today, during this period, much of his work was lost and “interest in dealing with the past was low,” adds Markus. “Today, we have to discover these gaps and tell the stories that would otherwise be lost.”
Presently, the remnants of Drescher’s design legacy survive in over 400 posters, about 100 of which are predominantly typographic and have only been published sporadically so far. And in an attempt to accessibly publicise the work as far and wide as possible, Markus has decided to publish the works in a collaboration with Slanted which you can now support through a Kickstarter campaign. Not only celebrating Drescher’s powerful use of letters, the book features several voices from the late designer’s companions, friends and family, who provide a wider context of Drescher’s confident designs.
But beyond his balanced and eye-catching posters, what really impressed Markus above all was Drescher’s unflinching ability to come up with creative solutions. In East Germany at the time, the designer’s working conditions were far from resourceful. There were material shortages and limited budgets, “so you couldn’t freely decide what paper to use,” explains Markus, “you had to deal with what was given.” Additionally, colour did not only play a creative role, but often the thin paper containing wood was printed with a background colour to make it more stable, not to mention suitable for posters.
“Through my research, I found that most of the posters were not printed with wood or lead letters, but large printing plates made of brass,” says Markus. “In the print houses of the German Democratic Republic, there were only limited fonts available (wood and lead letters) to choose from.” Incredibly, Drescher found himself a contact in West Germany and received photo negatives of font specimen books from the other side of the wall. He then developed the negatives, enlarged the letters, and designed the posters like assembly sheets which were later printed. “An insane expenditure of time, and hardly imaginable today,” adds Markus on this painstaking process.