Tuck into the rich history of European menu design with Taschen’s new book

Covering a 200 year period from 1800 to 2000, the book – which features charming illustrated brasseries to doodles from David Hockney – is every design foodie’s dream.

Date
16 August 2022

You turn up to the restaurant, sit down, and act like you haven’t already traversed the menu on your phone days before deciding exactly what you’re going to have. It’s a situation we all know well. But while this digitalisation of menus – from the website to QR codes – may be convenient, has it kick-started the slow death of the physical menu? In a time before now, the delicate drawings of food items with bold, sweeping typography and a certain vintage charm often ended up being a tasty visual treat before your meal even began. But now, menus have become another online vessel for information.

This is the view of graphic designer and illustrator Jim Heimann. “Unfortunately the state of contemporary menu design has been simplified or eliminated due to QR codes,” he begins. “In the case of the tangible menu, the ability to produce a simplified menu sheet that allows immediate pricing of item changes via the computer has eliminated the need of traditional graphics or offset printer.” While Jim admits that this may offer “an economic advantage in a highly competitive business”, the great graphics that often accompany menus are now increasingly lost. It was this love of and dedication to the physical menu – and their existence as artefacts that so uniquely trace art movements and graphic styles – that compelled Jim to collate them into an extensive archive, now published in a new book published by Taschen. The book spans a 200 year period from 1800 to 2000, and Jim has shared some of his most interesting findings with us here at It’s Nice That.

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Taschen: Menu Design in Europe, edited by Jim Heimann (Copyright © Taschen, 2022)

Firstly, Jim is keen to express that, rather than setting trends, menu design has generally followed them. “This is true in most commercial graphic applications," he adds, “which absorb art movements after they have been accepted by the general public.” In the 19th Century, Jim observed a more refined menu style. On one side, the persistence of a “monochromatic palette” was due to printing restrictions, whereas on the other hand, the decorative borders and calligraphy were rooted in the domination of upper-class connotations of banquets and fine dining. At the turn of the century, however, Jim explains that design began to be more influenced by various art movements, making way for Art Nouveau and later modernism to take centre stage. Moreover, Jim adds, “it is interesting to note that after World War II, as dining out became more common, the range of menu design started encompassing all sorts of influences with the exception of photography which is absent for the most part.”

Since immersing himself within the world of menu design, Jim has unsurprisingly picked up a few favourites along the way. Some of which resonate because of their historical significance. Three menus from 1945 show simplistic, monotone drawings of soldiers looking over steaming plates of food. Jim explains that they have been realised by a French soldier, Charles Duchéne, in a German prisoner of war camp. Admiring them for their detail and how they managed to survive the war, Jim also notes their satire, which makes them “highly unusual”.

Others, however, stand out for their charming aesthetics. The menu for A I’ Escargot, from 1915 speaks to Jim for its ability to craft such a discernible sense of place and atmosphere with its yellow lighting and black fine line detailing of the establishment. Whereas another favourite catches the eye for being drawn by a well-loved artist. The colourful, sketchy Salts Diner menu was penned by none other than David Hockney, the spot being one that he regularly frequented: “the spontaneity of his drawing is wonderful and it appears he sketched it in situ”, Jim adds. Without a doubt, if anything is going to make you want to ditch the QR code and go back to the reign of the physical menu, it’s this wonderful book.

GalleryTaschen: Menu Design in Europe, edited by Jim Heimann (Copyright © Taschen, 2022)

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Taschen: Menu Design in Europe, edited by Jim Heimann (Copyright © Taschen, 2022)

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About the Author

Olivia Hingley

Olivia joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.

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