Wayne Daly and Adrien Vasquez have designed Dressed in Black, a new publication by Precinct books that looks at the Spektrum series published by Volk und Welt between 1968 and 1993. Unified in appearance, the black jackets, Garamond type and photographic collages designed by Lothar Reher, Dressed in Black contains 115 covers from the 279-strong series and texts that explain the significance of the work. Here, we publish the introduction that explains why Wayne and Adrien were drawn to the project.
As book designers and collectors we are always in search of the other – trawling second hand bookshops in towns and cities on our travels in the hope that a cover or format or binding emerges which in some way sets itself apart. These treasures can be well known, perhaps even ubiquitous to the locality where they have been discovered. But to the eyes of the outsider they can be remarkable, offering insight into alternative design cultures and practices.
The Spektrum series, published in East Berlin by Volk und Welt from 1968 to 1993, was one such moment of discovery for us. On the one hand, in their inherent simplicity and usability, the books embody the ideals of accessibility and inclusiveness epitomised by the wave of mid-20th Century paperbacks. And yet the dense black jackets, printed on uncoated paper stock, absorbing ink and detail, with titles set in a rigorous lockup above eclectic photographic images, have an unsettling air of mystery. As examples of mass-produced literature, they compare with the best of their West German brethren like the Suhrkamp or Rowohlt series. It is this tension between the books’ pragmatic and uncanny qualities that make them something special.
Spektrum’s design was conceived and executed by Volk und Welt’s long-standing art director Lothar Reher. Born in 1932 in Marienburg, Reher trained as a typesetter before joining the publishing house in 1951, beginning as a production assistant and working his way up to the publishing management team. Disappointed by the proposals submitted by the designers selected to pitch on the series’ design, Reher decided to tackle the job himself, going on to design all but one of the series’ 279 titles. The decision to work with black and white photography was partly a practical one, not only for budgetary reasons (colour film was scarce and expensive in the German Democratic Republic), but also to permit Reher full control over image production, shooting found or borrowed objects and developing the photographs himself in his darkroom.
The images often have oblique relationship to the books’ contents, with Reher allowing himself space to play and inject his personal interests. Recurring motifs such as skulls, faces, museological artefacts or spherical objects reveal a long-term visual grammar, with later books in the series often echoing back to earlier designs. These taxonomies offered us a route into our own ongoing research into Reher’s practice, forming the basis of a shelf display exhibited at the 27th Brno Biennial in 2016. A Shelf for Lothar, our personal categorisation of Spektrum jackets, aimed to spotlight Reher’s little-known work to a wider audience. By showing the books in this particular arrangement, we hoped to give some insight into Reher’s distinctive graphic interpretation of a considerable body of literature. The present publication converts the original shelf display into a book format and proposes a reading of Reher’s work for Spektrum at a slower, potentially more contemplative pace.
Given the political climate of the second half of the 20th Century, Volk und Welt had considerable international reach, publishing the work of authors not only from the Eastern Bloc, but from a variety of countries and cultures, often for the first time in German and, notably, with little or no censorship. Spektrum sold a combined total of over five million copies during its 25-year run, which, despite their relative obscurity in the history of paperback book design, accounts for them being easy to find in Berlin’s Antiquariate. Today, it is difficult to imagine a mainstream publisher committing to such an individually-minded design concept. Reher’s work and ideas endure, and are worth examining as a model for how to steadily build and sustain a coherent body of work.
Dressed in Black can be purchased here.