Kommt, sehet de Kunst, Die Bibliophilen Taschenbücher
Why can’t American publishers produce a series of good — no great — books on graphic culture like Die Bibliophilen Taschenbücher? Published in 1979 by Harenberg Kommunikation, Dortmund, Germany, each small usually full color volume was based on a visual theme, including American absurdist postcards, German political posters, French cigarette advertisements, vending machine cards, Soviet Posters, and Liebig’s Fleisch Extract advertising cards. There is also a set of photographs from Polish Ghettos, Jews in Prussia, an album of battlefield portraits, and scores of other rare, variegated, and wonderful visual treasures. The series of well over 250, 4 ¾ x 7 inch books (varying in length) were all primarily visual with introductory text that established context. All were designed in the same minimalist literary format (colored paper cover with a tip-on image on the cover); and all were finely printed to facsimile standards.
Liebig's Sammelkarten, Die Bibliophilen Taschenbücher, cover
Liebig's Sammelkarten, Die Bibliophilen Taschenbücher, interior of book
I began collecting Taschenbücher in the early 80s when a friend sent me Kommt, sehet die Kunst, art exhibition posters from Germany and the Vienna Secession. Actually, collecting is too passive a word. I devoured and hoarded them. I traveled to Paris just to buy them since I couldn’t find a single copy even at the most savvy art / design bookstores in New York. They were distributed in the UK, France, Italy and of course Germany, but even over there they were only in the choicest shops. My mouth watered whenever I saw those unmistakable multicolored spines peering out from the shelves.
I ended up with over five dozen (and that was just the tip of the ice-book-berg). So my mission was to see them distributed in the United States. There certainly were other little books of graphic ephemera produced in Europe and Japan, but nothing of this diverse magnitude. They were a natural purchase for anyone who had a hankering for rare design artifacts, which at that time, one couldn’t even find in larger art books. Nonetheless, every publisher I approached with the idea of reprinting them in English, or simply distributing the German editions, refused. “There is no market for this kind of thing,” was the common refrain. One sophisticated visual book publisher had the temerity to say, “and besides that, its fluff.”
Vending Machine Cards, Die Bibliophilen Taschenbücher, cover
Vending Machine Cards, Die Bibliophilen Taschenbücher, interior of book
Of course this was a period when the market for design books had not yet been discovered and flooded. Moreover, graphic design was just beginning to burst out of its parochial confines into a widely recognized profession, and the history of design was considered too arcane. So sadly, American publishers only saw a bottom line that didn’t support these books, as economical as they were.
For a while I would see them at the occasional New York antiquarian book fairs for an inflated price, as though they weren't sold for around $10 per volume depending on size. But even these dried up. Anyone who knew the line — which included much more than graphic design or popular art ephemera — understood their value as inspirational guides and archeological digs.
Today, a few American publishers produce coffee table books featuring much the same material, but there has yet to be a truly affordable line like Taschenbücher. Sadly, the broad range of material that Karl Hitzegrad, the series editor, acutely appreciated has not piqued the interest of publishers here and maybe never will.