The Design Observer Twenty

Eric Baker | Today Column

Today, 02.14.09

As I bounce around online looking for images I always look for the extraordinary, the esoteric, the naive, and the emblematic of a time; works that are not the pieces we often see in design history books. As a teacher of design history, I am interested in how we got here and how design has evolved. 

This may seem obvious to many people, but I find it less obvious to a great number of working designers, especially younger ones, who seem completely unaware of their design lineage. Just as a map helps us find our way and shows us where we are, looking at design from years past helps us better understand the trajectory contemporary design has taken.

Today when we see names like, Rand, Bass, Scher, Bierut, Glaser, Chwast, Goldberg, Sahre, Sagmiester and Carson, we can see their works in our mind's eye; we recognize their contribution to our profession, innovation and the cultural landscape. But if we come across names such as Lebedev, Marinetti, Sandberg, Zwart, Werkman, Borges, Oliverio Girondo, Torres Garcia, Reiner, Van Doesburg and Carra, we are less likely to have the same visual familiarity. These designers are often the forgotten pioneers (or the precursors) of the work we see today. While some of the work may seem dated, much of it feels as fresh and revolutionary as it was some eighty-plus years ago.

This morning I received a note about an amazing collection of images that Miguel Oks had posted to his Flickr site. It is a remarkable body of work and an important window to a pivotal period of design.

I would highly recommend spending time pursuing the collection of Notgeld, the German inflationary currency used after World War One. With the German economy in tatters after the war, money was virtually worthless — you needed a wheelbarrow of cash to buy a loaf of bread. Cities, towns and even businesses issued their own currency, and designs were created by (mostly) anonymous commercial artists and local printers. During the current global financial meltdown, perhaps we will again see new forms of Notgeld (emergency money) around the world. I hope not. 

I want to extend my most sincere thanks to Miguel Oks, who took the time and effort to assemble such a wonderful and important collection of works.

Eric Baker Design Associates is a Manhattan-based design firm established in 1986. Eric teaches the history of graphic design and corporate identity at the School of Visual Arts, and has twice received National Endowment for the Arts Grants for independent design history projects. He is inveterate collector of books and ephemera. Editor's Note: All images link to their original source and are copyright their original owners.

Comments [21]


Thanks for the great post. As a professor of graphic design, I'm amazed at how the internet has become such a valuable resource for finding images that have been left out of graphic design history books. It's no wonder it's the first place students head to when conducting research. I also appreciate this week's intro paragraph with the images. Keep up the good work.

Words can not express what words can not express.

But, your images are great & your words express a bunch!

werner pavlovich

What a great set of images. Nice work on finding them all.
Neil Martin

ik hoor

One of my first pieces of work when I was in design school was to channel another designer I admired and that happened to be Piet Zwart. An odd choice for a first year student, but the bold and simple nature of Dutch Design has stuck with me since then.

What a humbling set of images. Thanks for sharing.
Gary Aston

I've started teaching Graphic Design and Typography to young(er) designers and the unwritten histories that are dropped out through the viccissitudes of trend or lack of simple hardwork from researchers or publishers are the most rewarding to share. Thanks for taking the time to pull these references together.
Lee Jay Keeper

Perhaps what makes the names from the past forgotten are that they were not very good in the first place, akin to the Shepard Faireys of today. Or perhaps they are forgotten because people no longer deem history a worthwhile endeavor to study, but only to plunder for "inspiration" and to release graphic tomes about for (again) visual "inspiration".

As for myself, these works look "dated" and are not very good. I don't mind their being in the dustbin of history.
Eric Marten

It was amazing what the hand could do way back then.
No computer. Just outstanding talent!
pat Taylor

Eric Marten,

While it is certainly possible that some of this work may not have been seen as "good" during its time, its actually just as likely that it was put aside for other reasons. I'm sure you know from your history classes that history of wars has always been written by the "winners." The same is true of graphic design. I think in today's internet age, we really do believe that anyone can publish (for argument's sake, I won't argue that here) so therefore good work always finds its way into the right hands. However, back THEN, that was certainly not true. There were but a handful of publishers and writers discussing graphic design at the time and to be published you had to 1. know the right people and 2. have your work meet that publishers standards and ideology. The last part is of particular importance, because these gatekeepers allowed work to be seen and therefore have its importance spread. Its very safe to say that this is no different than PR games that many offices work hard to do now. Some people at that time were great champions of their work, others chose to work and not self-promote. One has to consider how those consequences have come to affect where we currently stand. Had the Expressive movement in the Bauhaus "won," we might see a design today very different from what it is now. Perhaps the Modern movement was "destined" to win that fight, but I somehow doubt things have that natural and decided an evolution.

As for this particular set of work, it looks "dated" because it is! I know there has always been a PR marketability for "timelessness"--it sounds so nice and makes us publishable forever (see what I'm saying?)--but I think we can, ideologies aside, admit that that's an impossibility--there is no such thing.
Derrick Schultz

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness...
John Keats

When I read comments like those of Eric Marten, my first visceral response is "OK, can we take a look at the work YOU have done..."

To consign the work of Hendrick Werkman (executed by the Gestapo in 1945), Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (founder of the Futurist movement) or Piet Zwart (founding member of the De Stijl movement)... to the "dustbin of history" is not only arrogant but quite sad.

That is akin to throwing out all of your family's photos and letters and history. To disregarding that which went before as "rubbish".

I would encourage Mr Marten to take a long, hard look at his own work before tossing off such inane comments. They only make you sound silly.
Eric Baker

I find it astonishing as a graphic designer how many designers do not look at design. Whether bad/good or old/new, and like anything how can we learn anything if we don't look back.

I take influences from everything that is around me not just from "great" design. You have to look, and you have to look everywhere.

And just because something is labeled as great or amazing does not mean it is.

As always amazing images! Thanks for the refreshment, this consumerist design world has made me parched.
Ryan Artell

Love this article! Good point about not forgeting the graphic design pioneers.

What a great set of images. I love seeing the attention to detail in every piece. Although some are very basic and could be put together today on the computer in about 5 minutes, the touch of the hand could never come through in the piece, like they do in these examples.

Makes me want to get trade in my computer for a nice drawing table and a T-square.
Brian M Curley

Uh, Borges -- the Argentinean writer who was a forefather of magic realist and post-modernist literature -- was a graphic designer?

Neat trick, considering he was blind for most of his adult life.

It is always nice to look at the images that are posted here everyday. I always see a lot of things that I like and I am often inspired by the things I see. It is also very good for me because I am a design student and the more that I see the more I learn. Classic posters from the Soviet Union have inspired me lately. So it is good to see some interesting pictures of them posted here. I like that these images are done by hand and that it shows how you could never get the same feel from a computer. More designers need to realize how meaningful a piece of design can be when you can see he artist’s hand in the piece. I am a huge fan of the daily images and I will continue to check them every day.

Thank you very much for this beautiful post.


Borges was not only a writer and a graphic designer, he was a champion weightlifter, a knife-fighter, and a seducer of Europe's most beautiful countessas. He was able to recite the entirety of the "Odyssey" in Latin (the first language he learned to read) and he once sang Verdi at La Scala. He invented the acrostic puzzle, the dithyramb, and the carbeurtor. He was known to outdrink Gardel on more than one occasion, and they always drank grappa.

He was not, however, blind for "most of his life." He developed blindness in his late fifties and lived to be 87. So he was blind for less than half of his life. (These facts are readily available in Wikipedia, which is itself, of course, a poor Borges rip-off.)

If Borges teaches us anything, it's that if you are going to invent fictions, then go ahead on and INVENT.
Sam Potts

Great article. Looking through the flickr sets shows some amazing work. Eric Marten's comment though made me a little ill. Of course they look dated, look when they were done! These designers and work are our foundation, design wouldn't be where it is without them. It's kind of like saying all the 80's rehash bands out there now are great without acknowledging the fact that The Cure or Bauhaus or Joy Division laid the groundwork for what followed. It just strikes me as ignorant and intellectually shallow.

I don't see many of these pieces as necessarily dated. Normal ware and tare, and means of reproduction, might inherently induce that look, but the asymmetrical layout, play with scale, and unique forms within most of these examples are decidedly modern. To deem them "not very good" as Eric Marten has done, however, is not entirely wrong. The statement is neither educated nor non-educated, it is merely an opinion. I think the response granted by Eric baker, the contributor, is exactly what he was aiming for. Of course history is worthwhile endeavor—it influences and affects the present—but Eric Marten's personal work bares absolutely no relation to the argument. If we are to contribute anything to the discussion of design today, in order to augment our own personal endeavors, it is necessary to make meaningful comparisons and contrasts. I greatly appreciate the work displayed in this post, I have never seen any of the examples—I have viewed very similar, and yes, better versions—but I sincerely hope that they only add to the collection of images stored in my mind. It never hurts to have something new, or old, to pluck from.
John Rudolph

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