German Publishing: The Psychedelic Years

Right now I'm translating a document containing a bunch of boring legalese. But I could have it much, much worse. Back in the 1970s, somebody had to translate the poetry (temptation to use scare quotes barely resisted) of Gary Snyder:

Reihe Hanser Gary Snyder Gedichte

OK, I take that back. Snyder's poetry actually isn't all that regrettable, although lots of his poems smell faintly of patchouli oil

But the main focus of this post is the giant batch of Reihe Hanser books that my local antiquarian bookstore just received. The covers take passers-by on a trip back to the early 1970s, when all books were expected to be groovy, even biology textbooks. As you can see, the Reihe Hanser was basically dedicated to New Left social critique and mind-breaking textperiments — and if the titles ('Mutant Milieu', '3:00 Fear', 'Farabeuf, or the Chronicle of a Moment', 'a-b Glow in the Clover: Psychopathological Texts') didn't tip you off to what was inside, then the book covers surely would. Many more below the fold:

More Reihe Hanser Book Covers 2

More Reihe Hanser Book Covers 3

Reihe Hanser Book Covers 4

Reihe Hanser Book Covers 5

3 thoughts on “German Publishing: The Psychedelic Years

  1. They are not ugly … ! They are pretty good. Much better than what passes for cover design nowadays. They have a pretty strong corporate identity, much like contemporary dtv-covers by Celestino Piatti, combining that with a commitment to the then latest developments in graphics. I’m sure Moholy-Nagy would have been proud. Maybe the yellow is a bit disturbing to look at nowadays and the overall impression may be a bit on the austere side, but that doesn’t take anything away from their powerful design impulse.

    Contrast that with the cover of the book I just bought today: The War of the World by Niall Ferguson (http://benbittrolff.blogspot.com/2009/03/there-will-be-blood-niall-ferguson.html – (ignore the blog post, this is just about the cover)). While after the first few pages I’m quite satisfied with Ferguson presenting a sophisticated argument within a powerful narrative (this is my first book by him), the cover doesn’t so much as hint at any of the intellectual pleasure that awaits the reader. In fact, quite the opposite. “Anglo-Saxon” designers seem to have taken the saying to never judge a book by its cover far too literally and as a starting point for almost all their cover design efforts. To my German-trained mind the indiscriminate use of blurred, overlapping and seemingly exploding images under a jumble of up to half a dozen of different typefaces for both demonstrably excellently researched literature as well as for the cheapest tripe is just astonishing. I’ve had it explained to me how in the early 80s American and British graphic designers started rebelling against what was seen as the totalitarianism of the Helvetica typeface, a development which German and Italian cover designers did not follow, maybe for reasons of history (Helvetica was associated with modernism and with casting off of the old). But looking at the in my mind rather weak results this rebellion produced I’m still nothing but baffled. Given that, I still have a lot of respect and even love for the old covers like the ones of the Reihe Hanser. Better stuff just hasn’t really been invented yet.

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  2. @anderl:

    They are pretty good. Much better than what passes for cover design nowadays. They have a pretty strong corporate identity, much like contemporary dtv-covers by Celestino Piatti, combining that with a commitment to the then latest developments in graphics.

    They are in the same niche. “Reihe Hanser” was an intentionally cheap and uniform-looking softcover series, exactly like the whole programme of DTV or Reclam. If uniformity across a broad range of books of all genres is your hallmark of good cover design (and serial numbers printed on the spine for no practical reason the icing on your cake), I think you can still find it in this market, e.g. in the “Serie Piper”.

    Note another wondrous achievement of this school of cover design, whereby the author’s name, the title and subtitle, the type of text and the publishing company’s name are all written in the same font and size:

    “MANN BUDDENBROOKS ROMAN FISCHER”

    Now that’s artful typography. Bravo, Maestro Piatti!

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