The test of a truly international magazine is its ability to reach out to subscribers and newstands all over the world – from Helsinki’s Academic Bookstore to London’s Zwemmer’s and Tokyo’s Junkudo. novum – known as novum gebrauchsgraphik from 1971-1996, and before that as Gebrauchsgraphik – has done this since 1924. The Munich publishers who are celebrating this auspicious anniversary are too modest to boast, but this contributor has no hesitation about blowing the trumpet on their behalf.
»There is no doubt that the history of novum gebrauchsgraphik also represents a piece of the history of graphic design«, wrote the publisher of the day, Erhardt D. Stiebner, in the 60th anniversary issue (10/89), which duly focused on »six decades of creative work all over the globe«. Now, when reflecting on the magazine’s 80 years of existence, it is a good moment to emphasise the relevance of the design press in general – and novum in particular – for the field of graphic design.
In the profession’s formative »commercial art« years, the technological, socio-economic and demographic changes of the Industrial Age brought forth the mass media, commercialisation and a revolution in artistic conventions. Suddenly vast quantities of packaging, banknotes, postage stamps, posters, advertisements, mass circulation weeklies and an array of other printed matter was being created by a medley crew of printers, illustrators and self-styled artists. The trade of the designer was emerging and so were groups of collectors, keen to find a forum for critique or exchange of views about cultural and commercial issues of the day.
In Germany, the reports by the Society of Friends of the Poster (Verein der Plakatfreunde), later published under the name of »Das Plakat«, proved to be a decisive factor in the emergence of the design press. From 1910 until its closure in 1922, the publication evolved into a bi-monthly journal with a circulation rising from an initial 200 to well over 5000. Inevitably, it prepared the ground for the publication of the first ever bilingual (German/English) journal of graphic design – Gebrauchsgraphik, in Berlin in 1924. Within two years, this »publication for the promotion of artistic advertising«, founded by the visionary professor K.H. Frenzel, became a monthly journal. Until his untimely death in 1937, Professor Frenzel, in addition to editing, reviewed German poster art each year, focusing on the experimental work of the Bauhaus, as well as other avant-garde protagonists. High quality in applied graphics was the undisputed quest of the professor, who apart from being a founder member of the BDG (Association of German Commercial Graphic Designers), stood out as a real internationalist with professional contacts in Europe and the United States. The magazine’s readers were thus kept abreast of world developments, e.g. the Russian Constructivism of El Lissitzky, and the London activities of American-born designer McKnight Kauffer. A North American distributor – The Book Service Company of New York – secured Gebrauchsgraphik’s international breakthrough. Subtitled International Advertising Art, the magazine miraculously survived through the early years of the Third Reich. Because of World War II and its aftermath, however, it was obliged to cease publication for six years in 1944.
Already during the first decades of its existence Gebrauchsgraphik developed into a seminal prototype for latter-day graphic design magazines such as Graphis, Communication Arts or Idea. Recognising this fact
tor Vasarely cover) onwards. Subsequently, the textbook-like »novum kompendium«, »novum info«, and »novum praxis« ran well into the 1980s.
Following the switch to phototypesetting (9/79), the Univers-dominated layout appeared visually plain and functional, while the editorial content was beginning to reflect the greatest upheaval design had ever faced: post-modernism and computerisation. Thus novum 8/1984 presented the posters of the provocative Alain Le Quernec, alongside some digitally generated images from Japan.
The questionable trendsetting role of the 1980s design resulted in a variety of styles running in parallel. Perhaps as a sign of the escalating pace of life, the look of the magazine has been altered three times during the closing decade of the last millennium. A compressed old-face font gave way to Otl Aicher’s Rotis, and eventually to Garamond. Most significantly though, there occurred a generational change in the staffing of novum’s editorial office.
Design history books overlook the role of the trade magazines and their instrumental role in spreading information about styles, techniques, prolific designers, illustrators and photographers, great schools, outstanding projects, etc. Not to mention the promotional aspect. One who has touched upon the subject, Steven Heller, calls the journals »The Missing Link«, which helped graphic design to evolve into an autonomous profession, with its own tradition, iconography and personalities. Jeremy Aynsley, an art historian, ascribes the success of German graphic design in the 20th century (in a book of the same title) to the seriousness of its promotion. He singles Gebrauchsgraphik out, for acting as »a momentous cultural forum« in that process. The designer Lucian Bernhard describes the international scope of the phenomenon thus: »there was not a drawing board without a copy of Gebrauchsgraphik in pre-World War II American advertising agencies«.
novum may be turning 90, but while sentimentally leafing through its back pages, let us praise the fact that it still maintains a position as one of the few design magazines graphic designers and students throughout the world eagerly turn to for inspiration – and that is just as much true today as it was in the 1920s.