From the mid 1930’s through the mid 1960’s, the bookshelves of American readers were likely to be filled with the work of George Salter. After establishing himself as one of the foremost book designers in Weimar Germany, Salter came to the United States in 1934, where he created iconic covers for works by Franz Kafka, William Faulkner, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Gore Vidal, Thomas Mann, William Golding, and countless others.
Leo Baeck Institute has acquired an extensive collection of about 200 book covers and individual graphic designs, many of them rare, that show the scope and development of the eclectic design talent of George Salter. The acquisition was generously funded by The Cahnman Foundation, New York.
A selection of original book jackets and designs by Salter are on display through November 24 in the exhibition “The Art of the Book, Illustration and Design” in LBI’s Clifford and Katherine Goldsmith Gallery at the Center for Jewish History in New York.
Salter is recognized as one of the most creative forces in modern book design. His innovative work for publishers during the Weimar Republic produced signature pieces for some of the important literary works of the 20th century. So great was Salter’s international reputation that when he immigrated to New York in 1934, he was immediately able to begin work for American publishers and change the face of American book design.
The collection came to the Leo Baeck Institute in 2009 from Thomas S. Hansen, professor of German Studies at Wellesley College, whose monograph on Salter ”Classic Book Jackets: The Design Legacy of George Salter” (Princeton Architectural Press, 2004) drew on this collection as well as original archival materials to rediscover Salter’s work for English speakers.
We spoke to Hansen briefly about Salter’s work and the new collection at LBI.
One of Salter’s most iconic and enduring designs was for the first edition of Alfred Doeblin’s Novel Berlin Alexanderplatz in 1929. What was so innovative about this cover and why was it so successful?
Hansen: Salter’s design for Berlin Alexanderplatz represents the perfect wedding of book and designer and has become the most famous cover done for a work of 20th century German literature. The author, Alfred Döblin, actually provided new text for the cover, which captures the sense of the novel’s raucous tumble of words interspersed with figures from the plot like a child’s rebus. This jacket predicts the task of reading that lies inside and makes of this task a subject of visual play. Salter was the first designer to adorn his covers with such a quantity of text, thereby making a reader of the book buyer before the cover is opened. Publishers would later remove such information from the cover and place it inside as flap copy. This jacket also gives a good feeling for Salter the penman whose lettering was always highly individualized.
What do you think is Salter’s relevance today, as some observers suggest that electronic media begin to supplant the printed page as the way most people encounter literature?
Hansen: I do not agree with that premise. A small minority of people are readers of of e-books. It looks like a big number but it remains a small minority, especially world-wide. Europeans (still) scoff at the technology.
Here I would quote the tribute that Chip Kidd paid to Salter in his blurb he wrote for the back cover of my book: ”What a treasure to finally have all of George Salter’s groundbreaking work collected and in print. To page through this book is to find yourself lost in the world’s most astonishing antiquarian bookstore. Salter was among the first graphic designers in the history of the field to show, consistently over decades, that the face of a book could be as beautiful, as thought-provoking, as meaningful as its prose.”
How did you decide that Leo Baeck Institute was the right home for this library of books designed by George Salter
Hansen: I attended a symposium German exile literature in which several of my own books were displayed. I also loaned a few Salter titles. When I saw how fine these looked in the display cases of the LBI exhibition, I realized that this would be the ideal place to house the works of a German émigré who made his home in New York City.
What do you think the use of this collection is to researchers, designers, or bibliophiles?
The collection should be a resource for book designers, graphic artists, and historians of the book. The covers that Salter produced — as well as several complete book designs and collaborations with other talents like William A. Dwiggins — are an archive of the industry in New York from the 1940s to the 1960s. Thus, the collection has historical, aesthetic, as well as literary value.