(The Art of Books) - German Decorative Trade Bindings

Introduction, by Louis A. Pitschmann

During the half-century 1870-1920 covered by this exhibit, the book arts--layout, typography, illustration, endpapers, and binding designs--received international attention. Simultaneously, various art movements spread across national boundaries and influenced book design. In German-speaking countries, historicism, arts and crafts, Judgendstil, and arte deco all found expression in the book arts, particularly in trade bindings. The starkly geometric and architectural designs of the 1870's and 1880's gave way to the sweeping floral designs of the 1890's, which in turn flowed both literally and figuratively into the German school of arte nouveau known as Jugendstil. Bindings representative of all these various styles can be found in this exhibit.

While the craftsmanship and artistry of leather bindings has enjoyed consistent appreciation and study among connoisseurs and scholars throughout the past two hundred years, mass-produced, machine-made trade bindings have, on the other hand, been largely ignored by collectors and scholars alike. This disregard, together with the relatively large number of decorative trade bindings, contributed to the general neglect and physical deterioration of decorative trade bindings in the second half of the twentieth century, a period when minimalism in the graphic arts and architecture eschewed the highly decorative styles of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Thus, in comparison to their original number, relatively few examples of German decorative trade bindings survive today unscathed. Corners are bumped; surfaces are rubbed; heads and tails of spines are frayed; and hinges are cracked. Not infrequently, portions of the decorative design are hidden or defaced by library markings.

These realities notwithstanding, German book arts and decorative trade bindings flourished during the fifty years covered by this exhibit. Publishers and commercial binderies, as well as graphic artists and interior designers, encouraged and fostered an environment in which works of fiction and non-fiction (instructional manuals, advice books, travel guides--the so-called Fachbücher and Gebrauchsbücher)--as well as scientific and medical books, even encyclopedias--virtually all publications intended for the mass-market--were issued in trade bindings that bore at least some attention to decorative detail. The degree of ornamentation and design varied according to the aesthetic influences of the period or the tastes of the publisher or the bindery, but by the early twentieth century few genres were exempt from some degree of decoration on their bindings, if only in the attention to typographic design and detail devoted to spines and covers.

Scholarly and curatorial interest in German decorative trade bindings began to evolve in the late 1980's, but researchers have not exhaustively described or evaluated the myriad aspects of the decorative trade binding phenomenon. For example, most scholarly studies have focused almost exclusively on trade bindings of the Jugendstil period. And, the vast numbers of designers, many of whom did not sign their work or receive credit from commercial binders or publishers, await discovery and study, as do the relationships between designers/artists, binderies, and publishers, and the influence of the content of the works themselves on their binding design. So vast are the intertwined aspects of decorative German trade bindings that previous exhibitions and scholarly research merely hint at the rich treasury there is for the eye to behold and historians of the book and art historians to study, evaluate, record, and describe.

This virtual exhibit of decorative German trade bindings is not intended to document all aspects of the decorative trade binding movement. Primary among its goals, however, is to further an appreciation of the artistry of these bindings and at the same time facilitate teaching and research on all aspects of decorative trade bindings from the German-speaking areas of Europe. More specifically, the goals of the Virtual Museum of Decorative German Trade Bindings are

  1. to illustrate the range of design styles that were employed by commercial binders and publishers;
  2. to foster an increased appreciation of this aspect of the German book trade and of the book arts generally;
  3. to support the growing interest and research in these binding designs by making a representative sample available to a larger audience than a physical exhibit would allow;
  4. to provide improved access to contemporary publications which describe the binding trade, commercial binding equipment, and specific binderies and artists; and
  5. to establish an inventory of German artists and interior designers who promoted the book arts from 1870 to 1920 and of the monograms they frequently used to sign their designs.
The bindings displayed in the virtual museum are from the collections of the Memorial Library at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and from private collections in Madison.

Items for this exhibit have been selected by Louis A. Pitschmann and Barbara Walden, who have also provided the accompanying narrative information and descriptions for each item. Steven Dast designed and produced the exhibit website. Sandra Paske and Patricia Tuchscherer are responsible for color correcting the scanned images to match the orignal items. Items were scanned at the Digital Production Facility of the Memorial Library at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Feedback of all kinds can be directed to the German Decorative Trade Bindings Working Group in care of Steven Dast: sdast@library.wisc.edu

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