Cooper Union Typography

All about Typography, well, mostly about Typography.

Erik Nitsche

Erik Nitsche

This post is less typographic, and more graphic.
I just think Erik Nitsche’s work deserves more exposure.

Erik Nitsche portrait

Erik Nitsche, is considered by many to be one of the pioneers of Modern design. Able to carve out his own niche within the prevalent trend of modernism, Nitsche created some incredible visual work. Very precise, clean forms, sometimes almost rigidly geometric, coupled with a great sensibility of color distinguish his work. Nitsche’s work doesn’t come across as dogmatic, in contrast to some of his contemporaries. And it’s impossible to say that his work is all the same, there is quite a bit of whimsy and playfulness, especially in the record covers he designed. In some ways he is very similar to Bradbury Thompson, one of his contemporaries.

A ‘condensed’ biography of Erik Nitsche:
(*July 7, 1908 – †November 14, 1998) Nitsche was born in Lausanne, Switzerland and studied briefly at the Collège Classique of Lausanne and then at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Munich. He was born into a family of commercial photographers, so the creative process was not foreign to him. The young Nitsche was very influenced by Paul Klee, who was a family friend. You can find similarity in to Klee in Nitsche’s color fields and line-work. Nitsche began his professional career in 1930 in Cologne, working with one of his professors from the Kunstgewerbeschule, the typographer F.H. Ehmcke. The following year he was in Paris, working for an ad agency, before going to work for Maximilien Vox’s agency, mainly doing illustrations. With the approaching European conflict many artists fled Europe, including Nitsche, who left for the United States. He arrived in Hollywood of all places in 1934, but after an unhappy year he left for New York. During his time in New York he worked as a freelance graphic artist for many of the magazines produced in the city at the time: Harper’s Bazaar, Town & Country, Fortune, Vanity Fair, Stage, Arts & Decoration, House & Garden and House Beautiful. He did everything from illustration to photography to layout. In 1938 he became art director at Saks Fifth Avenue, and by the 1940’s he was art director of Air Tech and Air News magazines, where he had complete creative control over design and illustrations. This is where his love of precision and affinity for the Bauhaus aesthetics came into good use. In 1945 he was art director of Mademoiselle magazine for a few issues; Bradbury Thompson later took the same job. It is there that he pioneered the use of the rainbow and split fountain printing techniques in the magazine publishing. He was incredibly prolific in the 1940’s, working for a number of clients as art-director. During that time he also became the vice-president of the largest German advertising agency, Dorland International, for whom Herbert Bayer had also worked. In the 1950’s Nitsche moved to Ridgefield, Connecticut, to set up his own studio there. It is during this period that he began working for the client he is most closely associated with, General Dynamics. During his ten year tenure as their main designer Nitsche created countless ads, posters, brochures, annual reports, exhibitions and even airplane interiors. Once again he had the trust of the company and ownership over all aspects of design. The next notable phase of his career came when in the early 1960’s he returned to Switzerland, and settled in Geneva. He started his own design company, ENI, (Erik Nitsche International) which produced pictorial history books. The first series he produced was a twelve volume history of science and technology, which was followed up by a twenty volume history of music. The books were notable for their cinematic pacing and pictorially driven content, with Erik doing most of the visual research. Nitsche also designed a five volume history of the Twentieth Century for a French publisher. In the late 1970’s he returned to Ridgefield, and began designing children’s books. The last phase of his career, now in Munich, Germany, included designing a large series of stamps and over 200 philatelic first day covers.

As you can see Nitsche was incredibly prolific and very restless. What’s amazing is that he kept designing up until his death in 1998, at the age of 90. According to Steven Heller, Nitsche “rejected the Neue Grafik, or Swiss International Style, that drew nourishment from the Bauhaus legacy, referring to it as ‘a little too cold for our uses,’ and stayed ‘pretty much with the classical typefaces.’ He insists that ‘I really never went outside of my love for Didot.” This is very evident in the album covers he designed for DECCA, but also might be a reason he was never fully accepted or recognized within the heyday of Modern design. Luckily for us we have an amazing legacy of his great work, which in many ways transcends time-stamps.

Some images then…


Information and Image Sources / References / Further Reading:

  1. A great set of scans on Flickr, run by Katie Varrati and Derrick Schultz.
  2. An article by Steven Heller on Erik Nitsche at Typotheque, originaly published in Print magazine, 1999
  3. 1996 Art Director’s Club Hall of Fame write-up
  4. Entry on Wikipedia
  5. A blog run by Katie Varrati and Derrick Schultz which has more images.
  6. GD Poster at GrainEdit, and a great GD annual report
  7. Obituary in The New York Times
  8. Nitsche’s posters on display in the newly built General Dynamics headquarters in Falls Church, Virginia.
  9. An extensive collection of Nitsche’s images, including many of the first day cover images.
  10. An ebay auction of one set of covers. Also an auction of two photographs by Nitsche: One, Two.

Filed under: Illustration, Reference, Typography, ,

5 Responses

  1. Derrick Schultz says:

    Thanks for posting this. I’m a big fan of this blog and am happy to see Nitsche get his exposure here. I too have thought that a lot of his earlier work is very reminiscent of Brad Thompsons’s.

    One thing to note is that he was art director of Mademoiselle for a few issues in 1945, not the 1948–49 mentioned in Heller’s article. I’ve never been able to confirm those dates, but can confirm he did work there in 1945.

  2. Sasha says:

    Thanks for the correction Derrick! And thanks for an amazing collection of images that you have been able to make public online. I am just happy to provide access to other people to them and to keep the legacy of Nitsche going.

  3. brian says:

    wow, i am in awe. good to see one of the pioneers of swiss design. a true luminary! thanks for posting.

  4. wow..great typographic design..really awesome

  5. greg says:

    sasha this blog is so extensive
    and this guy is awesome and inspiring

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