Anton Stankowski: the best and worst of postwar German graphic design?

Aesthetics, Design

Visiting the art museum Gelsenkirchen recently, I came across a small exhibition of prints by Anton Stankowski and his associate Karl Duschek. In German design circles Stankowski is mainly known for having designed the logo of the Deutsche Bank (see below). Looking at the exhibited prints, my impressions wavered between delight and distaste. I had rarely seen design work that seemed so typically German, both in a positive and a negative sense.

Photo portrait of Anton Stankowski
Anton Stankowski in 1958 (Source: Wikimedia Commons: Stankowski-Stiftung)
Logo of the Deutsche Bank
Logo of the Deutsche Bank (Source: Wikimedia Commons: Deutsche Bank AG)

Researching further about the life and work of Anton Stankowski lead me to two digital exhibitions. A website is available that shows parts of an exhibition from 2006 commemorating Stankowski’s 100th birthday. A current exhibition in Berlin about Stankowski and Duschek’s corporate design work, titled „Marken:Zeichen. Das Grafische Atelier Stankowski + Duschek“, is available as a virtual tour (texts in German only).

During his lifetime Stankowski had contact with some of the most notable German and Swiss graphic designers, of which I will name only a selection here. The mutual influences might be one reason why his work seems so typical for postwar Germany.

Anton Stankowski was born in 1906 in Gelsenkirchen. After an apprenticeship as a decorative painter, he studied at the Folkwang University in Essen under Max Burchartz from 1927 on. Max Burchartz was one of the proponents of a modernist layout style (Elementare Typografie) that combined grotesque fonts, black and white photography, and photo collages.

From 1929 on Stankowski worked in Zürich, Switzerland. There he was part of a circle of artists that included Herbert Matter and Max Bill. Herbert Matter is mainly known for posters that integrate text and photographs. Max Bill is known today for his Bauhaus style watches, and for being a founding member and director of the influential Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm.

From 1938 on Stankowski worked in Stuttgart, Germany, There he was again part of a circle of artists and designers, among them Willi Baumeister, again an important proponent of modernist typography.

In 1964 Anton Stankowski lectured at the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm. This school was a design school in the tradition of the Bauhaus, with a strongly functionalist leaning. The school only existed from 1953 to 1968.

From 1960 to 1972 Stankowski was head of the committee for the visual design of the Olympic Games in Munich. The pictograms that Otl Aicher designed for the Olympics are today seen as landmarks of information design. Otl Aicher also happens to be one of the founders of the HfG Ulm.

In 1972 Karl Duschek, 41 years younger than Stankowski, entered Stankowski’s design agency. In 1982 the agency was renamed to Stankowski + Duschek. Many of the corporate designs created by Stankowski were thus codesigned by Duschek. Nevertheless Karl Duschek remains largely unknown to the general public today. In 1998 Anton Stankowski died in Esslingen near Stuttgart.

From today’s perspective it is notable that Stankowski made no distinction between art and design: “It doesn’t matter whether it’s art or design, it only has to be good.” He extensively noted visual ideas in his sketchbooks. His artworks he realized in different media: drawings, paintings, prints, photographies, and sculptures. Visual ideas that he developed in his free artworks found their way into his functional graphic designs. A visual element typical for his work is the diagonal line, which can also be seen in the Deutsche Bank Logo. Today the Stankowski foundation awards a price to people that combine art and design. The photos below show some art prints by Stankowski and Duschek at display in the art museum Gelsenkirchen.

Art prints by Stankowski and Duschek on exhibition in the art museum Gelsenkirchen
Art prints by Stankowski and Duschek on exhibition in the art museum Gelsenkirchen
Art prints by Stankowski and Duschek on exhibition in the art museum Gelsenkirchen

Anton Stankowski was a pioneer of corporate design, working together with Karl Duschek from 1972 on. Many renowned German institutions hired Stankowski. Companies that are still using his logos today include Deutsche Bank, Deutsche Börse, Messe Frankfurt, Münchener Rückversicherung, Deutscher Werkbund, Viessmann and many others (also see picture below for some logo examples). Stankowski and Duschek did not just develop logos, but full corporate designs in the modern sense. Use of the logo, colors, layouts, and other visual elements were specified for the clients in corporate design manuals.

Logos designed by Anton Stankowski and Karl Duschek
Corporate logos designed by Anton Stankowski and Karl Duschek (Source: Cover of book published by Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)

Anton Stankowski’s work seems typical for postwar Germany to me. His visual language is straightforward and clear. Forms are geometrically constructed with straight lines. These forms look like they were devised on an engineer’s drawing board. Colors are bright, clear, and contrasting. A red is red and an orange is orange, there is no place for subtle shades and nuances. The use of forms and colors could be interpreted as a late echo of the Bauhaus design language. There forms were constructed from the basic geometric elements of squares, circles and triangles. At the Bauhaus the three primary colors blue, red, and yellow were mainly used.

The corporate designs seem systematic, rational, and functional. Stankowski often used the typeface Akzidenz-Grotesk (very similar to Helvetica preferred by Swiss graphic designers), which further reinforced the neutral and rational impression.

The characteristics listed up to now are rather positive: straightforward, clear, systematic, rational. These are traits that were and are still associated with German design and engineering. However, looking at Stankowski’s designs from today’s perspective, a lot of it also seems horribly blunt, brutish even. There are no ornamental elements in his designs, nothing that is not systematically constructed. This leaves no place for elegance, sophistication, or humor.

In my opinion this reveals something about German culture in general. We tend to focus on the concept and are wary of too much outward pomp. If something is too beautifully packaged we doubt that it can deliver functionality. I have worked extensively with French, and also with Italian and Spanish colleagues. These are cultures that seem to put much more emphasis on outward elegance. With the instantaneous exchange of visual ideas via the internet nowadays, strong cultural differences between designers and artists are disappearing. Still it seems worthwhile to note design traits that seem specific to some countries.