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Merz to Emigre and Beyond — Reviewed and Questioned

Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant-Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century by Steve Heller

If the importance and relevance of graphic design books were measured by their weight in pounds and size in inches, few of them would be able to compete with Steve Heller’s latest book: Merz to Emigre and Beyond — coming in slightly under five pounds and a deceptively large eleven-and-a-half by ten inches. Luckily, we have more subjective methods of measuring a book’s significance.

Merz to Emigre and Beyond serves, first and foremost, as an historical archive of some of the most radical publications of the twentieth century by cataloguing art movements, political events and social changes that were integral to the existence of Avant-Garde publishing. Through its 200 plus pages the book takes us from the beginnings of the Avant-Garde press in Paris in the 1830s all the way to the United States in the 1980s where Avant-Gardes entered the digital age along with their creators. Each page is a visual feast all its own — filled with cover after cover and spread after spread of boundary-pushing typography, illustration and layouts that would engross even the least-interested browser. Merz to Emigre and Beyond also manages to cover the work of some of the most important graphic designers and illustrators of the past one-hundred years, ranging from Aleksandr Rodchenko to Neville Brody.

More importantly, Heller’s book achieves something else: To illustrate the indelible relationship between graphic design and life, people, the world. Avant-Garde publications are the efforts — and serve as vehicles of change — of groups of people looking to challenge the status-quo; graphic design in this medium serves as a way to embody spiritually and represent visually the ideas that are bound to shift this status-quo. If this book proves anything is that graphic design can encourage opinion, stimulate reaction and provoke change.

Merz to Emigre and Beyond is an essential book in that it firmly establishes graphic design as an historically-proven medium that can change the way people think, the passion with which artists create, the system wherein politicians govern and the method under which the world works. Merz to Emigre and Beyond is indeed a big book.

Q & A with Steve Heller

Q: The first thought that comes to mind upon seeing the book, is “Man, this is big!” How much work (time, resources, etc.) went into the creation of it?

A: It is big but it could have (and perhaps should have) been bigger, insofar as I had more material and there is a lot that I did not cover. That said I tried to uncover territory that was NOT already well trodden while addressing those periodicals that are larger than footnotes in art history.
Timewise the book took three years to complete, but I had been working on aspects of it for over twenty years. My first foray into writing history was focused on satiric illustrated periodicals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Long before I started writing about graphic design this purely pictorial material fascinated me (indeed I was quite obsessed). I produced exhibitions, articles, and books on the German Simpliccisimus, the French L’Assiette au Beurre, the American The Masses, and more. So I found a way of introducing this book with this pre-twentieth century satiric material.

Resource-wise, I worked with a researcher (he also worked with me on my book The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption?) who uncovered a great trove of post-World War II avant garde publications, which I would not have found on my own. I am pretty strong on the pre-War side, especially Futurism and Dada, as well as German left-wing political journals. I own quite a lot of this, but I also tapped into some important private collections. The picture editor at Phaidon filled-in with material I could not obtain on this side of the pond.

Q: “Merz to Emigre.” I am obviously very familiar with the latter and had never heard of Merz. After reading about Merz I noticed a few similarities between the two, most identifiably — and to cite one example — their constant change in format. What was the main reason for choosing these two Avant-Garde publications for the title? Was it their parallels only? Or do these represent the Avant-Garde more than the rest?

A: To be honest, Armin, my original title for the book was UNACCEPTABLE! Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century. But my publisher felt a more didactic title was better. I still like mine (and will probably use it for something someday— maybe my tombstone epitaph). But we agreed on Merz to Emigre because it indeed covers a broad spectrum. Of course, chronologically speaking it does not span the entire breadth of the book. The Futurists came before, as did the Secessionist and Art Nouveau magazines, like Ver Sacrum.

Merz was Kurt Schwiters’ personal art movement, which might even be called his “brand.” It is a nonsense word, like Dada, but was impregnated with meaning. Under the Merz banner he created advertising, sculpture, painting, performance, poetry, and his famous Merzbau (a gigantic 3D collage that filled the interior of his home. He was aligned with Dadaists but did his own thing. I guess the most comparable aspect between Merz and Emigre is that both were chronicles of a NEW typography. In the former’s case, Merz introduced a constructivist vocabulary and propagated asymmetric typography. We all know about the latter’s achievements, and its continuing legacy. But they were very different magazines; each rejected the distinct conventions of their day and now represent the unique avant gardes of their respective times.

Incidentally, years ago when I asserted in an article for EYE titled “Cult of the Ugly” that Emigre would be a “blip in the continuum,” I had no idea that it would become one of centerpieces in my own historical work. I get a big kick out of my shortsightedness at the time, which proves that avant gardisms are indeed unacceptable (at least for the moment).

Q: I have to admit that upon first hearing about this book my first reaction was “Great, another BIG book” (I like to think I’m not pessimistic). I now have to admit that this, for me, is a very important historical archive of the irrevocable relationship that graphic design has with culture, politics and art, why was it important for you to create this book?

A: Simply put, I love the material. As a writer, these magazines offer a trove of stories about the politics and art of their times as well as links to design history. As an aficionado, well, I love holding (and having) this stuff. I’ve written a lot about magazines (not surprisingly I’ve worked for mags and newspapers all my professional life since I was seventeen years old), and these are the wellsprings of all of them. Not all of them are “beautiful” design in the accepted sense of the word, and that is what makes them even more intriguing.

Q: What is more appealing (interesting or inspiring also apply) to you about these Avant-Garde publications, is it their design and existence as artifacts or the social, political and/or intellectual changes they provoked and stood for?

A: Both really. As I said, I am fascinated by the stories that they have to tell. I enjoy reading about the internal battles, the snipes and jabs at each other’s groups and movements. But I also get absorbed by how the magazines developed their graphic languages. This is very cool stuff.

Q: One of your more interesting conclusions was, in regards to Spy, that “mainstream Avant-Garde is an oxymoron.” In your research, was the design of the majority of these publications commonly appropriated by mainstream as a default? I have seen it happen with Emigre and Ray Gun, what does this say about graphic designers?

A: Art is a process of invention, adaptation, absorption, and then reinvention. At different times and places along this continuum designers copy or create. That’s life. Some are derivative others original. Much of the avant garde was co-opted by the mainstream (some of it was not). Emigre begat Beach Culture, which begat Ray Gun which begat and begat. What was interesting about SPY is that it was made from a kind of whole cloth. Designer Stephen Doyle’s basic design was rooted in various historical influences, but the result was unique and the magazine was a hothouse. It was avant garde in this respect but was quickly copied by scores of other magazines. Acceptability breeds cliché.

Q: In your epilogue you mention that “A few of these documents are now as important as the works of art or cultural events that they originally covered.” How telling, and revealing, is this statement towards the importance of graphic design?

A: Well, I don’t really think the artists and writers involved in many of these periodicals separated graphic design from their art per se. It was all communications, and they used popular means and vernacular languages to get their messages across. Graphic design is often poo-pooed as not “Art” with a capital “A” because of its utilitarian purpose, but as Paul Rand said it is art if you make it art. So for many of these periodicals graphic design was a seamless means of expression. For others it was simply a frame for pushing other things into consciousness.

Q: Do you think the web will ever have the power that a tangible publication has? Or is it too volatile and loose an environment to foster such important changes?

A: Yes, it is quite volatile, but all it takes is one genius to transcend convention. Personally, I prefer paper. But your generation is more screen-savvy than me or mine. If someone is passionate enough to make change, it will be made. What is different today than during the golden age of avant garde periodicals is that we are all more self-consciously aware of what is unconventional. So we kind of pre-empt avant gardery because so much is possible. I anxiously await the second coming and ensuing rapture in the web world.

Q: Stepping away a little from the book´┐Ż I would like to ask your opinion, based on the research and conclusions from this book — and I am not saying nor implying it is or it is not — would you consider Speak Up Avant-Garde?

A: No. At the moment Speak Up is a very handsomely designed blog/forum, but even the gallery of work you show is not avant garde because it fits within the parameters of established and acceptable work. Emigre was avant garde (not from the outset) but once it carved out its niche as an alternative design journal. Speak Up is about right now. This is why it will probably be hard for the web to be avant garde; it happens in real time and space. There is little chance for it to really shock (and I’m not talking about stupid neo-Nazi hate sites). Speak Up is too, forgive me for saying it, well-done to be avant garde (a.k.a. Unacceptable).

Book Information
Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Progressive Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century by Steve Heller
Phaidon Press Inc.
Hardcover: 240 pages
ISBN: 0714839272
Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON Dec.10.2003 BY Armin
graham’s comment is:

sounds interesting-does it have things like aspen, spirale, archigram, form and zweck , octavo and hard werken in it?

On Dec.10.2003 at 08:42 AM
graham’s comment is:

also-does it have much info on 'the next call'? i've always wondered about the history of that.

On Dec.10.2003 at 09:07 AM
Armin’s comment is:

Graham, I don't have the book with me right now, so I can't answer the specifics. This book is something you would probably like, lots of strange typography — like Tomato's.

On Dec.10.2003 at 09:10 AM
graham’s comment is:

cheers armin-i'll look out for it.

On Dec.10.2003 at 09:18 AM
eric’s comment is:

I appreciate that this is conversational in convention, however I take real issue with: “Merz was Kurt Schwiters’ personal art movement, which might even be called his “brand.”’

Referring to Schwitter’s life work as a “brand” is a slightly too facile description of the man’s art, for which he died mostly in obscurity and in exile.

On Dec.10.2003 at 09:36 AM
Bradley’s comment is:

Sweet...this'll make a fine gift for myself and many others this season, I'm sure. Perhaps if I get some time over lunch I'll run by the bookstore and pick it up now!

On Dec.10.2003 at 10:25 AM
ps’s comment is:

its obviously hard to participate in a discussion without having seen the book. however, i have to admit that my initial reaction was "oh, another book from heller"... but i assume the good part is that it exposes us designers to some history. what i do question is if emigre is avant-garde. i thought that part was done with a long time ago and it just fed of the reputation it built initially. maybe time for me to take another look at it to see if that has changed.

On Dec.10.2003 at 10:25 AM
Chris Risdon (Riz)’s comment is:

I bought this book a few weeks ago, and it's big, but it's really interesting. To graham's comment, yes it does include many (can't remember if all) of the publications you mention - Hard Werken, Aspen, Archigram, I remember specifically. As well as The Next Call.

I don't think the book poses that Emigre IS NOW avant-garde (nor that it isn't), but it talks about it in it's late eighties, early nineties experimentation/embracing of digital type. But there's a lot of context there, including mentioning other publications in the same vein, such as Fuse.

If you have any interest in publication design, and the cross appropriation between design and art movements, technology movements, music genres, and politics, it's a very interesting read with great samples of the magazines.

On Dec.10.2003 at 02:03 PM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

Steve Heller wrote:

"Merz was Kurt Schwiters’ personal art movement, which might even be called his “brand.” It is a nonsense word, like Dada, but was impregnated with meaning."

Sorry, slight point of clarification here...

The term 'Merz' came from a collage that Schwitters (two t's) did in 1919. He took an advertisement for the Commerz-und Handelsbank, sliced off the 'com', and had himself a word that described the hard-to-describe. I would argue that the confluence of his work as a fine artist & designer, and the proto-commodity critique of early 20th C. collage art make the word 'Merz' more than a nonsense term.

If any are interested, UbuWeb contains documentation of 'Aspen', 'Source' and mp3s of Schwitters performing his text/sound poem "Ursonate".

On Dec.10.2003 at 04:00 PM
Jacques’s comment is:

The "Hyperlink of the Day" award goes to M. Kingsley. I'd never seen Udu before. Fantastic!

Oh, and "Hi Graham", fancy seeing you here!

On Dec.12.2003 at 08:30 AM
Jacques’s comment is:

Mirror-mode: ON

Udu | ubU

On Dec.12.2003 at 08:38 AM
Sarah B.’s comment is:

Great - just great. Another book I seem to want.. just add it to my list - ok?

No, Armin, well done and thought out interview - you never cease to amaze, and either does Mr. Heller either!

On Dec.12.2003 at 12:44 PM
Armin’s comment is:

My pleasure Sarah.

> what i do question is if emigre is avant-garde. i thought that part was done with a long time ago and it just fed of the reputation it built initially.

ps, like Chris said, Emigre was Avant-Garde back when it started. There is no doubt about that. I don't think anything could be Avant-Garde for more than twenty years, becaus then it wouldn't be Avantin’ any Garde, if you know what I mean.

What is truly admiring about Emigre is that it managed to be Avant-Garde and that it is still relevant twenty years later. Unlike others who just simply went away.

On Dec.12.2003 at 01:48 PM
freelix’s comment is:

the thing that pisses me off most about hellers new monster is that i paid a fortune

for one at the book store (its like 95 dollars

or sompn) when i should have got one cheaper at his AIGA "manequin" small talk .

On Dec.12.2003 at 07:56 PM
ps’s comment is:

armin, agreed about the avant garde thing. also i did not mean to turn this into an emigre discussion. i simply did not think clear when posting. usually the preview button stops me... must have been after a late night or before coffee.

On Dec.12.2003 at 08:06 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Strange and horrible things can happen before coffee.

On Dec.12.2003 at 09:06 PM
Sarah B.’s comment is:

Stranger things have happened after - be it the crazy caffeine or sweet-and-light- sugar induced high - or the odd things it can do to my insides!! My favorite part of coffee - is during!

On Dec.15.2003 at 03:08 PM
Vanessa’s comment is:

It's a beautifully produced book - and the history of avant-garde publications via the photographic reproductions is worth the price of the book. But make no mistake, Heller is a middling intellect trying to play with the big dogs. It's unfortunate that he has been able to dominate so utterly the current state of design discourse.

Throughout the book, one can find egregious errors -- facts which should have been easily confirmed by the researchers Heller has at his disposal. Things such as Duchamp's impetus for signing his infamous urinal R. Mutt, fact-checkable dates regarding Bataille's Acephale and so on mar the content of this otherwise beautiful tome.

With this sort of half-assed scholarship at the pinnacle of our profession in the academy, is it any wonder that design remains unable to talk about itself with any critical insight?


On Feb.07.2004 at 06:55 PM
brian’s comment is:

I find the comments here very interesting and gather (duh) that they pertain to design... I'm a musician that was reading a fairly obscure magazine, in which, a writer used these exact words "merz to emigre" to describe something about music that I can't readily associate with it, or give the context in which it was used. My interest lies in the fact that I am an anal English major that can't not look up ANYTHING that I don't understand. That being said, I believe when this writer used the word merz that he was using it in the context that

'anything an artist 'spits' is art.' If emigre is supposed to be at the opposite end of this spectrum, then in relation to this, would someone please tell me what could possibly be meant by using the word emigre. I'm sorry I can't give you any greater context. Any help is appreciated thank you.

On Jan.17.2005 at 02:39 AM
Armin’s comment is:

Brian, I guess you landed on this page without passing through the book review? It's a book called Merz to Emigre and beyond: Avant-Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century. I don't know much about Merz and if I tried to explain it I would probably mess it up but you can read the Q & A with the author (on that same link from above). And Emigre is a very important publication in graphic design history, it was one of the first to embrace desktop publishing through the Macintosh, as well as being one of the first digital type foundries who made typefaces, again, through the Mac. The common denominator between Merz and Emigre — with many, many decades in between them — is that they both pushed the boundaries and, with it, culture, politics and art.

On Jan.17.2005 at 08:40 AM
Kevin Lo’s comment is:

I borrowed the book from the library a while back and it was a great resource for my thesis. Beautiful repreoductions and a pretty comprehensive historical overview, though i felt that there was not enough written on the actual avant-garde content of the publications. Then again. we are designers.....

That being said, did anyone notice the choice of body type used throughout. I forget what it was set in, but it was a pretty strange sans-serif. Seemed quite crudely drawn, which in a way made sense with the content, but it still seemed like a strange choice.

On Jan.18.2005 at 04:05 PM
Brian’s comment is:

Thank you Armin!

On Jan.19.2005 at 06:14 AM