Erik Nitsche

ICONOFGRAPHICS

Switzerland, 1908 - 1998

"Who is this guy doing the Bauhaus in New York?"
- László Moholy-Nagy

Erik Nitsche,
Portrait from the
Art Directors Club

Erik Nitsche was born in Lausanne, Switzerland in an art-minded family. Both his father and grandfather were noted photographers and artists like Paul Klee were close friends of the family. Klee influenced Nitsche in his choice to be an artist rather than a photographer. Despite this close relationship, Nitsche didn't attend the Bauhaus school where Klee was a teacher. Instead he studied at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Munich.

You can find more information on Paul Klee here.

After graduating in the early 1930's he worked in Cologne, Germany, but soon was hired by Maximilien vox to work in Paris. He mainly did illustrations for various magazines and newspapers.
At that time the art-deco-style dominated the french design scene. But Nitsche, with his swiss, orderly background, was also largely attracted to the Bauhaus and its rationalism which was the Art-deco's opponent. That merging of French and Swiss sensibilities defined his early efforts.

With the approaching European conflict many contemporaries fled Europe. Nitsche among others left for the United States. He started in Hollywood, creating a set design for a musical, but soon packed his bags and headed for New York.
During his first decade in New York he worked as a freelance graphic artist for many of the major american fashion and decoration magazines that were founded in this city, including Life, Look, Harper’s Bazaar and Vanity Fair.
‘I was a Swiss in the graphic arts,’ he explains. ‘I had no problem. I walked into places like Harper’s Bazaar [where Alexey Brodovitch worked as Art Director] and Town & Country and got work immediately.’








excerpt from 'The Reluctant Modernist' by Steve Heller.

Air News, Air Sickness
This spread is likely designed by Erik Nitsche.

Air News, Last Round
This spread is likely designed by Erik Nitsche.

Air News, Air Sickness
This spread is likely designed by Erik Nitsche. It helped American readers understand the Nazi military ranking systems through the description and visualization of their uniforms.

In 1940 he was asked to become art director of Air Tech and Air News magazines, specialised technical magazines filled with charts and graphs about aerodynamics and hydraulic systems. He had total control of the illustrations and format. It matched his swiss background and love for logics and precision. Laszlo Moholy Nagy was confronted with Nitsche's work through these magazines, wondering whom it was that was working Bauhaus-style in the USA.

He was very productive in the 1940’s, working for a large number of clients as art-director. In 1947, he succeeded Herbert Bayer as art director at Dorland International in New York, and in 1948 he became art director of Mademoiselle magazine for a few issues (Bradbury Thompson later took over the job). Nitsche was restless, called himself a 'nomad' and never managed to remain at a job for a long time. He had the feeling he wasn't an office-person and in the early 1950’s he left New York and moved to Ridgefield, Connecticut. For this new start he had to attract new clients. He got involved in The Gotham Agency which, among others, had the General Dynamics account.

General Dynamics
Advertisement in Gebrauchsgraphik, original was most likely in colour.
1955

General Dynamics
Advertisement in Gebrauchsgraphik
1955

General dynamics, in the run for the 'International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy' in Geneva, wanted to be positioned as a purveyor of peace instead of a developper of weapons and destructive materials.
For communicating this message they knew they needed a skilled graphic designer. Nitsche was assigned as art director in 1955 and given complete freedom to build the company's identity from zero.

General Dynamics
Postcard
1955

General Dynamics
Postcard
1955

General Dynamics
Postcard representing ‘hydrodynamics,’ a painting of a nautilus shell with the Nautilus submarine.
1955

General Dynamics
Postcard
1955

Working on the first atomic submarine, General Dynamics couldn't possibly display anything that could endanger their top secret project. Nitsche was only given a vague description of the ultimate design of the submarine.
Prevented from revealing any specific information, he was forced to use symbolic expressions to present peaceful uses for atom energy. He created a series of six lithographic posters which became the centre-piece of the exhibition. Nitsche derived most of his imagery from the scientific canon. He turned to geometric forms and colour planes. He managed to give the submarine a poetic touch by painting a nautilus shell with the submarine shooting out. It was no longer seen as a killing machine, but rather as a progressive tool in peacekeeping.

Dynamic America
Book with fold-outs
1960

The company was pleased with the result and immediately ordered more posters. This was the start for all future General Dynamics products. Between 1955 and 1960 Nitsche built a total corporate identity including countless advertisements, posters, brochures, annual reports and the crowning piece 'Dynamic America', a 420-page book telling the company's history.

History of Physics (dustjacket)
First Edition, 1963, Hawthorn Books, Volume 8 in The New Illustrated Library of Science and Invention.
1963

History Of Weaponry (dustjacket)
First Edition, 1963, Hawthorn Books, Volume 4 in The New Illustrated Library of Science and Invention.
1963

History of Land Transportation (dustjacket)
First Edition, 1963, Hawthorn Books, Volume 7 in The New Illustrated Library of Science and Invention.
1963

History of Ships and Seafaring (dustjacket)
First Edition, 1963, Hawthorn Books, Volume 2 in The New Illustrated Library of Science and Invention.
1963

Nitsche moved back to Geneva in 1960 where he founded ENI (Erik Nitsche international). He produced pictoral history books; ambitious volumes such as the histories of transportation, aviation, photography, astronomy and chemistry. His largest project was a twenty volume set visualizing the history of music, from classical to jazz, composition to instrumentation. He managed to select and organize great masses of material.

"Pineapple Poll" Ballet Suite
record sleeve
Decca DL 7521

Dvorak Serenade
record sleeve
Decca DL 7533

Music from Goethe's Egmont
record sleeve
Decca DL 7540

Mozart Serenade No. 7
record sleeve
Decca DL 9636

An Andres Segovia Program
record sleeve
Decca DL 9647

Suite/Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano
record sleeve
Decca DL 9740

Symphony No. 8/ Royal Fireworks Music
record sleeve
Decca DL 9696

Oboe Quartet/ Sonata/Partita
record sleeve
Decca DL 9618

At the end of his career he moved from Paris to Ridgefield to Munich (Germany) and kept designing, including a series of stamps and record sleeves. In 1995 he was diagnosed with a possibly fatal illness which sapped his strength. He died november 10, 1998.

Nitsche may not be as well known as many of his contemporaries. He never sought the spotlight or participated in design organisations. He "preferred to do the work, not talk about it", his work had to speak for itself. *
He played a role in Modernism, but was not a leading player. Nitsche solved each of his design problems individually. He always followed his own intuition and thus rejected the Swiss international Style, feeling it was a little too cold. His minimal and abstract drawing did match the Swiss style, but in his use of elegant typography (classic serif combined with helvetica) he went beyond this dogma. This might have caused his absense in the Hall of Fame.



*'The Reluctant Modernist' by Steve Heller.

General Dynamics
Annual Report
1955

General Dynamics
Annual Report
1959

Gebrauchsgraphik
cover design
april 1956

Gebrauchsgraphik
cover design
June 1961

READING

Steven Heller, The Reluctant Modernist

R. Roger Remington, American Modernism: Graphic Design, 1920-1960, Yale University Press (2003).
find this book on amazon.com

Steven Heller, Design Literacy: Understanding Graphic Design, Allworth Press (2004).
find this book on amazon.com

IMAGES

Erik Nitsche on flickr (by BustBright)
Erik Nitsche on Bibliodyssey
General Dynamics' Dynamic America by Grainedit
Nitschearchive.org with focus on record sleeve design.
Early work of Erik Nitsche.

BUY

Erik Nitsche at artworkoriginals.com
Find "The History of Weaponry" and others on Amazon.com