Discovering Beauty in the Stacks: Book Design by Ernst Reichl

Ernst Reichl, Designer (1900-1980) (photo via Design Observer)
Ernst Reichl, Designer, 1900-1980 (photo via Design Observer)

Book design is something thought about by admittedly few readers. When we pick up a book, don’t we just want to read the words on its pages without distraction or difficulty, without thinking about aesthetics or visual harmony? In other words, read without being consciously aware of the process of reading? Well, yes! This is almost always the case. This is also what book designers are typically trying to accomplish when they select or create a typeface and make decisions about size, line spacing and page layout. Any book in a reader’s hands is the result of many aesthetic decisions which are, paradoxically, meant to go unnoticed. In fact, there is a maxim that says you shouldn’t notice good design. So there is good reason after all that we, as readers, don’t often think about book design.    

Academic libraries, like ours here at Touro, usually focus on providing the resources that are most relevant and up-to-date for their students’ and faculty’s research needs. Stylish or flashy books are not what our library users are typically looking for. Even so, browsers of Touro Libraries’ shelves are bound to come across some beautiful books. For example, our holdings include a number of books designed by Ernst Reichl, one of the finest book designers of the 20th century. Reichl designed books in New York, during the 1930s through the 1970s, for publishers like Random House, Knopf, Doubleday & Doran, and Holt Rinehart & Winston. Typical of Reichl’s designs are an attention to every detail of the book (he is often referred to as a whole-book designer) and the innovative use of materials.

If you are looking for James Joyce’s Ulysses at the Touro Midwood Library, you will find a copy of Reichl’s iconic design of the first American edition of this famous novel. This design is famous for its use of monumental type on the cover, title page and at the beginning of each section of the book.

The library at Touro’s Lander College for Women has the Reichl-designed first edition of Elie Wiesel’s The Jews of Silence. This is a nice example of Reichl’s skill in creating a design that is informed by the content of the text itself. It is said that Reichl rarely designed a book without reading the entire manuscript first. Here he came up with a design full heaviness, drama, and grace. Note the innovative use of black on black.

Another of Reichl’s great designs is his edition of Portraits and Prayers by Gertrude Stein, from 1934, the same year of his Ulysses design. The unique use of binding materials and the full-bleed photographic cover with no text result in a design that is very modern and ahead of its time. It is also a perfect example of Reichl’s dedication to holistic design; considering every aspect of a book, inside and out.

Gertrude Stein. Portraits and Prayers, 1934. (photo via Columbia University)
Gertrude Stein. Portraits and Prayers, 1934. (photo via Columbia University)

The Ernst Reichl archives are held by Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library who created a very informative website about Reichl and his work. There you will find information on Reichl himself, his works, and his creative process. Columbia also organized an exhibition on Reichl in 2013 which is very well documented on their site.

See you in the stacks!

For further reading:

About Ernst Reichl

On the American publication of Ulysses

Contributed by: Kirk Snyder, Librarian, Midwood

2 thoughts on “Discovering Beauty in the Stacks: Book Design by Ernst Reichl

  1. Michoel Rotenfeld July 13, 2016 / 11:02 am

    What a fascinating blog post. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us.

  2. Susan Halloran July 13, 2016 / 3:49 pm

    Interesting article; well written with enjoyable photos.

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