Ernst Reichl (1900-1980) was a German-American book designer, active and prominent in New York/American publishing from the 1930s into the 1970s. He came to the US in 1926 with a PhD and experience in book publishing and design in Germany. He was a ‘whole book’ designer, believing in the harmonious totality of the package and the value of one design vision for all its parts. He rose to become one of our top trade book designers, prolific and award-winning, actively promoting the profession and high standards in book publishing, by example and through writing, teaching, and exhibitions.

serious reader (he read broadly and seldom designed without reading the manuscript), Reichl was also a scholar, and a fine writer. The latter activity was an unexpected discovery in his papers, and the catalyst for this exhibition.

Midway in his career, Reichl began to reflect on many of the books he designed in written comments; he spent more time during the period 1977-1978, shortly before his death in 1980. In the end, there were approximately 550 3 x 5 inch index cards on which he hand-wrote his thoughts about selected books he designed. In lively prose Reichl comments on myriad elements of book design and details of book production, several for each book. He covers typography, binding design and jackets, illustration, publishers, the publishing industry in New York, design colleagues (revered and annoying), production triumphs and problems, how well the book sold, his opinion of the book, and his philosophy of book design as applied to that title. He critiques his own work, sometimes in the moment, sometimes from the perspective of more time and experience. These comments, often sharp and humorous, are highly entertaining and informative. I know of no other book designer who has done this so extensively. In this exhibition, Reichl’s comments have been transcribed from the cards, and accompany the appropriate book in a rich selection of examples from his archives. The notes have been edited only to remove redundancies, correct obvious missing punctuation, and for pertinence to exhibition materials.

Reichl was a designer for some leading publishers (Knopf, Doubleday & Doran, Random House, Holt Rinehart & Winston), some significant authors (Gertrude Stein, Kurt Vonnegut, William Saroyan, Joyce Carol Oates) and individual books (James Joyce’s Ulysses, 1934, for which he is best known; Austin Tappan Wright’s Islandia, 1942; Bud Schulberg’s The Disenchanted, 1950; Marshall McLuhan’s The Mechanical Bride, 1967; The Layman’s Parallel Bible, 1973). His books were regularly included in the American Institute of Graphic Art’s annual 50 Books award program. His most public contribution to the ‘conversation’ about modern book design was his collaboration with five other book designers to curate the 1951 exhibit Books For Our Time in New York.

While Reichl’s personal biography as an immigrant is of some interest, it is background to his professional dedication to practicing and promoting the highest quality of book design in the trade publishing industry from the 1930s into the 1970s. For Reichl, high quality meant book design that responded directly to the content of the book, that used the best type and typesetting available, the best paper available, and binding materials that were both traditional and newly developed. He wanted (and very often received) complete control of the whole book from typesetting to binding and jacket design. He pushed traditional manufacturing methods into new areas, and he experimented with binding materials and processes. He welcomed production challenges (complexity, time, money, materials, processes) and seemed to thrive when he could achieve some new result, especially if it broke with tradition.

Martha Scotford, curator
Professor Emeritus of Graphic Design, North Carolina State University
Contact Martha for comments or questions.
assisted by Kezra Cornell, Master of Graphic Design 2014, NCSU

This research and exhibition has been supported by a Columbia Libraries Research Grant, and the Reese Fellowship for American Bibliography and the History of the Book in the Americas from The Bibliographical Society of America.

Note on exhibition title source: Reichl’s comment on the card for Joyce Carol Oates’ The Wheel of Love (Vanguard, 1970): “J.C.O. enjoys using typographic devices of all sorts to express herself… and many other oddities, which require a wide-awake typographer.”

View Ernst Reichl’s Chronology >