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book (design) story #11

otto mänchen-helfen:
reise ins asiatische tuwa

verlag der bücherkreis gmbh, berlin, 1931
printer: vorwärts buchdruckerei, berlin
size: 24 x 17 cm
designer: jan tschichold

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it should be no surprise that a left-wing book club like "der bücherkreis" also published books about the soviet union. even so, this one is quite exceptional: in 1929 german historian otto mänchen-helfen (1894-1969) was the first non-russian allowed to visit the republic of tuva. for a long time, this archaic country at the border to mongolia had been virtually unknown to outsiders. today this great book is still a must-read for anyone interested in the tuvinian culture. an english translation was published in 1992.

the book's design is a standout, too. it came out in the year jan tschichold (1902-1974) designed all of the new bücherkreis editions. i love the laminated pictorial cover: a map drawing that visualizes tuva's position in relation to germany is projected across the photo of a tuvinian stone figure. nice detail: the edge of the photo cuts right through the middle of tuva, like a meridian.

this style of picture montage – a photo overprinted with a second picture in another colour – was popularized by the "new typography" movement. from the 1930s this technique was extensively used by swiss graphic designers such as max bill and richard paul lohse, as we will see.

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i also like the cover's "asian" colour scheme: the earthy red of the front panel is set off by a sunny yellow cloth spine. the slab-serif typeface is a favourite of tschichold's in those years – city, designed by georg trump in 1930.

otto mänchen-helfen's excellent report is illustrated by 26 impressive photographs, beautifully printed in gravure.

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austrian-born historian mänchen-helfen was the (co-)author of two more bücherkreis books. in 1927 he had accepted a job at the marx-engels institute in moscow (which opened the door for his journey to tuva). he later lectured in berlin, but moved to vienna in 1933. in 1938 he emigrated to the states where he later became a professor in the history of oriental art at berkeley.

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