Erik Nitsche Biography

Erik Nitsche, a highly celebrated name in the world of graphic design, was born in Lausanne, Switzerland on September 7, 1908. He was a humble man who lived an extraordinarily busy life, contributing to countless projects and companies all over the world. From the very beginning, he was destined to have a talent for the arts as he was born into a very artistic family. His grandfather, father, and uncle were all portrait photographers who together ran a family business. The family was also close friends with well-known artist, Paul Klee, who had a strong influence on Nitsche in his early years. Klee was ultimately the driving force that convinced Nitsche to pursue his dream as an artist rather than joining the family business. Erik Nitsche attended Kunstgewerbeschule, an art school in Munich, Germany where he learned under Professor F.H. Ehmcke, and   received a prestigious award for a poster competition during his time there. He went on to graduate in the 1930s and took his first job in Cologne, Germany working alongside Profesor Ehmcke designing The International Press Exhibit. This was just the beginning of his long, successful career. Steven Heller states in his article for Print Magazine, “Erik Nitsche, Design Auteur”, that Nitsche was an quiet, asocial man and because of this he is, “not as renown today as his contemporaries, Saul Bass, Lester Beall, Alexey Brodovitch or Paul Rand,” even though he was their equal. Heller also states that Erik Nitsche once said to him that he “preferred to do the work, not talk about it.”

After working his first job in Cologne, Germany for a year Erik Nitsche was recruited by the Draeger Freres Agency in Paris, France and then moved on to work for Maximilien Vox, a famous typographer and writer for arts magazine, Arts & Metiérs Graphiques. Although he has stated that “French advertising is unbelievably corny,” he says that France taught him to “give everything you design a feeling of elegance.” It seems that Nitsche was constantly being recruited by various magazines and companies and whenever they called he would move on to the next one. Erik Nitsche went on to work for countless companies on various projects throughout his lifetime, all of which are not individually notable, but are still a part of his successful career. Some of the projects he worked on include but are not limited to drawing political cartoons for German weeklies “Querschnitt” and “Simplissums”, designing a large number of album record covers for Decca Records, and even designing several campaigns for 20th Century Fox and Universal Pictures. He also worked for other companies like Orbach’s, Bloomingdale’s, RCA Records, Filene’s, The Museum of Modern Art, the Container Corporation and America, Revlon, Deberny and Peigot, Harper’s Bazaar Magazine, Fortune Magazine, Town and Country Magazine, Vanity Fair Magazine, House and Garden Magazine, Look Magazine, among many others. Steven Heller notes in “Erik Nitsche, The Reluctant Modernest”, that many of these companies were the same that his contemporaries worked for, such as Saul Bass, Paul Rand and others. Along the way Erik Nitsche also influenced and inspired a number of other designers such as Seymour Chwasr, founder of Push Pin Studios as well as Walter Bernard, principal of WBMG. Heller states that, “judging from the sheer volume of work bearing his signature or type credit, there are few others who can make this claim.”

In 1934, Erik Nitsche left Europe for the United States and lived in Hollywood designing sets for the musical “All Aboard”. However, a year later he moved to New York working in a personal studio because Hollywood was an, “unbearable place to live.” In 1940 during the time of World War II, he created graphics of tanks and was almost drafted into the army because he was so good at drawing aerial views that Germany wanted his services. However, despite all these accomplishments, according to Steven Heller in “Erik Nitsche, 90, Graphic Designer,” his most important contribution to the art world started when he moved to Connecticut in 1950. There he worked on the “development of information design systems in books and corporate annual reports produced for the General Dynamics Company” from 1955 to 1960. After being hired by The General Dynamics company during the time of the Cold War, Erik Nitsche worked on the designs that he is best known for today. He was hired to develop a visual image that would introduce the first nuclear powered submarine to the world. He also created posters with abstract and symbolic imagery that were translated into a number of languages. This project, which was eventually titled “Atoms For Peace”, was directed to the public to shed a more positive light on the use of weapons during the war. He was also visual for “Dynamic America”, a book which outlined the history of General Dynamics Company. 

In the early 1970s, Erik Nitsche founded Erik Nitsche International, his own publishing company for which he would produce most tedious work. Steven Heller states in “Erik Nitsche, Design Auteur” that Nitsche, “helped to pioneer the concept of design authorship”, that “design was but a frame which which he presented unique themes.” Using his knowledge of book production he gained from working at the General Dynamics Company, he developed a twelve volume history of science and technology and a five volume history of the 20th century, throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. Nitsche’s goal was to provide a “reader friendly” set of history books that were visually engaging and easy to understand. He handpicked and placed every graphic for each book and paid very close attention to the details of the page composition. However, his former partner broke away from the business and began producing his own series of books that became just as popular as Nitsche. Nitsche says that he “stole his idea.” He then retired from his company when he was 70 years old. He moved around a little more eventually ending up back in Munich, Germany for a while but returned to Ridgefield, Connecticut for his final days. He never retired or stopped working. During his last years he spent his time illustrating children’s books. In November 14, 1998, he passed away at the age of 90, but his legacy will live on through his two sons, John and Marc, and his 5 grandchildren. 

 

Works Cited:

Heller, Steven. “Erik Nitsche, 90, Modernist Graphic Designer.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 29 Nov. 1998.

Heller, Steven. “Erik Nitsche, Design Auteur.” Print Magazine, 22 Nov. 2011, www.printmag.com/design-inspiration/erik-nitsche-design-auteur/.

Heller, Steven. “Erik Nitsche: The Reluctant Modernist.” Typotheque, 29 Nov. 2004, www.typotheque.com/articles/erik_nitsche_the_reluctant_modernist.