Carsten Wolff

Willy Fleckhaus and the coolly calculated intoxication of colors

School of Art

Willy Fleckhaus (1925–1983) features alongside Otl Aicher and Anton Stankowski as one of the defining figures in German graphic design in the second half of the 20th century. After his death, his work was rapidly dispersed. Since the early 1990s, intensive research work and targeted collecting has led to the formation of a unique archive of Fleckhaus’s body of work in Frankfurt/Main, accompanied by regular publications and exhibitions. In this way, his status in the history of design has been asserted and his work also made known to a wider audience. The research project addresses various questions, including the following:

DESIGN HISTORY. It is undisputed that Fleckhaus is one of the most important and influential figures in German design history. But what distinguishes him from other important protagonists of German and Swiss graphic design, such as Otl Aicher, Anton Stankowski, Josef Müller-Brockmann, Emil Ruder, etc.? What is the role and significance of Fleckhaus in German-language graphic design during the period from 1950 to 1985? Where are there parallels and where contrasts with other great designers of the German-language graphic design scene? Where does Fleckhaus follow similar paths to his colleagues and where is he unique? How did Fleckhaus organize his work? What was the structure of his office and what were those of his colleagues? What did he adopt from Swiss design and what from the Americans? Outstanding design personalities have hitherto been regarded primarily in isolation in design-historical accounts. What additional insights are offered by direct comparison of the works and the comparison of the design principles of their creators?

SERIALITY. Art director Willy Fleckhaus was one of the first designers to realize strictly serial graphic concepts. Milestones were the Bibliothek Suhrkamp series (from 1959), the edition suhrkamp series (from 1963), twen (1959–71), and later on Frankfurter Allgemeine Magazin (from 1980), which were characterized by formal, partly minimalist elements and yet always radiated a great sensuality. Part of the research will address where there were parallels with the art of the post-War period that could have influenced Fleckhaus’s design, and where designers in the German-speaking world dealt with similar concepts.

THE GRID. Fleckhaus became familiar with the design grid at the latest during his visit to Max Bill at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm in the mid-1950s. He often used the layout grid as an efficient tool to simplify day-to-day layout work, but occasionally also pushed it to its limits and indeed surpassed them to enhance the effect of double-page spreads, font design, or a series of images. Does the design of the media for which he did the layout enable us to identify the point in time from which he began working with the grid? Which screens are identifiable in which media and how are they applied? What development in grid application can be discerned in his work between the 1950s and 1980s? How do other outstanding design figures of his time use the grid?

DESIGNING MODERNISM – THINKING MODERNISM. During the polarizing late 1960s and early 1970s, the edition suhrkamp series became “the proverbial bi-program of student unrest”[1]; it was considered a “sounding board for the Frankfurt school”[2]. Writer Klaus Horn commented on the phone call he received, asking him for a manuscript for edition suhrkamp, as follows: “My heartbeat was pounding right into the earpiece of the telephone. I was to write something for the edition, to have already written it! That’s where the books were published that were written and read by the New Left that was coming into its own. [… ]In terms of content, but also in its form, this series signaled hope, a breakthrough.”[3] Modern thinking and modern aesthetics evidently entered into an almost ideal alliance in the edition. Does this paperback series, and perhaps also other series published by Suhrkamp, enable us to identify an influence of form on the attitude of the authors publishing in it and an effect on the texts published there?

TECHNIQUE. Fleckhaus’s characteristic style would have been unthinkable without phototypesetting. His closely-set typefaces, the sometimes complete lack of spacing between lines, and the merging of letters to form word pictures were possible only thanks to this new technological innovation. The rainbow colors of the edition suhrkamp series were based entirely on the printing color fan recently released by the firm Hostmann. What technical processes did he apply in his design and realization and what new creative possibilities did the new techniques open up for him?

ARCHIVE. Collecting, preserving, evaluating. These, roughly speaking, are the tasks of an archive in the traditional sense. Yet with the all-encompassing wave of digitization at the latest, the self-perception of an archive has also begun to change. What are the advantages of presenting the works by Willy Fleckhaus in a web archive over classic archives or presentation in print publications or exhibitions? How can the resonance of his work, which often still applies today, be linked up with the current discourse on design? How can the sensation that accompanied many of Fleckhaus’s works when they first appeared be brought back to life for laypersons and experts alike? How can the traditional notion of an archive be expanded to make the quality and exceptionality of these works (inter)actively perceptible to users? Which criteria apply to the evaluation of Fleckhaus’s work? Where is the archive’s claim rooted in spatial and temporal terms? Is it only of value retrospectively or can it play an active role in the present and for the future of design, too?

The research project develops the concept of a comprehensive archive on Germany’s first Art Director, presents the history of of Fleckhaus design in the realization of style-defining works, and assembles and demonstrates the necessary technical, aesthetic, social, and intellectual basis for this fundamental rejuvenation of advertising art after the Second World War.


  • Prof. Dr. Marc Ries
  • Prof. Heiner Blum

[1] Arnd Rühle: “Literatur unterm Regenbogen,” in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, August 14, 1993.
[2] Ibid.
​[3] See Hans-Martin Lohmann: “Machen Sie weiter, noch lange!,” in: Der Autor, der nicht schreibt, (Frankfurt, 1989), p. 162.

Caption: See website