This semester, fall 2020, I took on the challenge of created graphic props for film. Since I didn’t have a real film to work on, I chose the novel All the Light We Cannot See (ATLWCS). The novel takes place in France and Germany before and during World War II. In order to replicated images and objects from this time period, I gathered visual research and information from around the internet, and a few books, in order to ensure I would be making the most accurate props I could. Here is my collection of research on design in Europe (with a focus on France and Germany) during the 1930s and 40s.
The 1930s were rough years for many countries around the globe. Not only was America facing the Great Depression, but many countries in Europe were facing an economic crisis as well. Germany, in particular, was felt a heavy economic blow. After the First World War, the countries that defeated Europe demanded reparations to be paid to them. This caused the country to become incredibly poor, thus creating a breeding ground for anger and resistance against other European countries. Hitler and his party were elected to leadership and, from there, we see the rise of the Nazi regime which would initiate the second World War beginning with an attack on Poland.
Graphic design and printing were still necessary jobs all around the world. Posters were still a primary method of disseminating information but were in competition with the radio. Lithography was the most popular printing method. The positive portions of an image or text were drawn with a greasy medium directly onto a sheet of metal (often zinc). The metal would then be placed on the cylinder and covered with water. The grease would repel the water leaving the positive image vulnerable to ink. The ink, not able to attach itself to water, would only apply itself to the greasy medium. Now that the image is coated in ink, it can be rolled over a sheet of paper to produce a copy of the image. The average person could own a hand-cranked copying machine called a mimeograph that involved creating wax-paper stencil that could be wrapped around the ink-filled drum of the rotary machine. When a blank sheet of paper is drawn between the rotating drum and a pressure roller, ink is forced through the holes on the stencil onto the paper (we see Madam Manec use this method of copying to make flyers in ATLWCS).
Type foundries were continually producing new typefaces that varied from traditional-looking serif faces to more modern San-serifs to experimental and decorative faces. Walking down the street in France, you would see any mix of these faces; however, in my research, I found that many storefronts still displayed Art Nouveau era (1880s–1910s) fonts. I suspect that, much like today, store and restaurant owners are not inclined to change their signage unless there is something wrong with it.
Germany, however, was strongly tied to tradition and you don’t see quite as many experimental fonts being used at the time. Germany had a history of heavily utilizing black letter typefaces to a point where using black letter fronts was nationalistic. By the 1930s, some type foundries had modernized the historically ornamental type style to make it appear more streamlined and geometric. Deutschland and Tannenburg (both released ca. 1933–35) were particularly popular examples of this. When Futura was released in 1927, it became widely popular around the world and was used frequently in France and Germany.
In regards to products, Companies had already begun to ship internationally, so many houses were filled with products from several different countries. This meant you could open a pantry and see a hodge-pudge of design styles. Not unlike today, if a company wanted their product to look like a classic (oats, salt, and wheat products for example) they would often have old-fashioned design elements like serif typefaces and naturalistic illustrations of the products or icons from where the product came from on them. If a company wanted their product to look contemporary, the package would utilize San-serif typefaces and often have very minimal design elements.
Up until the late 1960s, there was little information on food labels to identify nutrition content. Some packages would include a list of ingredients and some wouldn’t list anything at all. This didn’t stop companies from listing claims that their food product could increase the health of the consumer.
Sending messages by telegram was on the decline at the end of the 1930s with the faster and more convenient telephone ready to use. Nevertheless, they were still being sent all the way into the 1960s. The telegram played a vital role in some areas of Europe during World War 2 when phone lines were unusable due to bombings or invasion. Telegrams varied in size by each telegram service provider. The American Western Union telegram was 8 in. wide and 6.5 in. high. One British telegram I found 7 in wide and 4.5 in. high.
Books I used that were absolutely excellent resources:
- Fake Love Letters, Forged Telegrams, and Prison Escape Maps: Designing Graphic Props for Filmmaking written by Annie Atkins.
- Graphic Design: A New History written by Stehpen J. Eskilson
- 1930s Scrapbook currated by Robert Opie. Robert Opie is the owner of the Museum of Brands in England. The museum sells several of these scrapbooks that travel from the Victorian era through the 1970s. I highly recommend them for visual research!