A Reclusive Logo Designer Gets His Due

A monograph gives Wilhelm Deffke, a little-known 20th-century German artist with a distinctive minimalist style, the showcase he deserves.

Scheidegger and Spiess

By the early 1930s, German designer Wilhelm Deffke was one of the most prolific logo designers in the business, having produced nearly 10,000 corporate symbols. Yet Deffke was never a household name: Like all designers who stand for a company or a brand, he didn't typically sign his work.

A hefty new monograph, Wilhelm Deffke: Pioneer of the Modern Logo (published by and Scheidegger & Spiess and the Berlin-based Bröhan Design Foundation) is bringing Deffke some long-deserved name recognition. The 388-page tome, published in November, contains 500 reproduced versions of Wilhelm’s work on posters and commercial art, and 14 essays expanding upon his significance. The collection champions Wilhlem as the “father of the modern logo.”

In addition to being a founder, though, Deffke was a collaborator. He co-founded the Berlin advertising agency “Wilhelm Werk” in 1915 with his partner Carl Ernst Hinkefuss after a stint with the pioneer German industrial designer Peter Behrens. There, for more than 30 years, Deffke practiced the precisionist art of graphic reductionism, influencing subsequent generations to transform literal objects and characters into stark, symbolic, sometimes comical logos.

Wilhelm Deffke, Owl signet, 1917, in Wilhelmwerk, ed. Handelsmarken und Fabrikzeichen:
Eine Werbeschrift. Charlottenburg 1917, identical to “Hausmarke des Philosophen A. Vetter,” Deutscher Buch- und Steindrucker 30, no. 6 (1924): 410

Wilhelm Deffke, Signet for Fernseh AG, Berlin, 1937, registered on August 5, 1937,
entered in the Warenzeichenblatt on December 1, 1937 under no. 497993, the estate of Wilhelm Deffke, film with signets, 1945

Some of Deffke's designs are still in use today, including the wittily conjoined twin geometrical figures for the cutlery giant J.A. Henckels. Another, less popular design is Deffke’s deft refinement of the ancient swastika, which one of his former assistants claimed was later usurped by the Nazis when they repurposed the symbol in 1920.

Torsten Bröhan, a gallerist, entrepreneur, and founder of the Bröhan Design Foundation, bought Deffke’s estate in 2010. “I was from the first minute convinced that I had the duty to bring this avantgardistic graphic design to a broader public,” he told me. At no small cost, Bröhan sought out 11 art historians and two design experts, some of them teaching at German universities, to collaborate in writing Deffke’s historiography for the book and building a virtual design archive.

Bröhan says Deffke was an einzelgänger—a solitary, private person—so little is known about his personal life. Here’s what is: Deffke attended the Kunstgewerbeschule school of applied arts in Elberfeld (today a part of Wuppertal), moved to Berlin, and worked in Peter Behrens’ workshop, where he met the founding director of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, and the architects Adolf Meyer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. He particularly became close to Gropius, who, as chairman of the department of architecture at Harvard University, would swear Deffke never cooperated with the Nazis in a letter to German officials after World War II.

Wilhelm Deffke, Poster, “Der Zucker—Ausstellung der Zucker herstellenden und verarbeitenden Industrien Deutschlands”, (Sugar—Exhibition for Sugar Producers and Processing Industries in Germany) Magdeburg 1925, Dr. Selle & Co. A.G., Berlin, 90.5 x 61.2 cm, the estate of Wilhelm Deffke

Wilhelm Deffke, Poster “Ei-R” 1922/23, in Seidels Reklame 8, no. 1 (1923)

Contemporary typographers started copying the “Deffke-Style” that characterized his work after an entire issue of Seidel’s Reklame—a monthly review on commercial typography—was devoted to Deffke’s work in 1923. “This issue brought him a recognition nationwide,” Bröhan explains, but also criticism by conservative journalists and colleagues for his cutting-edge, minimalist approach. His most famous logos, including one for Vox-Schallplatten- und Sprechmaschinen-AG, a record company, and Reemtsma, a tobacco and cigarette company, exhibit his flair for spare design.

Wilhelm Deffke, Draft design for a Reemtsma delivery car, 1920, silhouette, paper, motif: 12.3 x 25 cm, sheet: 16.7 x 27.1 cm, the estate of Wilhelm Deffke, portfolio III, plate no. 220

As far as Bröhan knows, the Nazis never used any advertising displays, posters, or logos designed by Deffke, though he produced some environmental and showroom advertising displays that prefigured some Nazi extravaganzas. Hitler's rise to power, indeed, was a tough time for Deffke: In 1933 he lost his position as director and professor at the Kunstgewerbeschule Magdeburg and gave up his agency in Berlin. A big commission from the British American Tobacco company gave him the financial resources to open a new agency outside the city, and “from time to time the Nazis tried to force him to cooperate with them,” Bröhan notes, citing documents from his estate. “But Deffke was able to resist.”

Deffke’s most stunning designs in the book are perhaps previously unseen; the ones he worked on until his death in 1950 at age 63. Pristinely preserved and reproduced therein, the volume comprises a valuable document championing an old face in the history of branding with new emphasis.

Wilhelm Deffke, Prospectus Hapag Amerika Reisen, inner page, Niagara Falls, 1914, 33 x 47.6 cm, Hapag Amerika Reisen, Hamburg 1914

Wilhelm Deffke, Poster, design competition entry for the Deutsche Werkbundausstellung Köln 1914, submitted under the keyword “Hinkefuss” (lit. “gammy leg”), first prize (German Work Federation Exhibition), 1913, letterpress on paper, motif: 15.7 x 22.3 cm, sheet: 16.1 x 22.8 cm, the estate of Wilhelm Deffke, portfolio II, plate no. 122

Wilhelm Deffke, Proof of a variation of a poster for Höhere Fachschule für Dekorationskunst, 1911/12, letterpress print on paper, 17 x 22.6 cm, the estate of Wilhelm Deffke, portfolio II, plate no. 125