Design Observer on Wilhelm Deffke

Design Observer, a consistently strong design blog/journal/website, has a great piece on Wilhelm Deffke by Stephen Heller. To claim my awareness of Deffke was anything more than vague would be stretch, but most people do have an awareness of his work. After all, we are all living in a world influenced by the work of Deffke and his contemporaries in Germany.

Deffke’s most enduring work, for me, is the Zwilling J. A. Henckels AG mark on the left. If you imagine it etched into the blade of a knife, you may remember it, as that’s Zwilling’s best-known product.

Unfortunately, his work at simplifying and modernizing many older symbols, such as the Hakenkreuz, has tangled his name up with the Nazis. They took his geometric simplification of the Hakenkreuz, done decades before their existence, flipped it, and now most of the world recognizes it as the National Socialist’s swastika. Just to be clear, Deffke was not an ideological Nazi and did not design it for their use. (I suggest you read the article for the details and judge for yourself.) In fact, they took it without asking, which is kind of their thing, historically speaking.

Regardless, the article is a fascinating look at the ideological origins of the modern logo. It’s a good reminder of the power of ancient icons and marks, a legacy which our modern marks attempt to tap into. To look at dreck like the new Xerox bubble is to see how thin the soup can get, the further you stretch the stock. To look back to the beginnings is to catch the scent of a fuller meal in the kitchen of a true chef. Examining Deffke’s work on these symbols reminds us that some forms have roots deep into our primal consciousness, and that there are lessons we can learn away from the computer, with our eyes on our origins.