George Salter (1897-1967): A Brief Biography
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Family Background

George Salter was born in Bremen in North Germany on October 5, 1897. His father, Norbert, studied at the Vienna Conservatory and later played the cello in the Hamburg symphony orchestra under the young Gustav Mahler. His mother, Salter Passport PhotoStefanie, also came from a musically talented Hungarian family. Norbert Salter eventually became the business manager of the Hamburg orchestra and expanded his interests to become a successful international theatrical agent.

The Salters had four children: Lili (who for a time studied photography with Lotte Jacobi in Berlin); Georg (born in 1897, the oldest son); Julius; and Stefan (born in 1907). In 1897 Salter's parents converted to Christianity, following the path of assimilation typically taken by secular Jews in Germany. George received his certificate of confirmation at the Kaiser-Wilhelm Gedächtnis-Kirche in Berlin on March 13, 1913. The family enjoyed a comfortable life of affluence in the era before the First World War. The Salter apartment in the pleasant Grunewald suburb of Berlin often welcomed Norbert Salter's famous friends and clients from the cosmopolitan music and theater world. In this ambiance George grew up playing the cello and experimenting with technical problems of set design, costumes, and lighting.

Designing for Berlin Publishers

Salter’s diploma from secondary school, the Werner Siemens Realgymnasium zu Schöneberg (Berlin) in 1911, records his grades. Among these is, ironically, a “satisfactory” in penmanship – possibly because of his left-handedness at a time when schools enforced right-handedness. Salter eventually taught himself to write and draw with his right hand, which he later urged his own students to do. In 1916 at age nineteen, Salter finished secondary school (Gymnasium) and immediately joined the German army. One of his duties was mapmaking, which further advanced his nascent skill as a draftsman. He and his brother Julius survived the war unharmed and returned to civilian life to devote themselves to different aspects of the book trade. While Julius helped to found the family publishing firm of Verlag Die Schmiede, George, upon his return to civilian life, began to study art. He enrolled in the Kunstgewerbe- und Handwerkerschule [School of Applied Arts and Crafts] in Berlin-Charlottenburg, where from 1919-1921 he concentrated on scene painting. From 1921-1922 he worked at the studio for stage design at the Prussian State Opera.

Beginning in 1922 Salter devoted himself professionally to theatrical design while free-lancing as a book designer. There is no denying that dramatic qualities of light, as well as stylized angles of vision and perspective, are apparent in his work throughout his career. Salter also worked for the Berliner Volksoper where he designed several productions. When the Volksoper was disbanded in 1925, Salter took a job in the provinces, where he became engulfed by the work load at Die Vereinigten Stadttheater Barmen-Eberfeld [United Municipal Theaters of Barmen-Eberfeld]. For this theater Salter designed productions for over 100 plays, operas, and operettas. In 1927 the taxing workload finally became unbearable, and Salter returned to Berlin to concentrate on book design where his reputation rose steadily as his virtuosity increased. As his early jobs show, his mastery of the craft developed rapidly and assuredly during his first years in the business, the time when he was still working in the theater.

Photo: Salter at Easel
During this important period between 1922 and 1934 Salter produced over 350 different designs for 33 different German publishers. While many are binding designs, over two thirds of these were book jackets. Between 1927 and 1933 he designed several jackets that became his trademark and greatest legacy. He had the good fortune to see his designs paired with bestsellers by major writers, which brought him name recognition in the circles of both literature and commercial design.

Salter came to the attention of the talented calligrapher and typographer, Georg Trump, who hired him to direct the Commercial Art Department at the Höhere Graphische Fachschule [Institute of Graphic Arts] in Berlin in 1931. Trump and Salter came to share a profound respect as colleagues and friends, but Trump was nonetheless forced to dismiss Salter from the state-run institution early in 1933 in accordance with the racial laws of the new regime. After losing his teaching position, Salter left the capital that had celebrated and rewarded his talents. He first moved to Baden-Baden in May, 1933, where he awaited his American visa, which finally came through the consulate in Stuttgart on October 1, 1934. His brother Stefan (who had gone to the United States in 1928) submitted an affidavit, which helped Georg join the first wave of refugee artists and intellectuals to leave Germany.

Emigration: New Beginnings in New York

The émigré who arrived in New York on Friday, November 16, 1934, was already earning money by the following Monday. Good fortune of this order usually depends upon guardian angels working behind the scenes. In Salter’s case, friends and patrons all played significant roles in easing his transition. Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt for example, (who had come to the United States in 1929) was Curator of the Department of Rare Books at Columbia University from 1930 to 1937 and an historian of the American publishing trade devoted to the art of the book. He mounted an exhibition of 50 book jackets by Salter at Columbia University in November, 1933. Salter thus arrived in New York with contacts in the publishing business and a reputation already established.

Salter’s first workplace was a desk at the H. Wolff Book Manufacturing Company on West 26th Street, an important bindery for the American book trade, where he established himself as a freelance designer and jacket artist. Salter’s informal but fruitful association with H. Wolff provided a superb introduction to the design departments of all the major New York publishers. He had found the ideal place to hang his hat as he improved his English, adjusted to his new homeland (where to the amusement of colleagues, he rejoiced in paying taxes), and established his reputation before striking out on his own. His reputation paved the way for a teaching contract at Cooper Union in 1937 where he began to offer courses in calligraphy and lettering. The students in those classes (where he taught for 30 years), and at New York University (where he briefly offered an evening course on book design) include many illustrious names in the generation of designers that followed.

Photo: Salter Teaching

From Georg to George

The decade of the 1940s brought Salter continued professional advancement so that by the end of 1940 he had produced approximately 185 book jackets and at least 30 magazine covers since arriving in the United States – more than one per week. The most significant personal event of the year was his naturalization as American citizen on September 19, 1940. Forever after this day he signed his name George Salter. In that year he registered his income as $5,000 – a clear reflection of the market opportunities that had opened to him. In the same year he was also able to help the rest of his family escape from Paris. Work was steady and life tranquil for Salter and his reputation with New York publishers increased steadily. Publishers coveted his designs and book jackets for their annual lists and professional colleagues held him in the highest esteem. Salter’s election to membership in the Grolier Club (New York City) in 1951 attests both to his character and professional status among bibliophiles and book professionals.

In the United States his first covers in the detective-mystery genre eventually led him into an association with the publisher Lawrence Spivak, who had a small empire of inexpensive detective and science fiction serials. Salter came to Mercury Publications in 1938 to help manage the success of the venture and was made art director in 1939. He designed the various series to give each a distinctive look within the so-called digest format. For all his mystery magazine designs, Salter stayed closer to the style of highbrow publishing graphics than to pulp fiction. A certain taste and deliberate restraint sets Salter’s mystery covers apart from the lurid excesses of many contemporaneous paperback jackets that today find an ironic appreciation for their camp effects.

George Salter died on October 31, 1967, in New York City. He is buried beside his wife Agnes O’Shea Salter (1901-1989) in Cummington, Massachusetts, in the Hampshire Hills where the family used to spend their summer vacations.

In retrospect Salter’s designs reveal a graphic artist par excellence who devised some of the best solutions ever posed by the genre of the book jacket. Salter had the fortunate ability to reduce the illustrated paper cover to its essential elements. He could visually evoke – either by typography, calligraphy, or pictorial imagery – the atmosphere of a volume’s contents. In short, by placing the highest design standard at the service of the publishing trade, he achieved the marriage of commerce and art.

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  • Created By: Sara Kratzok '06 & Devyani Parameshwar '06
  • Maintained By: Author, Thomas S. Hansen, Dept. of German, Wellesley College
  • Date Created: July 2, 2004
  • Last Modified: October 28, 2004
  • Expires: August 2005