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Fritz Kahn: The Little-Known Godfather of Infographics

How a German gynecologist transformed science into visual poetry and laid the foundations of modern information graphics.

Around the time when Austrian sociologist, philosopher, and curator Otto Neurath was building his ISOTYPE visual language, which laid the foundation for pictogram-based infographics, another infographic pioneer was doing something even more ambitious: The German polymath Fritz Kahn (September 29, 1888–January 14, 1968) — amateur astronomer, medical scientist by training, gynecologist by early occupation, artist by inclination, writer, educator and humanist by calling — was developing innovative visual metaphors for understanding science and the human body, seeking to strip scientific ideas of their alienating complexity and engage a popular audience with those essential tenets of how life works. Best-known today for his iconic 1926 poster Man as Industrial Palace, Kahn inspired generations of scientific illustrators, including such legends as Irving Geis and such cultural treasures as the 1959 gem The Human Body: What It Is And How It Works. His influence reverberates through much of our present visual communication and today’s best infographics .

Fritz Kahn

Now, visual culture powerhouse Taschen has captured the life’s work of this infographic pioneer in the magnificent monograph Fritz Kahn (public library) — a 6-pound tome in English, French and German that collects and contextualizes his most influential images and essays and, above all, celebrates a boundless mind that never settled for limiting itself to a single discipline, to any one area of curiosity, to the onus and hubris of specialization that our culture so vehemently and so toxically fetishizes.

In the introduction, the prolific design historian and writer Steven Heller calls Kahn and Neurath “two sides of the same pie chart,” despite the fact that they likely never met:

Each passionately sought to devise a distinct graphic design language to replace the jargon and lay waste to an ever-growing Tower of Babel.

Like Neurath, who didn’t actually create the symbols he became known for, Kahn was not an artist himself but compensated for it with the potent combination of his powers of logic and his ability to surround himself with top talent, who would execute his visions while also expanding his taste and visual literacy. Though his innovative methods were themselves a force to be reckoned with, the underlying impetus was as simple as it was profound: Kahn was just a brilliant science communicator who sought to engage the public’s imagination in popularizing science. He used his infographics as Carl Sagan did narrative and the moving image, subverting the medium — and subverting it masterfully — to the goals of the message. Heller writes:

His graphic design preferences were eclectic and included such methods as photo-collage, painting and drawing and styles like comic, surrealist, dada and more. The art of analogy was Kahn’s forte (sometimes to the extreme): he might compare an ear with a car or a bird’s feather with railroad tracks, all meant to explain ever more impenetrable phenomena by means which triggered the viewer’s imagination. Kahn employed whatever visual trick he could cobble together for the end result: popular comprehension.


The legacy of Kahn’s work has resonance now and will continue into the future.

‘Man as Industrial Palace,’ 1926

But how did Kahn come to shape culture so profoundly? Editors Uta von Debschitz and Thilo von Debschitz write in the introduction:

In the first decades of the 20th century, Berlin was the center for a huge variety of political, social and cultural energies, which in their explosive interaction unleashed among other things a firework display of new aesthetic forms. Fritz Kahn combined some of these innovative texts and pictorial forms into a popular scientific “overall painting of man in the light of modern science.” The work, entitled The Life of Man (1922–31), contains so many highly expressive verbal and pictorial metaphors that one reviewer said Kahn was inclined “to illustrate every statement within a picture that knocks a hole in the skull of even the most slow-witted reader” — an opening for new insights and options.

It’s rather telling that even that reviewer used such a visceral bodily metaphor to convey a conceptual idea — it was precisely in enlisting the physical to explain the metaphorical that Kahn found his greatest power. As a scientist, he understood the visual bias of our brains; as an artistically minded design-thinker, he knew how powerfully graphics could convey ideas and ideologies; as a man of medicine, he grasped the importance of visualizing the body to illuminate its inner workings.

What goes on in our heads when we see a car and say ‘car’ (1939)
‘Daily hair growth: the human body produces 100 feet of hair substance every day. If all this growth were to converge into one single hair, that hair would grow by one inch every minute.’ (1929)

Kahn was also keenly aware of the importance of pictures in education. He trawled textbooks and scientific journals for material to use in his famous “man book,” but he enlisted his artists and the design department of his publishing house in infusing the images with more life, more vibrancy, greater calls to the imagination. He developed a style based on architectural and industrial visual metaphors and began depicting the human body as a series of modern workplaces, with each organ and organ-system operated by different machines, control panels, and circuits, as in his famous Man as Industrial Palace, seeking “to depict the most important processes of life, which can never be observed directly, in the form of familiar technical processes.” (Bear in mind, he was working long before some of the most now-fundamental notions in modern science were known, decades before even the discovery of DNA.)

‘The speed of thought — overtaken by technology!’ (1939)

But Kahn was far from reducing a human being to mere machinery. The von Debschnitz write:

His factories, engine-rooms and laboratories do not work on their own, but are operated and driven by large numbers of workers. These human figures make visible certain activities of individual cells or organs, but they also stand for life itself, which keeps the “man machine” running. In Kahn’s pictorial world there is plenty of room alongside the demonstrable for the unconscious, the unfamiliar and the intangible. He sees metaphysics and science not as opposites but as two sides of the same coin, as the “heaven and earth of the human soul.”

‘The five points in common between muscle operation and an electric doorbell circuit: (1) volition — bell button, (2) motor center — battery, (3) nerve — wire, (4) motor end-plate — interpreter, (5) muscle — clapper.’ (1924, 1927)
‘The cycle of matter and energy’ (1926)

Kahn could also be considered a pioneer of interactive storytelling long before the technologies of interaction existed. He transformed the pictorial image from a static object to passively behold to an active invitation to engage, reimagine, and connect:

Kahn’s conceptual illustrations inverted the text-image relationship that had prevailed until then. The picture took prominence and switched from observed object to active agent, opening up new imaginary spaces for the viewer. It challenged the viewer to explore these spaces independently, to find [his or her] place in them, and develop new perspectives from there — a life-saving ability in a crisis-torn age like that of [the world war].


Apart from instruction and entertainment, edification is another important function of the illustrated factual book. Meaning, comfort, fresh perspectives, and ideally a faith that can move mountains, often form in reaction to a strong aesthetic impulse — for example, in the borderland between science and art. Kahn knew the healing effect of the “imagination” from personal and medical experience, especially in relation to observing the macro- or microcosm. … Verbal and visual images can help man (re)connect with himself, his group, the world and the universe, to find his way or place.

In a twist of tragic irony, Kahn himself followed the fate of many Jewish intellectuals and was forced to flee Germany when the Nazis took power. His books were confiscated, banned and burned, and put on a list of “damaging and undesirable writing.” His images, however, remained in use thanks to blatant plagiarism — worst of all, the science journal editor and self-professed Nazi Gerhard Venzmer ripped off Kahn’s “man book” in a similar edition that featured an extra chapter on “racial studies and racial care,” full of the expected bigoted atrocities. Fortunately, Kahn was able to sue for copyright after the end of WWII and won the case — but the experience demonstrated both the power of his images and the challenging cultural context in which he created them.

‘Travel experiences of a wandering cell: the villi currents of the intestinal tract.’ (1924)

Above all, however, Kahn was a kind of scientific poet who enlisted the tenets of literature and the arts in making scientific ideas not only accessible but exciting. One of the most beautiful examples of this comes from his 1924 article for the journal Kosmos, titled “Fairy-tale Journey on the Bloodstream.” In it, he extols “the drama which, since its discovery 200 years ago, has repeatedly stirred the ecstasy of all who have seen it: the circulation of the blood” and writes — sings, almost:

“What a drama, but alas, only a drama!” The microscope’s field of vision is narrowly limited and we see the blood cells arriving on one side and disappearing again on the other… where from? where to? — we don’t know […]. The researcher stops at the rigid circle of his microscope’s field of vision, but we, we are poets, and who will forbid the imagination to travel to magical realms over lands and over seas like the child with the seven swans? […] Like the hero of the “last fairy-tale” we become smaller and smaller until at last we stand microscopically tiny, mini-Lilliputians on the bank of the vein-stream, and see the cells drifting past us, as big as the barques [large sailing ships] of men. We climb up one of the cliffs that loom into the stream, and wait. Cell after cell swims past, but quick and in the middle of the stream, unattainable to our desires. At last, however, a cell-boat drifts close to us on the beach, settles askew like a ship run aground, we leap across and into it, now it tilts from side to side, we push off and sail away. We are sailing! In our cell-boat on the red-gold stream of blood! Farewell, realm of man! We are in the land of fairy-tales, the fairy-tale land of truth, above which you rough giants gap blithely away on your great feet, and we sail towards miracles, true miracles!

Fritz Kahn is itself a miracle of human imagination, wholeheartedly recommended.


Maurice Sendak’s Little-Known and Lovely Posters Celebrating Books and the Joy of Reading

A heartening transaction of literary pleasure.

Given my well-documented soft spot for all things Maurice Sendak (June 10, 1928–May 8, 2012) and for rare vintage out-of-print gems, imagine my extreme delight over this recent discovery: As if to have any surviving copy of the 1986 gem Posters By Maurice Sendak (public library) weren’t already joyous enough, to have no ordinary copy but a first edition signed by Sendak himself is absolute exaltation. Collected in this magnificent large-format tome are Sendak’s little-known and lovely posters for plays, book fairs, art events, operas, Broadway shows, and other cultural happenings. But, given Sendak’s love of classical literature and the literary greats who became his lifelong influences, most enchanting of all are his posters celebrating the love of books and the joy of reading, many featuring his iconic Wild Things, which I’ve digitized below for our shared enjoyment.

Sendak writes in the introduction:

Posters and other occasional pieces make up a very small part of my picture-making, but, paradoxically, I have a disproportionate affection for these easy images. Why “easy”? They came easy. They were painted in rare moments of relaxation. Often, they were the happy summing up of conglomerate emotions and ideas that had previously been distilled into picture books and theatrical productions. Simply, they were fun to do.


All of the pictures collected here were done for pleasure, and they are offered up now with the hope that they will give pleasure.

And give they do:

In the altogether wonderful Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work (public library) — which also gave us this beautiful personal reflection on Sendak’s lesser-known but exceptional gift as an educator, and which features on its cover none other than the above Sendak poster — design critic extraordinaire Steven Heller writes:

Maurice Sendak is not a poster designer. Well, not one per se, but he made some beautiful posters. . . . The poster is a distinctive genre with its own conventions; it is not simply a blown-up image that is larger than a book or illustration. . . . Posters require forethought and attention to typographic and imagistic details.


Sendak’s posters were rarely occasions to experiment with entirely new methods. Many poster designers do, as a rule, use the genre to try new vocabularies and styles. On the contrary, Sendak used the extra space to stretch out with his favored characters and allow them a chance to breathe more than they could on a book page.


Posters are a distinct genre, but after perusing this “small part” of Sendak’s picture making, it is easy to see that in whatever he created, he had the heart of a poster maker, the eye of a book illustrator, and the soul of an artist.

Posters By Maurice Sendak, if you’re able to get a hold of the few used copies floating around, is an irrepressible joy from cover to cover, brimming with Sendak’s heart and soul. Complement it with his forgotten, wonderfully philosophical debut, his darkest yet most truthful and optimistic book, his rare and formative illustrations for Blake’s Songs of Innocence, and his posthumous love letter to the world.


James Gandolfini Reads Maurice Sendak’s Most Controversial Book

Two creative icons on the precipice of mortality.

In June of 2013, I attended a wonderful event at New York’s Society of Illustrators celebrating the inimitable Maurice Sendak and the taboos explored in his work. Among the many memorable insights was a passing mention of a reading from Sendak’s 1970 classic In The Night Kitchen (public library) Sopranos star James Gandolfini had done at a 92Y tribute for Sendak’s 80th birthday in 2008. Little did any of us at the event know that mere hours earlier, Gandolfini had been been pronounced dead in an Italian hospital while on vacation with his 13-year-old son. In an even more eerie strike of tragic coincidence, one of the taboos discussed at the lecture was the notion of mortality in Sendak’s books. Thus, for reasons that are threefold obvious, there is hardly a better way to honor both Gandolfini and Sendak than with the original recording of the acclaimed actor’s exquisitely expressive reading of the Sendak classic:

At the lecture, Steven Heller quoted Sendak as having once told him in an interview:

Primarily, my work was an act of exorcism… so I could have peace of mind as an artist.

(How reminiscent of Sherwood Anderson’s timeless advice to his teenage son, in which he argued that “the point of being an artist is that you may live” and added, “The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.”)

But In The Night Kitchen, which was a Caldecott honor book in 1971, has a story particularly emblematic of both Sendak’s defiant spirit and the generous, steadfast support of his editor and creative champion, the great Ursula Nordstrom. In 1972, when a school librarian burned a copy of the book in an act of micro-censorship against Sendak’s depiction of his fictional little boy in the nude, a righteously outraged Nordstrom sent said librarian this colorful letter, found in the ever-excellent Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (public library) — a fine addition to literary history’s most poignant meditations on censorship:

January 5, 1972

Dear [Redacted]:

Your letter about Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen was delayed in reaching my desk as you sent it to our Scranton, Pennsylvania, division. I am sorry not to have written you more promptly.

I am indeed distressed to hear that in the year 1972 you burned a copy of a book. We are truly distressed that you think it is not a book for elementary school children. I assume it is the little boy’s nudity which bothers you. But truly, it does not disturb children! Mr. Sendak is a creative artist, a true genius, and he is able to speak to children directly. For children—at least up to the age of 12 or 13—are usually tremendously creative themselves. Should not those of us who stand between the creative artist and the child be very careful not to sift our reactions to such books through our own adult prejudices and neuroses? To me as editor and publisher of books for children, that is one of my greatest and most difficult duties. Believe me, we do not take our responsibilities lightly! I think young children will always react with delight to such a book as In the Night Kitchen, and that they will react creatively and wholesomely. It is only adults who ever feel threatened by Sendak’s work.

I will send you a few positive comments on this book within the next few days, and I hope you will read them and that you will give the children in your school a chance to enjoy Mr. Sendak’s book.

Yours sincerely,


Complement with Sendak’s darkest yet most hopeful children’s book and Nordstrom on creative integrity in the face of small-mindedness.


A Typographic Tour of New York City at Night

“No other city in the world stages dusk to dawn like New York City.”

“Just bring your own contents,” wrote Anaïs Nin of the poetics of New York in 1934, “and you create a sparkle of the highest power.” But this iconic city comes with a sparkle all its own, glowing with unparalleled magnetic power, especially at night.

In 2008, photographer duo James and Karla Murray took us on a breathtaking tour of New York’s disappearing face in their stunning visual archive of mom-and-pop storefront signage — a bittersweet project eight years in the making, documenting shops more than half of which are now gone. This season, they’re back with New York Nights (UK; public library) — a striking, lavish street-level tour of New York City’s typographic neon mesmerism, revealed through the illuminated storefronts of some of the city’s most revered bars, diners, speakeasies, theaters, and other epicenters of public life. The gorgeous, giant tome, weighing in at over six pounds and more than a foot wide, is divided into seven sections — Manhattan below 14th Street, 14th Street to 34th Street, 34th Street to 59th Street, above 59th Street, The Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn — each highlighting the respective neighborhood’s most iconic establishments.

C. O. Bigelow Apothecaries, at 6th Avenue near West 9th Street, was established in 1838. It is the oldest apothecary in America and was frequented by Mark Twain and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Photograph courtesy James and Karla Murray

The Murrays observe in the foreword:

No other city in the world stages dusk to dawn like New York City. Whether it’s a glimpse out of a bus window pulling into the terminal at Port Authority, or the first step out onto the sidewalk under the Times Square lights after the end of a Broadway show that started before sunset — any visitor is immediately drawn to the city’s lights. Even simply viewing the illuminated city from the George Washington Bridge on the drive into Manhattan can be undeniably exciting.

Legendary cabaret and piano bar Duplex, at Christopher Street and Seventh Avenue South, has been in business since the 1950s.
Photograph courtesy James and Karla Murray

And who more perfect to pen the introduction than the inimitable Steven Heller, as brilliantly versed in the nooks and crannies of the graphic arts as he is in the art of being a New Yorker? Heller writes:

No other city in the world is more spectacular than New York at night! From down low or up high, its neon sparkles, its L.E.D. shimmers and its incandescence radiates in ways that duller metropolises cannot begin to replicate. Night light in New York is so spectacular that an entire genre of mammoth New York electronic advertising displays is called ‘spectaculars.’ Seen together, and glowing in full candlepower, ‘spectaculars’ exemplify the illuminated majesty of the Great White Way.

From gaslight to electric light, from wick to filament wire, luminosity has long defined the essence of this decidedly commercial city.


Rather than recede into the darkness, New York’s illuminated storefronts reveal more than is possible during the daytime hours.

Nom Wah Tea Parlor, at Doyers Street near Pell Street, was founded in 1920 as a bakery and tea parlor and soon became a Chinatown staple, offering fresh Chinese pastries, steamed buns, dim sum, and tea.
Photograph courtesy James and Karla Murray

Alongside the photographs are fascinating interviews with store owners, revealing unexpected pieces of cultural history. The Financial District’s Delmonico’s, for instance, turns out to be the birthplace of such culinary classics as Eggs Benedict, Baked Alaska, and Lobster Newburg. A tiny piano bar in Greenwich Village called Duplex gave both Woody Allen and Joan Rivers their first stand-up spotlight. Mark Twain and Eleanor Roosevelt filled their prescriptions at C.O. Bigelow Apothecaries at 6th Avenue and 9th Street. Rudy’s Bar & Grill in Hell’s Kitchen offered Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner a safe haven to share a drink together before their relationship was thrust into the public eye.

Joyce Theater, at Eight Avenue and 19th Street, is one of the world’s greatest modern dance institutions. It has been in business since 1982.
Photograph courtesy James and Karla Murray
Pershing Square, located at Park Avenue and East 42nd Street.
Photograph courtesy James and Karla Murray
Ed Sullivan Theater, at Broadway near West 53rd Street, broadcast The Beatles’ first U.S. performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, on February 9, 1964. A new era of music and media was ushered in as 73 million viewers watched the rock and roll phenomenon perform on television.
Photograph courtesy James and Karla Murray
Roxy Delicatessen, at the heart of Times Square on Broadway near West 47th Street, has been in business since 1946. Known for its huge sandwiches and famous cheesecake, its walls are filled with Ben Burgaff’s unique celebrity caricatures.
Photograph courtesy James and Karla Murray
Metro Diner, at Broadway and West 100th Street, is a family-owned diner located on the ground floor of a historic three-story wooden clapboard building built in 1871. It has been in business since 1993.
Photograph courtesy James and Karla Murray
Lenox Lounge, at Lenox Avenue near East 125th Street, was founded in 1939 by the Greco family. Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis performed in the popular bar, and it was a gathering space for cultural and political luminaries such as Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and Malcolm X..
Photograph courtesy James and Karla Murray

Images courtesy Gingko Press/ James and Karla Murray


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