Industrial Illustration, 1950s


Rolf Keller worked as a self-employed graphics artist working for different clients. He did caricatures for newspapers, newspaper advertisements, layouts as well as illustrations and the kind of work we have seen already in this blog, like the greeting cards and advent calendars he designed for Lederbogen Verlag. However, economically more important for him was the work he did for industrial customers.

In a letter to Svend Keller, dated Sept. 28th, 1957, Rolf Keller writes:

“Relating to business, September was extremely poor. The main reason is that there were no assignments from WMW, since Sch. was absent for 6 weeks to build up an exhibition. Yesterday, the first assignments came in again.”[1]

WMW, actually VVB WMW, was the association of nationally-owned enterprises producing machine tools in the GDR. This citation demonstrates that WMW was the main client of Rolf Keller; the work for them was his bread and butter business. The letters indicate that besids WMW, he had other industrial customers as well. For these companies, he designed logos (an especially lucrative kind of work, according to his letters; I don’t know it he was the one who designed the WMW-logo visible on this leaflet, but it is possible), but also leaflets like the one shown here, the only item of this kind I have at the moment. It shows one of the machines offered by WMW. I do not know what kind of print process was employed at the time to transfer a painting into a print like this, but using such paintings instead of photographs seems to have been quite common in technical illustrations of the time. The painting is signed and shows Rolf Keller’s logo, as well as a “50” that is probably the year. The middle folds shows staple holes, so there must have been at least a cover, if not additional pages. It is well possible that Rolf Keller also did the layout of the whole page, as well as the layout of the back page (listing several machines and parts, together with the respective providers), but I don’t know. Anyway, here is the back side, to give you an impression of what kind of publication this was:


Rolf Keller probably did similar illustrations for catalogues and advertisments as well. He also worked for WMW during the Leipzig industrial fair and seems to have been involved in the design of their stand at the fair, strenuous but well paid work involving night shifts, according to some letters. It looks like the fair stand included hand-painted posters of machines. In a letter dated 13th March 1957, again to Svend Keller, he writes:

“I am quite overworked since everything is night-work. I Paint in most cases from 6 PM until 4 AM. Yesterday and today, however, only until 11:30 PM, but I was there from 8 AM to 9 [?] and I did a lot of sketching despite the strong bustling activity. Then to the accommodation, to sleep for 2 hours. I think you would enjoy the tempera-paintings of the machines. Today I have finished painting the next model of a complicated worm grinder.”[2]

It does not become quite clear here if Rolf Keller actually worked on the fair stand itself. Some of the work on the fair seems to have been the preparation of paintings to be used later, not the direct work on the fair stand. In a letter from 20th of March, 1957, he writes:

“I am now evaluating the things from the fair for Schönfeldt, preparing figures and staffage to it and adjusting diverse things. Strange that everything needs its time and hour to develop to maturity. One time during the fair while working in the night, I was totally desperate because it just did not work. Now, after gaining distance it works nearly effortlessly and the tempera paintings are bit by bit taking shape.”[3]

The “figures and staffage” might have been decoration for the fair stand, for next time, but that does not become completely clear here. The paintings might have been done for catalogues and fliyers, like the one shown here. The fair would have provided an opportunity to get access to samples of all the different machines in one place and without disturbance, something that might not have been possible in the factory. The man named “Schönfeldt”, also mentioned in other letters, is obviously the “Sch.” from the first citation above. He obviously was Rolf Keller’s main contact within WMW.

After the German reunification, some of the companies belonging to WMW where sold. Some of them seem to have gone bankrupt. The machine industry of the GDR was largely targeted at east Europe and the Sovjet Union. When the east German Mark was converted into the west German Deutschmark at a conversion rate of 1 to 1, the industrial products of GDR companies became too expensive for their traditional customers in the east. On the other hand, they were not up to date technologically. As a result, a large part of the east German industry collapsed. The surviving remains of those companies, including some remains of WMW, now belong to different industrial groups. However, after some research I found that documents from WMW, including catalogs and leaflets, have been transferred to the state archive of Saxony, in its Chemnitz branch (see It is very likely that in the inventory of that archive, more works of Rolf Keller await discovery, and I want to try to track them down when I have the time to do so.

I think this is an interesting part of industrial history as well as history of applied art and design. Such old industrial illustrations from the 1950s, showing the technology of 60 or more years ago, have a certain aesthetic appeal to me. If you enlarge the picture, you might appreciate the artistic quality it has. This is not only an old picture of and old machine; it is also a work of art.


[1] German original: „Der September war geschäftlich äußerst mies, ein Monat wie seit Jahren nicht. Das lag hauptsächlich am Ausfall der WMW-Aufträge, da Sch. 6 Wochen abwesend war, um eine Ausstellung aufzubauen. Gestern kamen die ersten Aufträge wieder.“

[2] German original: „Bin ziemlich überarbeitet, da alles Nachtarbeit ist. Male zumeist von 6 Uhr abends bis 4 Uhr früh. Gestern und heute allerdings nur ½ 12, war jedoch von Früh 8 bis 9 [?] Uhr dort u. habe trotz des Riesenbetriebes viel skizziert. Dann ins Quartier, 2 Std. schlafen. Ich glaube, die Tempera-Bilder der Maschinen würden Dir auch Spaß machen. Heute habe ich das nächste Modell einer komplizierten Schnecken-Schleifmaschine fertig gemalt.“

[3] “Ich werte jetzt die Sachen von der Messe für Schönfeldt aus, mache Figuren und Staffage dazu und gleiche Verschiedenes aus. Seltsam, daß doch alles seine Zeit und Stunde braucht, um zur Reife zu kommen. Einmal war ich auf der Messe bei der Nachtarbeit völlig verzweifelt, weil es einfach nicht mehr klappte. Jetzt, nachdem Abstand gewonnen ist, geht es fast mühelos u. die Temperabilder gewinnen allmählich Gesicht.”


Animal Studies 2 – Falcons


Two more animal studies made by Svend Keller, this time showing showing falcons. The first one was made with pencil and watercolors. The caption reads “Wanderfalken” (“Peregrine Falcons”). The date is “26.III”. Unfortunately, the year has been cut off. On one other animal study (not yet published here) I have seen the year 1947. If we assume that he had to do all these animal studies at the same time of his apprenticeship as a grafic artist, we may assign this one, as well as the other animal studies, to that year, so they would be from the early phase of Svend Keller’s apprenticeship, when he was just learning to draw. These studies where probably made after photographs.

FalkeThe second drawing is a pencil drawing, the caption reads “Falke” (“Falcon”). Compared with the first one, it seems to show some progress in the developments of the young artist’s drawing skills, so it might have been made later than the first one.



I found this drawing (aprox. 12.7 cm x 13,7 cm, pencil and watercolor on drawing board) among Rolf Keller’s letters. My mother had pre-sorted them by year and this one is from the 1958 file, so I suppose it is from that year although it is not dated. I have not yet transcribed the letters from that year (I am currently working on 1957, fighting with Rolf Keller’s sometimes hard to read handwriting), so I don’t know yet if the drawing is mentioned in any of them.

After Rolf Keller’s son Svend Keller, who had been a political prisoner (see Advent Calendars 3) had been released in 1956, he left the GDR after a few weeks and went to Hamburg in West Germany where he had relatives. As a result, they started writing letters to each other. Of this correspondence, the part from Rolf Keller has been preserved and that is what I am currently working on. The letters turn out to be a very interesting historical source.

The drawing shows some armchairs that Rolf and Grete Keller had acquired. As you can see from these chairs, the typical 1950s style, with its characteristic slanting conical legs, also existed in the German Democratic Republic. The material on the yellow chair, with its irregular black stripes, is a typical textile design of those years.

The captions read:

Left lower corner: “„Mein“ Wannensessel FUG, Gelbschwarz. ich vermisse nur den eingebauten Aschenbecher” (“”My” basin-shaped armchair FUG, yellow-black I’m only missing the built-in ashtray).

Right lower corner “„Muttis“ Sessel SYLVIA schwarz-gelb” (“”Mom’s” armchair SYLVIA black-yellow).

Upper left corner: “Solche Lampe aus d. Verkaufsgenoss. Bi Künstler wollen wir Knudsen zu Weihn. schenken. Wie denkt ihr darüber? (<- Zweiflammig)” (Such a lamp from the Verkaufsgenossenschaft Bildender Künstler (Sales Cooperative of Visual Artists) we want to give to Knudsen for Christmas. How do you people think about it? <- with two bulbs (lit. two flames, a rather old-fassioned expression)).

“Knudsen” was a pseudony or nickname of Svend Keller (see also Ruins 4). The “Verkaufsgenossenschaft Bildender Künstler”, established in 1954, was a state-controlled trade organisation for the visual arts in the German Democratic Republic. This example indicates that not only fine artists in the narrower sense but also designers had to trade their products through this organisation.

I have a faint memory of these chairs, especially the yellow-black one of my grandfather that I must have seen as a child on a visit to Karl-Marx-Stadt (now Chemnitz). I have probably been sitting on that chair myself. I am very fond of this 1950s style of furniture, with this kind of chairs and the characteristic kidney-shaped or triangular rounded tables. I also like the abstract designs on textiles, ceramics and other things from that time, as well as some of the architecture. I suppose that when I was a small child in the 1960s, a lot of such furniture and objects in that style where still arround and these things make me feel at home.

New Year Greeting Cards

Silvester und Neujahr 005

A number of New Year greeting cards from 1956, again designed by Rolf Keller for the publisher Lederbogen Verlag, like the Christmas greeting cards I posted here a few days ago. They are in the same style, just showing winterly landscapes.

In a letter to Svend Keller from November 7th and 8th 1956, Rolf Keller wrote that he had been ill and he was getting nervous because of a lot of work he had to (and could not) do, among these “Neujahrskarte für Lederbogen” (New Year card for Lederbogen). So maybe these cards where designed only in November 1956.

Silvester und Neujahr 008

Silvester und Neujahr 006

Silvester und Neujahr 007

The captions read “Herzliche Neujahrsgrüße” (“affectionate regards for New Year”) and “Ein glückliches Neues Jahr” (“a happy new year”), and that is what I wish to everybody!