The Forms of the Tools

Henning Wagenbreth

Karoline Bofinger

Henning Wagenbreth

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with the artist Henning Wagenbreth for a few decades now, having been introduced to his work through a group of German illustrators and designers who had moved to New York in the 1990s. There was a small apartment in Greenpoint, dubbed “The German Embassy,” where recent design and art school graduates from Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, and other German cities would stay until they found more permanent housing. They’d share their friends’ work, and I first saw Henning’s through the enthusiasms of this crowd, though he never did move to New York.

In the last few years, Wagenbreth has given the Review portraits—highly stylized, flat but never cold—of Céline, Baudelaire, Walter de la Mare, and Siegfried Kracauer. I love his sense of poster and type design, which made him a natural choice when it came time to commission someone to design the cover for our Spring Books Issue. He sent us sixteen preliminary sketches, which might be a record, ranging from bears emerging from hibernation to pollen-filled skies, flung-open windows, a flying house, melting snow, rugs being beaten, and an armchair sprouting flowers. We decided on a bicycle being tuned up for the coming warm weather. Earlier this week I wrote Henning to ask about his own gemütlich springtime and how his career blossomed.

Leanne Shapton: When does spring come to Berlin, and how does life change when the season arrives?

Henning Wagenbreth: Spring starts in Berlin in the middle of March, beginning of April. But the first warm and sunny day could be followed by night frost and even sudden snow. After a long, dark, cold, and wet winter Berliners are eager to sit outside as soon as they can. People are suddenly happy and communicative. They start to look at one another. They behave like birds, singing everywhere in spring.

Where did you grow up, and what did you like to read and look at in your childhood? 

I grew up in a small town in East Germany, just outside of Berlin. My parents were biologists. They taught me about the plants, mushrooms, and animals in the forest. Spring was when we would take the family bicycles out of the basement and get them ready for rides into nature. 

Northeast of Berlin there are a lot of beautiful lakes and creeks that are home to a rich array of wildlife. We kept little fish, crawfish, and tadpoles in an aquarium at home. We had frogs, fire-bellied toads, and slow worms. And we had a chaffinch, which my father had rescued after it fell out of its nest; it lived with us for twelve years. My father was very good at keeping those little creatures alive. I read mostly books about nature; my plan B if art school didn’t work out was to study biology. 

How did you start to draw?

I always liked to make things. My father and grandfather’s toolbox, which was handed down to me, was the most magical thing. Even the forms of the different tools were fascinating to me. I liked to hammer, to saw, to sew, to glue, to carve, and to paint—to invent things. There were always pencils and paints around. My mother kept her kids busy with a lot of activities, including drawing and painting. She did not like simplifications when I was drawing, for example, a tree. She asked me to look carefully at the leaves and branches and not to take shortcuts. This might have been the scientist in her speaking.

Later on I wanted to become a graphic designer, because this was one way to secure some freedom and independence in the East German political system.

Can you describe the setup of your studio or workspace?

I work at home in a beautiful big room with tall windows. I was told that it was once a tailor’s workshop. During World War II they had to sew military coats here. There are still some holes in the floor from where the old sewing machines had been installed.

People say my apartment looks like a museum. I have old and new sculptures, paintings, prints, and books on display, as well as a lot of musical instruments. There are mandolins, banjos, accordions, toy pianos, tuned cowbells, spoons, harmonicas, flutes, and some homemade instruments, too. In breaks during the day and at night I play them all. I have very forgiving neighbors. Every Wednesday the members of our band, The Mazookas, get together to rehearse. We play at exhibition openings and book and comic festivals. It’s an entertaining distraction from my work.

Where does your type and design sensibility come from?

When I studied graphic design in East Berlin in the late 1980s, I had to draw images and type mostly by hand. There were no computers. We could use some classical photographic techniques for typesetting and reproduction, but drawing type by hand was often faster and had better results. Additionally, the easiest way to publish underground political art in the late 1980s was with handmade linocuts and woodcuts. That helped me to develop a visual language, too.


When students ask me today how they can find their style, I propose they put their computers and digital drawings pads aside and discover what happens with their own hands and bodies, with all the attendant mistakes and flaws. That’s where personality and originality come from.

What are you reading these days? Who are some of your favorite writers? 

I wish I had more time to read. I have a big library of popular prints, and I like to read images. I just got a big shelf for my studio and had to go through my books to decide what to keep. I kept all the poetry books. They are small and dense. Poems are like written images. I kept all my songbooks. I kept my collections of fairy tales and legends from many countries. 

I like Robert Louis Stevenson. I translated one of his first poems, “The Pirate and the Apothecary,” into German and published it as a book with my illustrations. I also like Edgar Hilsenrath and Stefano Benni, whose books I have designed covers for. I like to read the poems of Wilhelm Busch, who wrote Max und Moritz, one of the first German comic strips. His poems are less known but sharp and very funny.

A few months ago I was in Xi’an, in China, where the monk Xuanzang lived in the seventh century. He traveled to India and is credited with helping develop Chinese Buddhism. His report of his travels was the basis of the legendary sixteenth-century Chinese novel The Journey to the West, attributed to the writer Wu Cheng’en. When I got home I bought a new German translation. Pilgrims, demons, ghosts, mountainous landscapes, rain and fog like Chinese ink drawings, fantastic creatures, fights, treason, piety, surprises, and a lot of adventure.

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