A Book Designer’s Studio. Jüri Kaarma and Late Soviet Graphic Design



Graphic design surrounds us everywhere these days and everyone can be a graphic designer. Taking and editing photographs, choosing fonts and colours, making collages, designing and printing – pursuits that were exclusive before the digital revolution, requiring time, special skills and collective effort – are now routine procedures for every computer user. Yet, only a few decades ago, using even the simplest design techniques could mean spending several hours in a darkroom, microscopic cut-and-paste jobs, calls and letters to the publishing and printing house, 300°C molten metal, numerous trial proofs and wasting large amounts of materials.

The extraordinarily thorough archive preserved in the Lasnamäe studio of designer Jüri Kaarma (1950–2011) helps to shed light on the material reality of the forgotten history of graphic design. Kaarma’s designs for late Soviet books and series can still be

found on the shelves of many homes and bookstores to this day. His confident late modernist typographic handwriting has shaped thousands of prints since 1974. These designs were born in late night studio sessions, with the help of rubber cement, a scalpel and a photographic enlarger, which Jüri used in reverse as a camera. The exhibits highlighted in the exhibition vividly explain the restrictions that existed in the design profession during the late Soviet era and the ingenuity born from them.  

At a time when many of our digitally native generation are scouting for alternatives to automated tools and standards, diving into the technological history of graphic design feel like a breath of fresh air. What results could experimentation with historical design tools lead to today? The previously perceived shortcomings of analogue photoediting and printing processes are reevaluated by interventions from type designer Aimur Takk and publishing duo Knock! Knock! Books. The exhibition is accompanied by a comprehensive guide-catalogue, the design of which combines the principles of phototypesetting with contemporary digital technologies.

The materials used in the exhibition are part of Jüri Kaarma’s personal archive and illustrate his working processes. 

Additional materials have been included from the Film Archives, Estonian Repository Library, Estonian Literary Museum, the collection of the printing museum at the Tallinn Book Printers, and private collections.

Curator: Maria Muuk

Adviser: Eve Kask

Exhibition design: Aadam Kaarma

Graphic design: Anna Kaarma

Type design: Aimur Takk

Literary interpretation: Knock! Knock! Books (Else Lagerspetz, Loore Viires)

ETDM museum team: Ketli Tiitsar, Silvia Pärmann, Toomas Übner

Thanks: Maarja Vannas, Merike Sokka & Tallinna ­Raamatu­trükikoda, Andres Tali, Ivar Sakk, Photography Department of the Estonian Academy of Arts (Reimo Võsa-Tangsoo, Madis Kurss, Kristiina Hansen), Jörgen Loot & TYPA, the Film Archives, Estonian Repository Library (Kalju Tammaru, Kadi ­Sarapuu), Meelis Mikker, Juta Ristsoo, Estonian Literary Museum

The exhibition is supported by the Cultural Endowment of Estonia.