Discover the vanishing artwork of menu design in a brand new ebook by Taschen

Taschen has released a new book that explores the visual history of menu design between the years 1800-2000. Authored by Steven Heller, co-founder and co-chair of the MFA Design programme at the School of Visual Arts, New York, and edited by Jim Heimann, the executive editor of Taschen America, this publication is a “culinary and graphic travelogue through Europe”.

Starting with the 19th century, the book offers up some early examples of menu design, just as the very idea of a restaurant menu was beginning to grow in popularity across the continent. The oldest menu in the book dates back to 1808 and belongs to a pub called The Bailey in Dublin – a famous institution, once renowned for being “a hub of political and literary activity”. This extremely old menu – or ‘bill of fare’ as they were commonly known – already shows signs of artistic endeavour, with one side boasting a series of tongue-in-cheek illustrations designed to entertain readers.

Top image: detail from MS Kungsholm, Swedish American Line, 1936; above: Milchbar Pinguin, c. 1965, Leipzig, German Democratic Republic. All images courtesy Taschen/Jim Heimann Collection
Menu from European Menu Design published by TaschenSolmar, c. 1954, Lisbon, Portugal
Menu from European Menu Design published by TaschenNew Year’s Eve dinner, Hotel Chemnitzer Hof, 1959, Karl-MarxStadt, German Democratic Republic

Elsewhere throughout the book, we can witness the rapid development of menu design, as artworks become less ornate and typefaces gradually turn from serifs into sans-serifs. The designers start to take themselves less seriously and as French cuisine begins to lose its vice-like grip on the culinary world, styles and approaches become more varied. Until, many years and pages later, we hit a 70s McDonald’s menu with saturated images of hamburgers and a relaxed, grid-like layout.

Skipping forward to the present day, physical menus are competing with soulless lists of food on Deliveroo and the increasing use of QR codes. Digital menus offer restaurant owners increased flexibility and ease of use in terms of updating their offerings and the tactility of the printed menu is arguably no longer the desirable object it once was.

Menu from European Menu Design published by TaschenMS Kungsholm, Swedish American Line, 1936
Menu from European Menu Design published by TaschenCafé de Paris, 1936, Paris

With this in mind, Heimann writes in the book’s introduction: “One hopes that this book, a record of several centuries of gustatory elation, will be a reminder that this common object was once a key element of a meal. In many instances, the menu elevated dining to an art, reflecting, in turn, its purpose as an essential part of graphic and culinary history to be retained for posterity.”

Menu from European Menu Design published by TaschenSalts Diner, 1993, Shipley, England, designed by David Hockney