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Master graphic designer and Kingstonian Peter Klaus Dorn ‘did it all with confidence’

Peter Klaus Dorn. Photo supplied by Jeffrey Dorn.

Last month marked the passing of accomplished graphic designer, typographer, publisher, and enthusiastic conversationalist, Peter Klaus Dorn.

Born in Germany in 1932, Dorn came of age surrounded by “many atrocities,” his obituary succinctly notes. He served an apprenticeship as a compositor and studied graphic design in night classes, and in the aftermath of World War II, he was able to immigrate to Canada in 1954 to pursue his career dreams in the field of graphic design.

Many of the iconic visuals synonymous with Kingston institutions owe their existence to Dorn’s design skill, most notably from a flurry of professional successes that Dorn achieved in the 1970s. The Society of Graphic Designers of Canada notes on their biographic page for Dorn that he was awarded a Canada Council Grant in 1971 to pursue his work as a designer, and opportunities quickly followed.

“He was brought in by Queen’s in 1971 to establish their Graphic Design Unit,” his youngest son Jeffrey Dorn said, “and he was also hired by the university to redesign their corporate visual identity. What’s called the ‘Q-Shield,’ that was his design. It was used for a really long time, and was foundational to the current updated visual identity, as well. He had great pride in Queen’s; he believed very strongly in Queen’s, and was very proud that they were utilizing his designs.”

Jeffrey Dorn also noted that his father had a hand in St. Lawrence College’s logo creation as well. “The two wavy lines they have now, that’s an abbreviation of his logo. He was a Teaching Master at St. Lawrence at the time (1979-1986), and he had designed that wavy block, but in his original design there was another wavy block connected to it, making an ‘L’ for ‘Lawrence.'”

Even the Royal Military College benefited from Dorn’s expertise in design. “He did all the Royal Military College commemorative books for them — I remember he did one for Princess Anne, and one for Prince Philip — he met with Prince Philip twice when he came to Kingston, because the Prince was a big fan of graphic design,” Jeffrey recalled.

In addition to design, Dorn was a skilled typographer. He had launched his own private printing company in 1963, which he called Heinrich Heine Press, after a German poet and humanist whom Dorn deeply admired. Dorn’s obituary notes that “[m]any of the works of the Press received national and international awards over the years.”

Dorn oversaw every aspect of the printing business, Jeffrey recalled, and set high expectations for himself, his employees, and their company. “He knew his craft,” said Jeffrey. “He knew what it took to take a book from conception to completion after it’s been written. He knew all the steps, all those pieces. He had two huge printing presses. He donated them to Queen’s, and as far as I know they’re still at the John Deutsch University Centre.”

A connection through the Olympics linked Dorn’s life and professional work in Canada with his German family history. His father, Robert Dorn, who also had a career as a graphic designer, was an Olympian in the 1936 Olympics in Nazi-controlled Berlin, competing in track events. “We have a passport of his that was given to every athlete at those games, and it has a medal in it, ” said Jeffrey. “It’s not like a medal you’d get for winning, it’s a commemorative medal that was forged by the Third Reich.”

Forty years later, when Kingston hosted the sailing events for the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, Peter Dorn was the designer responsible for the posters, programs, and icons affiliated with the events.

A poster (left) and a program (right) from the Kingston sailing events during the 1976 Olympic Games, both designed by Peter Dorn.

However, Dorn was driven by more than professional acclaim, Jeffrey said. “Later in life after he’d retired, probably about five or six years ago, I said to him, ‘You’ve got to be proud, you’ve done such great things! You’ve done well, you’re thought of well, you’re well known in Canada and internationally — you must be proud of yourself.’ And he just kind of got a look in his eyes and said, ‘No, I didn’t do enough for humanity.’ That was his response.”

Dorn’s passion for social activism started in his early teens, in tumultuous World-War-II Germany, Jeffrey noted. “He was part of a group in the 1940s: all his friends that he grew up with in Berlin during World War II had a socialist kind of gang, which I think was called ‘The Red Hand’ or something like that. It’s incredible to think of it. There they were in the heart of fascist Germany, these kids, probably 13, 14 years old, and they were trying to promote the idea of socialism — Equal rights, just society and everything. And it became more than just something he latched onto as a kid; these socialist ideals became something that was always really at the core of who he was. He believed that everybody deserved the best possible life.”

Dorn was a jazz aficionado, and at a music festival in the early 1950s, he met a girl named Charlotte Graffunder. “My mom didn’t really like jazz,” laughed Jeffrey. “She was very much a classically trained person. She wanted to be an opera singer, but unfortunately during World War II, it was pretty impossible to train for that. But she was a master pianist, and she used to play a lot.” Despite their musical differences, the two fell in love, and when Dorn immigrated to Canada in 1954, his sweetheart, Charlotte, followed shortly afterward. They were married in Canada on Christmas Day that year.

Charlotte and Peter Dorn in the mid-1950s. Photo supplied by Jeffrey Dorn.

Befitting a household that would eventually own their own printing presses, the couple shared a passion for books and literacy. Dorn and his wife collected rare volumes and translated German folklore, like the original Grimms’ Fairy Tales, into English, and Charlotte ran a second-hand bookstore in Kingston called ‘Books and More Books.’

“My dad was a guy that was always lively, and did it all with confidence. He was the heart of the party, and always engaged in conversation,” Jeffrey said. “He wanted to understand you, and he wanted to see how you thought. He may not agree with you, and he’d tell you he didn’t agree with you, but he always wanted to hear your point of view. My parents’ political circle was quite big and broad, and they were both engaging, extremely intelligent people that knew where they were coming from, but they were open to different political concepts and ideas.”

Peter and Charlotte Dorn in 2015, excited to be travelling to Charlotte’s birthplace in Schwedt, Germany. Photo supplied by Jeffrey Dorn.

Despite his outspokenness in a political or ideological discussion, Dorn was the last one to promote his own considerable accomplishments, said Jeffrey. “He was a humble man. He would argue with you all night about his opinions, but he never spoke of his accomplishments. Not once. He never preached anything; it was always just what he put in practice in his own life. But I feel like everything he did was guided by that quote that he had hanging on his office wall.”

Jeffrey reflected that as he was writing his father’s obituary, opening with this quote was a natural choice, summing up the deepest values of a remarkable man and a life well-lived.

“There is only one man in the world and his name is All Men. There is only one woman in the world and her name is All Women. There is only one child in the world and the child’s name is All Children.” — Carl Sandburg

Rest in peace, Peter Klaus Dorn.

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