The Fate of Fonts, Part Six

The Fate of Fonts

Typography and Danger in Germany, Part One

One of the heroes of the modern font was Paul Renner (1878-1956), a founding member of the Deutsche Werkbund when it was established in 1907. In many ways, he was temperamentally conservative, not a revolutionary outside of the realm of the visual arts. Renner spent most of his adult life in the Munich area, and, as the century progressed, he could not progress with it either culturally 0r artistically. Ironically, the designer who would change German typography for the twentieth century hated jazz and was suspicious of abstract art, had little affinity for twentieth-century technology, such as film, and had already reached middle age when he began to reinvent fonts. Nevertheless, as a graphic designer, who specialized in book design, Renner recognized that it was necessary for the design of the book’s outer cover to be coordinated with the typeface on the interior pages. In Germany, where a revolution in book design was going on, the exterior of a book was often a very modern, its title announced with a striking graphic design by an important artist, while the interior–jarringly incongruously—was the stilted bristling Gothic style, hyper with serifs. And in this golden age of book design, when the design was a total experience, such a discrepancy was not artistically bearable. Renner, a widely read intellectual, quoted the poet Göethe to explain his mission: “We should direct our view outwards, away from ourselves, into the world, not into the distance, but onto those things that are near, within a hand’s reach.” With that pragmatic philosophy in mind, Renner, who in his own way was a very modern functionalist, took it upon himself to reform German printing.

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Following the Great War, there was a sense of change, as if Germany had taken a new road away from its imperialistic past and towards a new century. For artists and designers, the task was to create Formgefühl, loosely translated as a sense of form. In the context of the 1920s, this “sense of form” would be a new visual experience that stood for and symbolized this new emerging time. A serious thinker with a philosophical bent, Paul Renner set out on a road to reforming the German publishing industry that was a winding one, weaving between book design and painting and the catastrophic economic situation in Germany. The traditional German font, the Bruchschrift, was the font of German kultur, the source of German identity, as codified in official documents, serious books, government-issued texts, and public manifestations of authority from posters to money. After the war, the links between the German people and authority, signified by the bourgeois education in kultur, was broken by a collapse in the belief system that had held up the Kaiser and the nobility, religion and the military. As these sectors of rule and kultur, upon which historic “Germanness” was built, lost their sheen and their pride of place in German life, the inherent “authority” embedded in the evocations of handwriting in Bruchschrift lost authenticity as well.

By the early 1920s, Renner, who was part of the luxury or beautiful book business, had forged a strong idea of what book design should be like. Illustrations, he thought, were unwelcomed interruptions in the total experience of the pages and the way they were viewed or should be experienced when the book was open. And at first, having been educated in the German gymnasium, the educational source of kultur for education, Renner was unconcerned about the continued use of the traditional fraktur font and saw no particular need to replace it. But as the decade progressed, Renner began to complain about what he termed “the inflation of historicism,” that was holding German design back and stuck in the nineteenth century. In contrast to those who believed that the famous Deutsche Schrift was an authentic national heritage and, that in this period of change and tumult, this culturally identifying icon should be retained, Renner pointed out that the Gothic script itself was, in truth. not German at all but French, while the lower case of the popular Roman alphabet was historically developed in Germany. What he sought was die Schrift unserer Zeit or “the type of our time.”

As if to prepare for the role he was preparing to take–challenging the traditional “broken script” (Gothic), Renner wrote Typography as Art in 1922, using the traditional German font, Unger fraktur. Changing an already established font, unless one owned a press, was an expensive and time-consuming proposition and such a step was a genuine investment and a major gamble. Printing type consisted of a font family, manufactured in a number of “punches.” These metal forms, each one a letter, had to be handmade in a very long and labor-intensive process not to be undertaken lightly. For a printing firm, a new font and a new set of punches would have been an expensive change, and unless a firm was inclined towards experimentation, there was little incentive to create new fonts which then had to be sold to a prospective client. Clients, book publishers and the like, tended to be conservative and risk-averse. Printing a new book in a new font meant disrupting the sensibilities of the reader and, unless a firm was printing in a very specialized avant-garde field, most firms would not be interested in either making new punches nor in investing in new fonts. Fortunately for Renner, a German version of Charles Peignot existed, Georg Hartmann (1870-1954), who purchased the Bauersche Gießerei (“Bauer Foundry”) of Frankfurt in 1898. This firm, like, Deberny et Peignot, embarked on a mission to approach designers and ask them to create a new typeface.

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As a member of the Werkbund, Renner was deeply involved in modern graphic design and had studied the earlier work of William Morris in England. Morris’s font was based on the tradition of handcraft and the importance of the artisan, but, as was the case with other twentieth-century designers, Renner was faced with the reality of the machine. Like Morris, Renner was concerned with the role of the worker in a modern society, who was being phased out in favor of automation. And although he was apolitical and steered clear of Weimar Republic politics, as a devout Christian, he was also concerned about his fellow human beings. As Charles C. Leonard wrote, “Morris envisioned a simple social system, wherein the self-interested artisan produces quality work. Renner’s formula, derived from the Deutsche Werkbund, was more complex. The machine enables quantity, the enlightened worker assures quality, the capitalist provides the capital investment in the equipment and materials, and the artisan provides the spiritual investment in the work itself. Quality becomes an essential aspect of industrial success, a position from which the improvement of working conditions can be negotiated, and the means of assuring the ongoing value of machine-made goods.”

When Hartmann and Renner joined forces and in 1924, Renner could finally design a new font for his own time, Futura. Renner understood that all fonts should retain some connection with the handwritten script but he also was determined to pay homage to the machine. He designed his font in a two-step process, first as a handwritten family of fonts. Next, the fonts would be turned over, so to speak, to the machine process, which would wipe out any trace of the hand. If and only if the font was stripped of the hand, then could it also be freed from its history and enter into the modern age.The sans serif type fonts were one hundred years old, and, because the simplicity and the lack of serifs these fonts, were called “grotesque,” a term of disparagement. In his useful book, Paul Renner and Futura: The Effects of Culture, Technology, and Social Continuity on the Design of Type for Printing, Charles Leonard pointed out that Renner believed “Type reveals not only the character of whoever designed it. It also reveals the character of the people who use it, just like the handwriting of the individual.” And he added, “Each populace has the script it deserves, for each time period, the script that corresponds to its nature,” meaning that he was conscious of the “German soul,” as he put it. “The Task of Our time,” as Renner said, was to create a new visual culture which would bring historic Germany into the new century via a new font. He proposed that the traditional Bruchschrift or the traditional German script be replaced with Futura, which would reconcile the hand-craft of printing with the technology of mass reproduction.

Paul Renner, Futura,Typeface 1927

Futura Typeface

Renner was but part of a trend in German design and another sans-serif font appeared in 1924 or 1925, designed by Jacob Ebar (1878-1935). This trend to the “grotesque” san serif fonts, along with the work being done at the Bauhaus by Herbert Bayer, not to mentiom other less well-known font designers, would be the hallmark of modern font design. But, along with the architects and other designers, who sought the purified form, Renner was also searching for the origins of the letter, its purified ontology, freed of historicism and of its cultural baggage. This font should still be resonant with the spiritual inheritance of the reader, who needed to recognize the familiar in order to understand the word. The Roman alphabet was, for the West, the Ur alphabet, and this ancient form of writing would become the basis for the Futura font, simple mechanical and suited to the age of mechanization being free of any trace of the artist’s hand or individual marking. Renner designed the Futura font with a ruler, a T-square, a compass, and a triangle, putting the Roman letters under geometric duress and discipline. Debuted to the public in 1927, Futura, still popular today, can be either light or bold and developed easily into an entire family of related variations—oblique, extra bold and so on. The letters are reduced to their most simple forms. The lower-case J, for example. is a straight line with a dot on the top. The upper-case Q is a plain circle with a small slash at the bottom. The letters, based on basic geometric forms, the circle, the triangle and the square, are all the same stroke width and weight. Its intrinsic beauty lies, as its creator wished, in the elegant purity of perfect ideal forms. Futura was the original alphabet of the Romans transformed for twentieth-century use.

The Futura font had fifteen alphabets, four italics, and two display fonts. Remarkably, given the number of talented designers involved in font reform in Germany, Futura became “the most widely used geometric sans serif family,” according to Meggs’ History of Graphic Design by Philip B. Meggs and Alston W. Purvis. Over the decade, Renner wrote two more books in addition to Typografie als Kunst was followed by Mechanisierte Grafik; Schrift, Typo, Foto, Film, Farbe in 1930), and finally Die Kunst der Typographie was published at the edge of the Second World War in 1939 and was set in his trademark font, Futura. It would seem that schwabacher or the “black writing” of traditional Germany had been swept away by the tide of modernity. But, as the next post will point out, to every action there is a Hegelian reaction or antithesis. In this case, in the 1930s, the reaction would be, not Hegleian, but Hitlerian. The next post will continue this discussion.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

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The Fate of Fonts, Part Five

The Fate of Fonts

Typography and Danger in Germany

The debate about the appropriate typeface was not a new one in Germany. Introduced to the printing press as a substitute for handwritten Medieval manuscripts in the fifteenth century, the fraktur or Gothic script, fell gradually out of favor as the classic Roman script, Antiqua, rose in popularity because of its comparative legibility. But, because this heavily serifed font was associated with the German inventor of the printing press, Johannes Gutenberg (????- 1468), the German principalities held on to the black letter script out of national pride. The concept of “national” pride became more significant in the nineteenth century when the German principalities came together as one nation, united under Prussian domination in 1870. German nationalism had been awakened by the struggles with Napoléon I and only intensified with the Franco-Prussian War, which coincided with the unification of Germany. It could be said that “Germany,” in its early years, was defined in opposition to France, which had been occupied by the Romans. Out of war and a mélange of principalities, a modern Germany emerged, needing a new identity. One aspect of Germanic identity that was particularly significant to Germans was the fact that the Roman army never succeeded in going east of the Rhine River. Germany remained German, never Romanized nor classicized. Therefore, part of what defined “Germanness” was its ancient “Germanic” history, and its distinctive alphabet, the Bruchschrift, was a visible and always present signifier of a Teutonic heritage. Ironically the reason for the prominence of fraktur was its outmoded historical presence, a very old alphabet that had long since been abandoned by other modern nations–except for ceremonial purposes. By the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, there were already arguments for Germany joining the international community and abandoning what was now an idiosyncratic font. But there were factions that felt buffeted by the winds of Modernism (France), and, especially after the Great War, felt that it was more important than ever that the Bruchschrift be retained. The post-war debate about Germany’s national font and its fate was a metonymy for larger concerns and deeper questions: What, in the wake of a humiliating defeat, was the meaning of “Germany?”

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The Fraktur Script

It is difficult to know if the strong feelings that surrounded a historical font were due to the sheer newness of Germany or it these reactions to the possibility of using Antiqua were out of a genuine concern for German history. Bismark, the first Chancellor of Germany, once declared that he refused to read “German books in Latin letters.” Bismark’s nationalism pointed to the uncomfortable fact that the Roman font was already being used in Germany, but his sentiments were also nothing new. The poet Johann Wolfgang von Göethe had many publishers, but one of them, Johann Friedrich Unger, also took a stand against the Roman typeface for the poet’s writings. ”Why should we Germans renounce our originality? To please foreigners who learn our language?” he asked, “Does any nation do the same for us?’‘ The nineteenth-century argument carried over into the twentieth century and the discourse on the fraktur font centered on national identity. In 1910, the proto-fascist Adolf Reinecke wrote The German alphabet. Its Origin and Development, its Expediency, and Its National Significance (Die Deutschen Buchstabenschrift) or The German Alphabet, for short, stating that “Fraktur is more compact in printing, which is an advantage for fast recognition of word images while reading. Fraktur is more suitable for expressing the German language, as it is more adapted to the characteristics of the German language than the Latin script. Fraktur is still prone to development; Latin script is set in stone. Fraktur makes it easier for foreigners to understand the German language..” In other words, Fraktur was uniquely German. Even though the font was an old one, it was not antique, like the Roman script which was decidedly not German. This alien Latin lettering was the psychological equivalent of the Roman army invading the territory of the ancient Germanic tribes.

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Roman Lettering carved on Monument

The debate over German identity resumed after the interruption of the Great War with renewed urgency. At first, there was a genuine desire to acknowledge the new century and the new machine age. Designers working in Germany were not part of the old debate and entered boldly into a new age with reform in mind. Although the phrase “New Typography” is credited to Bauhaus master Laszlo Moholy-Nagy in 1923, we also think of Paul Renner, Herbert Bayer and, most significantly, of Jan Tschichold (1902-1974), a calligrapher from Leipzig, when considering the introduction of a truly modern–as opposed to the merely legible Roman font–alphabet. Tschichold was the son of a sign painter and grew up with letters and lettering and was educated in the practical or applied arts at the Academy for Graphic Arts and Book Production in Leipzig. Although he was only seventeen when he entered, Tschichold was so skilled a calligrapher he was appointed an assistant for the evening classes in lettering at age nineteen. Being someone who was an artist, he was a rapt student of the flourishing excesses of German fonts and was particularly fond of the very elaborate “Maximilian grotesk.” But then his life changed. Tschichold attended the famous Bauhaus exhibition in Weimar in 1923 and was impressed with the forward-looking vision of the school and its artists. As his biographer, Ruari McLean pointed out in Jan Tschichold: A Life in Typography, “Curiously, the Bauhaus artists tended to use type as a component of abstract art rather than for communication. Their typography was wild, sensational, eye-catching, but in terms of legibility, impractical..the typography (by Herbert Bayer) is all in sanserif, and entirely without capital letters–a good example of theory ignoring practicality. Capital letters, like punctuation marks, are functional, since they signal the beginnings of sentences, proper names, different meanings of words, and so on. To omit all capital letters simply makes printed matter a little more difficult to read.”

Design for a Bauhaus Exhibition Poster

Herbert Bayer Bauhaus Poster

It is probable that Tschichold was attracted by the modernity of Bauhaus typography and recognized that a dialogue on a new typography had been opened among artists. He approached the conversation on from the standpoint of the son of a sign maker, who understood that the need to communicate should outweigh the role of design. In fact, he had already been working in a new position, which he termed “the previously unknown profession of typo­graphic designer,” for the firm, Fischer & Wittig. Far from being the invention of Moholy-Nagy or El Littizky, the idea of the “layout” for a page had filtered down to publishing firms where Tschichold had become a “book artist.” But as Robin Kinross pointed out, spurred by Moholy-Nagy and El Littizky, he looked east, past Germany to Russia at the ideas of Constructivism. His first book, titled Elementary Typography (elementare typographie) was a gathering of contemporary writings from avant-garde artists on modern design, rethinking letters and words, and pages as works of art and design. This anthology of theories and arguments from leading modern artists, particularly from Russi seems to have been aimed towards the printing trade or profession as if to spread ideas from one community to another. Like Renner, he understood the need to bring German printing into the international community, and, in 1928, he wrote his own highly influential book, predictably called The New Typography. Sadly, this important book was not translated into English in the late 1960s by McLean when she was writing his biography. This author described the original published version, which was “a working text for compositors and printers. Nevertheless, it has both elegance and originality, qualities which recur in nearly everything that Tschichold designed. The flexible case, in black linen with silver blocking on the spine, is pleasant to touch. The text pages, in a contemporary (non-artist designed) sanserif, are printed on a non-shiny off-white text paper. The typography is not assertive (as was so much Bauhaus typography) but expressive and practical, and the book begins unforgettably with a black frontispiece.

Inside pages of The New Typography

Finally, under the supervision of Kinross, The New Typography was published in English in 1995,

The fate of the “new typographic artists” in Germany will continue in the next post.


If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

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