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?”

Image result for fraktur script

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.

 

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The Fate of Fonts, Part One

The Fate of Fonts

Typography in the 1920s, Part One

Until the 1920s, a printer’s font was selected and combined into words with the intention that the words were going to be read. This assertion may seem axiomatic at first, but, in the modern era, fonts were rethought as elements of graphic design because texts had become an object to gaze upon and not to be closely scrutinized. The Art Deco revolution towards modern fonts went hand-in-hand with the changes in magazine layout which, thanks to print technology, could incorporate images seamlessly and artistically. Free from the stifling grid, artists could reconsider the arrangement and relationship of text and image by equating them in importance. Once the text–letters–fonts–became part of an overall design, it became clear that fonts had to cease their independent existence as letters and become objects in their own right that were a part of the overall design. Old fashioned fonts with their combination of thick lines and thin lines and the accompanying array of bristling serifs simply did not work well with the new dynamics of twentieth-century design. Typography was part of the literate modern world that included books and magazines and advertising and bill boards and posters all demanding attention, and like the rest of the world, old typefaces needed to be updated into modern fonts.

Adolphe Jean-Marie Mouron, who went by the professional nom de plume “Cassandre” (1901-1968), was a famed poster designer and, as one of the pioneers of Art Deco graphic design, was well aware of the need to signify “modern” with words or fonts as well as shapes and formats to the potential consumers of modern stylish products. A Ukrainian exile living and working in Paris, he experimented at will, often using his own fonts, Bifur, for his graphic work for his clients, free to be creative and unhindered by local political needs that he would have encountered in the new Soviet Union. Because he was the co-founder of his own agency, Alliance Graphique, the designer had the good fortune to experiment without the government interference that would later plague the German designers. The German colleagues of Cassandre began with the same clean slate as he had but, by the early 1930s, seemingly innocent fonts became entangled with national identity.

Bifur Font by Cassandre

Germany was the home country of the famed inventor of movable type and the printing press, Johannes Gutenberg (1398-1468). Before Gutenberg improved the already existing movable type, printed pages were pressed onto inked woodblocks with raised letters carved out. These white pages with elaborate letters marching across from one side to the other, from top to bottom, or incunabula, very rare and prized today. The printing press could have been invented in Holand or in Germany by the middle of the fifteenth century, but it quickly replaced the manuscript. Called “mechanical writing,” the pages produced by Gutenberg’s very excellent press looked back to the past, to the handwritten manuscripts with hand lettering that dated back to Medieval times. In addition, many, if not most, of the early manuscripts were liturgical in purpose. In fact, in order to pay off his debts, according to Graphic Design History, Gutenberg printed papal indulgences and Bibles. The consumer or reader would not accept a new “book” if it did not look like a manuscript with all of its handwritten authority. The printer replicated the Textura Quadrata, or the “blackletter” font. Almost five hundred years later, Germany was still using the blackletter font for nearly all official printed materials, from magazines to books to government documents.

Old Type Guttenberg A font

One of the oddities of modern German was not just that the nation kept a font for hundreds of years old but also that capital letters were used to designate nouns, making any page an uneven jumble of large and small letters with on design logic. As early as the 1820s, there were attempts to reform and update the printing of German, using capital letters for the start of sentences and for proper names only as like the rest of the European languages. By the early twentieth century, it was simply absurd to continue the tradition of replicating the handwritten manuscript lettering of the Medieval period, which was calligraphic, dense and elaborate, and one of the self-imposed tasks of the Bauhaus was to update calligraphy and remake fonts into something suitable for the modern era. Students at the Bauhaus were required to take two semesters of typography and letter design. Their teacher, Joost Schmidt, broke individual letters of the alphabet to their basic elements: a circle, a square, and a rectangle. The goal was to create a universal or international alphabet. The word “international” is significant in this context, for the Bauhaus, as has been noted in previous posts, made itself an outlier in Germany by stressing a neutral international identity over a specific and proud national identity. However, in 1923 when László Moholy-Nagy arrived at the Bauhaus in 1923, the politics of identity seemed far away. The designer concentrated upon the concept of typography as an instrument of “clarity” in the service of the “message.” It is clear that the whole of the graphic design resources of the school was oriented towards reform and those efforts at updating including fonts. In the newly inaugurated the Druck und Reklame (printing and advertising) workshop, Herbert Bayer (1900-1985), a former student at the Bauhaus, was head of this new department.

The Director of the art school, Walter Gropius (1883-1969) asked Bayer to design a unique and distinctive typeface that would be the “face” of Bauhaus. The selection of Bayer was a judicious one. The artist had been asked in 1923 by the State of Thuringia to design their new bank notes for a series of million marks bills. Shockingly enough, his design used sans serif type, but two years later, the same government withdrew support from the Bauhaus. Two years later, when Bayer returned in 1925, the school was in a new home, Dessau, and had a new frame of reference. Bayer became head of the typography workshop and decided to create a single font face that would be “universal.” He made a bold leap away from the traditional German blackletter and designed a lower-case only alphabet in which the simplified and reduced font without serifs. which became associated with the Bauhaus and with artistic design. Each letter was constructed with great economy, an arc here, a straight line there, nothing else was necessary. In contrast to the traditional justified right side, Bayer justified only the left side and allowed the right side to be “ragged.” His Universal alphabet did not become “universal,” but the future of fonts would be sans serif, which, like Bayer’s lower case only fonts, was a rebellion against the serif sprouting fraktur and its forest of capital letters. At first, when it came to politics, Bayer proved to be surprisingly open to the blandishments of the Nazis when they came to power. His neutral attitude towards the party of Adolf Hitler was surprising, given that it was the Nazi party that had pushed the Bauhaus out of Weimar, however, for their part, the Nazis were equally flexible in their willingness to hire the former Bauhaus star to do their bidding.

Herbert Bayer’s “Bauhaus” font

As Alice Rawsthorn wrote for The New York Times, “In the 10 years from 1928, when he left the Bauhaus to open a studio in Berlin, until his departure for the United States in 1938, he produced posters, brochures and other promotional material for a succession of government projects. Bayer later tried to erase this period from his biography, describing it as ‘my advertising purgatory..'” It seems that Bayer, like many artists needed the work and could not afford to be political. In the early years, the Nazis cloaked their more evil intentions under programs of rebuilding, but those in power took a dim view of modern art and design. The author continued, “Bayer rapidly became one of Germany’s most prolific commercial designers. But by the mid-1930s, the Nazi regime was increasingly repressive and many of his friends, including the Gropiuses, had left the country. Bayer remained, and worked on high-profile government projects, including the propaganda exhibitions ‘German People, German Work’ and ‘Germany.’ Disapproving though the Nazis were of Modernist design, they were willing to use it whenever it seemed expedient.” However, it was impossible for a modern artist to say in favor with the Nazis indefinitely. By 1938, Bayer had fallen from favor. In 2014 Rawsthorn wrote, “Bayer was desperate to leave Germany, but too broke to do so until Gropius arranged for him to curate an exhibition about the Bauhaus at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He left for the United States in August 1938…Looking back on his life in Berlin, Bayer admitted to being ‘appalled how blind’ he had been to the horrors of Nazism. He also acknowledged the folly of thinking that designers, artists or anyone else could isolate themselves from politics, as he had tried to do.”

It would be safe to say that Bayer’s alphabet is still the face of the Bauhaus, but, even though his font existed only as a design its impact lingers on. As Sarah Archer wrote in 2015 on a change in the Google font, “Bayer set out to create a typeface that was “universal” and could be deployed in a variety of creative ways, at different scales. Each element was lowercase so that the typeface could be adapted to typewriters, books, posters, and signage — in other words, all the ways in which we interact with type on a daily basis as we navigate the world. The premise that each letter was the same “weight” in typographic terms, that is, the same thickness, meant that each character was interchangeable and thus the process of design and implementation was simplified. Bayer’s original design now exists as Bayer Universal and inspired the related typefaces, Architype Bayer and Architype Schwitters. Google’s new face, “Product Sans,” faintly resembles Bayer’s Universal Alphabet in its heavy, rounded forms, each of which seems to “fit” in a circular fashion over the footprint of the other.” Archer explained the suitability of a “universal” alphabet for a universal search engine like Google: “Why do this at Google, and why now? Bayer and Tschichold, along with their Bauhaus colleagues like architect Walter Gropius, addressed the struggle to reconcile the human, tactile, and affective experiences of design with the aesthetics (and recent ravages) of the Machine Age. How could people expect to navigate a world that was made of cold materials on a giant scale? Though the concerns of World War I-era Europe seem less pressing now, the spirit of those worries is as relevant as ever: our connections to other people, in ways both good and bad, are mediated by technology, gadgets, and data, from our physical location on earth to the way we “appear” online to others. Google’s breadth and scope essentially makes its array of products the 21st-century equivalent of Modernist architecture or mass production: Google is everywhere, unavoidable, greatly beneficial if used right, and it requires the finesse of forward-thinking, humanist designers to make it accessible.”

New Google font in 2015

Herbert Bayer, like his mentor, Walter Gropius, was successful in America where he lived a safe life in a nation where he could enjoy artistic freedom. The goal of the designers of the 1920s was a simple one–to make fonts legible and readable. In other words, while Cassandre was being creative with fonts in France, his German colleagues were reforming nothing less than how their countrymen read and their inventions were out of necessity. In the next part of this topic, the fate of the other designers and designs in England will be discussed.

 

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

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

Thank you.

[email protected]