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.

Image result for paul renner

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.

Image result for german black letterfont

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.

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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The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution

The English Invention

For the artist of the modern period, the most essential problem was how to depict the modern: as a new style, as new content, as a new attitude? Each generation would find its own answer, only to have the next generation find this answer inadequate. In the process of attempting to locate the “modern,” the role of art would change, the role of the artist would change, the role of the public would change, and ironically, the artist and the public would become completely separate. How did the artist become separated from the mass art audience? This estrangement was the result of significant social and economic changes that gradually changed the artist’s role in society. The condition of the avant-garde—that is, artists being “ahead” of the public’s taste and expectations—is closely linked to the development of the Industrial Revolution. This social and economic revolution in manufacturing was, perhaps, both the most sudden and swift and also the most complete and comprehensive revolution in history: it changed everything. But–and this is an important element of the revolution–the technological advances introduced the notion of change, interjected notions of novelty and progress into society, long before the actual industrial evolution had arrived.

The trend away from small scale artisanal or intimate domestic manufacture towards mass production began around 1740 in England and a bit later in America with the industrialization of the textile industry and the development of mining to find the coal to run the machines to run the textile mills. In England and America, these mills sprang up near rivers, a source of natural power and thousands of workers were pulled from the surrounding countryside to new factory towns, lining the river banks. Under the auspices of Josiah Wedgwood, the the first assembly line was set up for the mass production of fine pottery in a new factory at Etruria. Not to be confused with the moving conveyor belt deployed by Henry Ford more than a century later, Wedgewood’s establishment divided the production of a single vessel into segments in which the crafting of a single part was the sole task of a a worker. The potters of Etruria were therefore separated according to their assigned tasks and each focused on one aspect of the making of the object. This separation of labor into specific repetitive tasks and the “alienation”–as Karl Marx would have it–of the worker from the product would be the model for mass manufacturing for the Industrial Revolution.

Pre-revolutinary manufacture was in the hands of one maker who was the “designer” who made a unique hand made item from start to finish and was thus totally identified with this object. Whether this was a piece of luxurious jewelry for a courtier or a laboriously hewn wooden bowl handed down within a peasant family, the craftsperson was not separated from his or her own tools or from the resulting product. The industrial revolution was based upon separating the worker from the tools, which are owned by the factory, and from the completed object, which emerges fully formed at some point far away from most of the workers who contributed to its making. These separations are extremely efficient and allows depersonalized manufacture on a large scale of a mass number of consumer goods. Mass production meant mass profits for the owners. Thanks to the increasing importance of industry to the economy, the workplace moved from the home to an environment that was artificial, where there was no day and no night, only endless labor. The factory was among the first truly “modern” works of architecture, specifically designed for a designated purpose. The exterior was usually long and low with glazed walls, allowing for the maximum amount of light to pour into the long open workspaces inside. The machines could be placed row upon row, operated by low paid workers, supervised by the all seeing eyes of the overseers. This interior environment was based upon the relentless rhythms of the omnipresent machines that ruled those who worked for and with them, severing the workers from the outdoor world of nature and its eternal rhythms, and harnessing them to the mechanical demands of animated devices.

Beneath the earth, miners toiled in an equally artificial environment, in total darkness broken only by candles, in constant danger from escaping gases or cave-ins or flooding. Here in the mines, as in the factory, night and day had no meaning, time itself was unnatural, linked to the length of the “shift,” or the span of time one worked, not to the rising and setting of the sun or to the cycle of the seasons. Far from home, severed from the land, people–men, women and children–now worked long days, measured by carefully segmented time, in dangerous places for low pay. There was no concept of worker safety, of benefits to the laborers, of a living wage, because the alternatives for those formerly of the peasant class were few. In England, their way of life was effectively ended with the closure of the Commons, or lands that had been, through customs and practice, been set aside for centuries for the benefit of the lower class community. The owners of the land, the gentry had traditionally felt an obligation, noblesse oblige–inferred responsibility–to take care of the less fortunate. The medieval arrangement of mutual recognition between “master” and “servant” worked until a more profitable alternative presented itself, a shift that began to manifest itself in the early eighteenth century. Farming crops became less profitable than a combination of farming coupled with the raising of livestock on a large scale. Slowly the Commons closed: fences were erected, walls were built, people were shut out and forced to seek work in the factories that were springing up, conveniently, at the same time. Hungry peasants joined the growing army of industrial workers.


1860 view of Wedgwood’s Etruria Works

Labor in the factories, as was pointed out, was very different from the labor of the fields, and people had to be trained to the new demands of life in the enclosed factory and the dark and dank mines. One had to be taught to endure work that was hard and difficult, often deadly and dangerous. Humans were “disciplined,” as Michel Foucault explained, through time honored methods developed by monasteries and carried over to the military and to schools and finally into factories. In Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison, Foucault wrote,

Disciplinary control does not consist simply in teaching or imposing a series of particular gestures, it imposes the best relation between a gesture and the overall position of the body which is its condition of efficiency and speed. In the correct use of the body, which makes possible a correct use of time, nothing must remain idle or useless: everything must be called upon to form the support of the act required.

“Labor” became a new kind of concept, referring to a new kind of work regulated by the rhythm of the “shift” or the number of hours worked and, therefore, timed to the ticking of the clock. Time itself was sped up, cut, like the gestures of the body, into tiny pieces, and adapted to the needs of the task at hand. Work, too was speeded up and was equally divided into a segmented process. In dusty, noisy factories, absorbed in repetitive tasks, working like machines, the workers were also alienated from the end product, the result of a rational and an analytic process, which investigated and examined each aspect of manufacture, a mode of thinking that would, in the twentieth century be called “Fordism” or time and motion studies. The factory was a vast machine, and the workers mere cogs in the machine. The process and pace of manufacture ruled their lives and their deaths.

With the social and financial shift from landed wealth to industrial wealth, money and power were no longer solely dependent upon inherited position and were increasingly based upon new opportunities provided by trade and commerce and manufacture. The shift in social power also moved the site of culture from the aristocratic courts to urban centers, teaming with ambitious middle class individuals, all determined to take advantage of the opportunities capitalism promised. The medieval world, largely rural and ruled by the landed gentry and an unquestioned habitus, or habitual learned behavior, depended upon personal contacts consisting of mutual obligations, and this world simply disappeared. Money and the exchange of money could not recognize moral values and the profit motive ruled all actions. Not until well int the twentieth century were there any constraints on the actions of capitalism, a cultural force beyond the control of mere individuals. Nevertheless, people were shaped by the demands of capitalism, which in the eighteenth century was global and international. Newly rich middle class individuals created prosperity for themselves and controlled the new sources of wealth, whether through manufacture or trade, as completely as the now-deposed aristocrats had once ruled their domains. While the middle class rose, working conditions actually declined in quality for the lower class workers, regardless of age, who worked every day for well over ten hours a day under inhuman and unhealthy conditions.

Despite the unprecedented hardships on the workers, the Industrial Revolution allowed a new form of upward mobility. Any man (not women) with wit and foresight and a few good ideas could become wealthy and powerful, taking advantage of new prospects and horizons. Two hundred years ago, vast fortunes were made by the newly formed middle class, who had scrambled up the social ladder, eager to forget their humble origins. Coming from the lower classes, the peasants and the urban proletariat, the factory workers operated machines which fabricated products on a massive scale, making consumer goods available to the entire population, making the owners of the factories wealthy while raising the standard of living for everyone, even, by the twentieth century, for the laborers. Those who owned the manufacturing process—mining and making—enjoyed the fruits of what the Prussian philosopher, Karl Marx, called “surplus value,” meaning the difference what the worker was actually paid and what the object was actually sold for. Even today, the average worker, whether in a factory or field or a tech lab, is paid for about two hours a day, with the owner pocketing the other six hours as profit. This profit is usually shared with stockholders and not with the workers. Today, for example, the shareholders demand and end to labor, which is expensive, and ask the owners to increase returns by shifting to automation or by finding cheaper workers. During the eighteenth century, the middle class grew in social and political power and became their own investors, elevating each other as bankers, lawyers, and manufactures, participating in the new system of exchange and international trade. The profits were theoretically endless. Land is limited; farming is dependent upon weather; manufacturing, on the other hand, is limited only by demand and independent of anything but the marketplace, which was, as Karl Marx pointed out, driven by bourgeois desires for commodities. Later, Sigmund Freud would agree with Marx that a commodity was a mere symptom or a fetish, guaranteed to create, not to satisfy desire.

The manufacture of commodities necessitated the training of a new kind of individual, the consumer, who would be willing to purchase the new, the novel and the innovative. The consumer society was built on endless change and turnover of ever new objects to admire, desire and purchase. The spenders were, at first, the moneyed class, now defined, not by birth, but by ability to consume. Once acquired by the acquisitive class, the ephemeral commodity would “melt into air,” as Marx put it, only to be replaced by the next fad and the next novelty, the new desire. It is during the nineteenth century, that this system of “melting” would be formalized into a social practice called “fashion,” centering at first upon clothing. The creation of the web of commodities exploited the rights of the workers who were so blinded by their collective need to survive and make a living of sorts that they dared not complain. Caught up in a apparatus that was the vast economy, the worker was oppressed and was socially and cognitively conditions or disciplined to accept his or her fate. Writing the Communist Manifesto (1848) in exile in England, the Prussian philosopher imagined an uprising of the proletariat once the “veil” of ideology was torn from its eyes. The workers would recognize that their wages were stolen, that their souls were crushed, and that they had rights and power. Without them, the machines would stop as surely as if they had thrown their sabots into the gears. Under the spell of “consciousness raising,” the proletariat would seize the mode of production, and inaugurate the phase of the people’s ownership–“the dictatorship of the proletariat.” Witnessing the degradation of the workers on the eve of the Revolution of 1848, Marx waited in vain for the success of the workers’ uprising. But it was not to be. The Revolution which sprang up all over Europe was crushed by reactionary forces, the alliance of the governments with the owners of the modes of production. Another attempt was made to rise up in France in 1870 but once again, the lower classes were defeated and seemed to subside to the will of the ongoing Industrial Revolution.

It is important to note that only in England could Karl Marx had conceived of his economic and philosophical theories. The Industrial Revolution, which seemed so all-important in England and Scotland, actually spread very slowly to the continent. Decades after Marx completed his economic theories the industrial revolution and its effects began to alter France and then Germany. But in England, the shape of the Industrial Revolution and its effects on the construction of a new knot of human being, enmeshed in a new system of human relations, based upon reciprocal powers. The internal workings of the system were disguised by the beguiling array of commodities offered to the workers. Buttressed by capitalism, the Industrial Revolution offered more chances for social mobility than political revolution. If one worked hard, then one could join the class of consumers. Increasingly workers were seduced by the all-powerful commodity, which, as Marx noted, had the qualities of the fetish to arouse desire.

“Machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labor, we behold starving and overworking it. The newfangled sources of wealth, by some weird spell, are turned into sources of want. The victories of art seem bought by the loss of character. At the same pace that mankind masters nature, man seems to have become enslaved to other men or to his own infamy.”

During the nineteenth century, burgeoning technology was buttressed by an unfettered optimism that the quality of life was improving, offering more opportunities for more people. It was an era when most people believed in Progress, not just of science and technology, but also for human beings themselves. It was an article of faith that industrialization had ushered in a better way of life, which, like the human beings who benefited from it, would develop and evolve in a positive direction. The world became defined by constant changes, some of which were good, but there was a dark side to the state of flux: upheaval and disequilibrium. Old worlds were destroyed and the new worlds were not easily reached by those who had been displaced off the farm and from the factory or out of the office. The alternative belief system was that of a sense of a Mastery of Nature. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, human beings seemed to be in control of the environment, capable of acting as designers of Nature itself. Although by the time the Industrial Revolution was fully in effect, the Enlightenment as a philosophical or social movement was long over, but the new economic system of capitalism still echoed some of the Enlightenment’s most cherished concepts: optimism and progress.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.
[email protected]