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.
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.
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.
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.