Monday, 1:58pm
20 May 2013

Tear-off type walls in Berlin

The Bauhaus Archive presents a tour of German-language typographic history with ‘On-Type: Texts on Typography’.

They say that an exhibition should never be a book on a wall, but ‘On-Type’ is exactly that. The entire exhibition is made up of many books and texts all over the walls at Berlin’s Bauhaus Archive, writes Jessica Jenkins.

Visitors are invited not only to read the exhibition, composed entirely of words, but also to tear off and compose their personal collection of single letterforms, theses, quotations and biographies of many of the twentieth century’s most influential type designers.

All photos by Jessica Jenkins

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The show, which runs until 5 August opened on 8 May – just after the German Design History Society’s conference at the Werkbund Archive on collecting and exhibiting design, and just before TYPO Berlin 2013 – the perfect bridge between history and practice.

For any visitors with only a hazy idea of the history of type, this is a must-see, the only caveat being that competence in the German language is a prerequisite to appreciate fully the content. The exhibition begins with Behrens’ first forays into the Modern, through the reforming morality of Werkbund, the social idealism of the neue Typographie, the National Socialists’ racist legislation on type, through to Swiss- and Dutch-led aspirations for ‘neutrality’ in the postwar era, and finally into the postmodern, trailing off into ‘dematerialisation’ and ‘virtualisation’.

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The exhibition is more or less limited to German-speaking areas. The number of non-German-language designers, including Edward Johnston, Stanley Morison and William A. Dwiggins, can be counted on one hand. While this its strength, with excellent contextual material from the prewar avant-gardes (clearly much more than just type was at stake here) and postwar Modernism also on display, it is also its weakness: the interest and experiment is less evident in the ‘postmodern’ and ‘dematerialisation’ sections, where some audacious experiments could have brought a little energy.

It was almost as though the curators felt inhibited by the watchful eyes of Moholy-Nagy, El Lissitzky and Max Bill. It was also strange not to include a single female typographer, which I don’t believe on this occasion is because they are too busy having babies. Apart from a single foreword by Axel Bertram in a 1991 publication of a meeting of the ‘Bundestreffen Typografie’, I did not see any representation of East German typographic history, either.

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The ‘wow’ factor of this expo is undoubtedly the analogue interactive concept, something which Berlin’s letterati responded to with gusto at the launch. Be warned, to collect one of every sheet requires stamina and focus. A nice extra is the typography for children pamphlet, which is suitable for a schoolchild of any age – my six-year-old loved it.

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It is very much to be welcomed that the Bauhaus Archive in Berlin is hosting this intensively researched project connecting history and theory in a way that appeals to practitioners – personally I hope this may be a new direction for the archive’s exhibitions. The exhibition is curated and organised by the Gutenberg Museum, Mainz University of Applied Sciences / Designlabor Gutenberg. A 243‐page publication on the topic, edited by the curators, is available in the museum.

On-Type: Texts on Typography
Bauhaus-Archiv / Museum für Gestaltung, Klingelhöferstraße 14, D-10785 Berlin, Germany
8 May to 5 August 2013.

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Jessica Jenkins is a designer and writer based in Berlin, Paris and London.

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