Autumn 2007

Faith in asymmetry

Active Literature: Jan Tschichold and New Typography

Christopher Burke
Hyphen Press, £35

What makes Jan Tschichold so interesting is not his theories but his practice. None of his dogmatic theories would matter much if he hadn’t been a superb typographer. What Christopher Burke calls ‘Tschichold’s unending search for perfection in typography’ led him from youthful revolutionary enthusiasm to mature reflection. His circumstances as a young typographical radical in 1920s Germany also led him from an exhilarating artistic milieu to persecution and arrest in the early days of the Nazis, and eventually to exile in conservative Switzerland. Although he is best known in the English-speaking world for his reform of Penguin Books in 1947-49, the other pole of his fame is as chief evangelist for the New Typography, given concrete form in his 1928 book Die Neue Typographie.

Active Literature focuses on the earlier part of Tschichold’s career. This seems to me a mistake, since, despite Tschichold’s famous about-face in the late 1930s, when he supposedly became an ‘apostate’ and betrayed the principles of the New Typography, his career and his artistic development do form a whole. The detailed quotes and wide research that this book exhibit make it clear how pig-headed and dogmatic the young Tschichold could be, even when he was trying to be completely practical; when he got a little older (in his thirties!), it seems that he simply learned better. By his old age, perhaps, he had hardened into conservative crustiness, but his arguments in the 1930s and 1940s are cogent, generous and to the point.

These arguments (his and his opponents’) can sound quaint today; for many decades, symmetric and asymmetric typography have simply been alternative tools in the graphic designer’s toolbox, not articles of near-religious faith. And in fact the later Tschichold recognised that asymmetric typography, which he was embarrassed to have trumpeted in his youth as the one true solution to every problem, was still an extremely useful way of dealing with industrial and promotional graphic design. After emigration to Switzerland in 1933, he found himself concentrating more and more on book typography, which he had barely practised before; and for that traditional purpose, he found that traditional methods, clarified and simplified, worked best.

‘The real role of the New Typography,’ wrote Tschichold in 1937, ‘consists in its efforts towards purification and towards simplicity and clarity of means.’ That was no less true of the way he later applied himself to symmetric typography in books. His firebrand youth was a response to the times – the creative ferment of Weimar Germany and revolutionary Modernism, and the sad state of the everyday printed matter he saw around him. As Burke says, ‘What he was mainly aiming for was a clearing away, in visual terms, of the gratuitous decoration endemic in the majority of German commercial printing.’

Unlike other artistic avant-gardists, Tschichold approached this task pragmatically: his books were directed not at an artistic elite but at practitioners in the printing trades.

The strength of Active Literature is in its presentation of those revolutionary early years, including every one of Tschichold’s excesses. But sometimes the narrative thread seems to get lost in the details; and occasional clunky phrases in the prose sound too much like translations, even when they’re not. (Refusing to use ‘the’ before ‘New Typography’, for instance, just seems idiosyncratic rather than idiomatic.)

The illustrations are extremely generous, including many not previously published. You could gain a typographic education just from the illustrations and their captions; and you could get a running commentary on the main story just by reading the footnotes. The book is well made: large yet flexible, well bound and very well printed.

The design is more problematic; Burke uses his own typeface, ff Celeste, for the text, supplemented by ff Celeste Sans for captions, footnotes and bits of the front and back matter. (A digital version of Tschichold’s ‘new constructible block-script, ca. 1930, is used for the cover and chapter headings.)

The pages look nice, but something in the typography puts me to sleep. (‘White space is to be regarded as an active element, not a passive background,’ wrote Tschichold in 1930. In Burke’s book, this seems to be only partly true.) Celeste is a very static typeface, like a sort of updated Walbaum, light and a bit square – pretty but not dynamic. I suspect that a three-column format, with shorter lines, would have worked better; this page of two ragged-right columns, with a very narrow gutter between them, looks inviting but is in fact not easy to read.

Active Literature gets beyond Tschichold’s own perspective on himself and presents his ideas and work in the context of the revolutionary artistic movements of his time, in a more thorough way than any previous book about him. You simply cannot ignore this book, just as you cannot ignore Tschichold.