Thursday, 4:13pm
28 June 2012

Jan the preacher man

In 1925 Jan Tschichold branded the new design when he guest-edited a special issue of Typographische Mitteilungen on ‘Elementare Typografie’. In a manifesto defining die neue typografie, he set forth a radical concept: ‘The purpose of the new typography is functionality.’ This meant designers should reject unnecessary ornament and abandon the symmetrical structures that had dominated design for ages. ‘Asymmetry is the rhythmic expression of functional design,’ he extolled. And so, for generations thereafter Tschichold was revered as a hero of orthodox Modernism (and then, after Hitler came to power and he returned to classical tenets of design, regarded as a betrayer).

In addition to Tschichold’s own publications, which range from a treatise on the evolution of the ampersand to studies of Chinese art, and his 1928 classic Die Neue Typografie (which was used as a textbook at the Bauhaus), quite a few books have been written about him, including those by his friend and translator the late Ruari McLean, and an analysis of his work for Penguin Books by Richard B. Doubleday (see review in Eye no. 62 vol 16).

The latest (and perhaps the best) is Martijn F. Le Coultre’s Jan Tschichold: Posters of the Avantgarde, (Birkhäuser, €39) which is uniquely focused on rare posters in Tschichold’s oeuvre, and contributes a new level of detail to his Modernist legacy.

Through informative texts and rarely seen Typoplakat posters for the Phoebus-Palast cinema in Munich and the Graphisches Kabinett art gallery, Tschichold is shown to have practised what he preached. (Shown here, Phoebus-Palast posters from 1927 and below 1938 poster for the exhibition ‘The Professional Photographer’ at the Gewerbemuseum, Basel.) Le Coultre’s elegantly modest text also sheds light on many little-discussed aspects of Tschichold’s work. For example, how he attained certain commissions through Paul Renner, including a key teaching position at the Meisterschule für Deutschlands Buchdrucker in Munich. Also addressed is his relationship to Die Gruppe Radikaler Reklamegestalter in Deutschland (the group of radical German advertising designers) and his founding in 1928 of Ring neue werbegestalter, which included Kurt Schwitters, Piet Zart and Paul Schuitma, and introduced Modernism to business publicity throughout Europe.

Before he fell foul of the Nazis in 1933, and left Germany forever, Tschichold collected a significant historical archive of new typography artefacts by important contemporaries, some of which are also reproduced in this book. As early as the 1930s, he sold much of his collection to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, apart from what the Nazis seized and what he brought with him to Basel, Switzerland.

For all the new insights, and the generous, full-page reproductions of the posters, this is a must-own document.

Steven Heller