Symposium Report – The New Typography: Graphic Design in Weimar Germany 1919–1933
by Sandy Jones
Symposium – The New Typography. Graphic Design in Weimar Germany 1919–1933
Bard Graduate Center, New York. March 22, 2019
‘Jan Tschichold and the New Typography. Graphic Design Between the World Wars.’
Bard Graduate Center. February 14 – July 7, 2019. bgc.bard.edu.
The Symposium, The New Typography. Graphic Design in Weimar Germany 1919–1933, was convened by Professor Paul Stirton to complement his current exhibition, Jan Tschichold and the New Typography at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery (February 14-July 7, 2019). Its aim was to examine the formation of modernist graphic design in the context of Weimar culture against the backdrop of the political, social and economic turbulence of the 1920s and 1930s and included a diverse range of papers examining these themes.
Following a welcome from Peter N. Miller, Dean and Professor at the Bard, Paul Stirton’s paper, The Bauhaus, the Ring, and the New Typography considered the institutional environment in which the new typography emerged, by focusing on the journals, societies and organisations involved, rather than the design canon. The Bauhaus’ role was significant as its practice underwent a transformation from a craft-based aesthetic to one more concerned with industrial production. Der Ring Neue Werbegestalter, a collective of avant-garde designers founded by Kurt Schwitters in 1928, published and toured exhibitions of graphic modernism, nationally and internationally. Stirton suggested that whilst the Bauhaus developed interesting theoretical approaches, very few examples of graphic design were successful in the commercial world. In contrast, almost every member of the Ring established their own individual studio practice. Despite their rivalries, Stirton proposed that the Bauhaus and the Ring operated as ‘opposite sides of the same coin’ and that this movement became ‘the fountainhead of what became the principles of modernist graphic design’.
Christopher Burke’s paper, Jan Tschichold: A Double Life, considered the dualities present in Tschichold’s work – the tensions between traditional and modern, creativity and order. His practice originated in the craft tradition, advocated rationalist reform, then returned to an intermediary position, a career described by Paul Renner as, ‘a dialectical hunt for knowledge’. The published dispute between Tschichold and Max Bill, who accused him of abandoning Modernism, Burke suggested, was a ‘seminal moment in the development of Swiss typography.’ Tschichold’s response to this charge was that the Third Reich and World War 2 changed everything, resulting in his disillusionment with the ideology of progress.
Dietrich C Neumann’s paper, ‘“Leuchtreklame”: Illuminated Advertising in 1920s Berlin,’ considered the dream of illuminated architecture following World War 1. In September 1924, representatives from the film and the lighting industries invited law makers and businessmen to a Berlin cinema to watch documentaries of New York City and London by night, in an effort to ease the restrictions and generate interest in city illumination at night. Architects and artists such as Hannes Meyer and Walter Dexel, designed buildings and street furniture that integrated illuminated advertising hoardings. Erich Mendelsohn’s Petersdorff Department Store, Breslau (1927) and Philipp Schaefer’s Karstadt Department Store, Berlin (1929) are fine examples of how monumental illumination transformed Berlin’s cityscape.
Juliet Kinchin’s paper, “Under the Spell of Jan Tschichold”: MoMA and the New Typography’, drew attention to MoMA’s early commitment to graphic modernism and paid tribute to the women at the museum who participated. America’s first encounter with modern German design was the ‘Exhibition of German Applied Arts’ (Newark Museum, 1912) staged by John Cotton Dana, an early advocate for the importance of typography. At MoMA, Ruth Bernhard photographed the landmark exhibition and poster for Machine Art (1934) and Ernestine Fantl, curator of architecture and industrial design (1935-37), worked on the seminal exhibitions, Cubism and Abstract Art (1936) and Posters by A M Cassandre (1936). Mildred Constantine, associate curator of graphic design, was responsible for the comprehensive survey, Word and Image: Posters and Typography from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art 1879-67 (1968).
The author’s paper, ‘Lost and found: the Jan Tschichold acquisition at the V&A’s Library,’ focused on the collections of New Typography sold by Tschichold to the V&A’s Library and MoMA in the 1930s and 1950s respectively. In London, the Library’s Keeper, Philip James, assembled his collection to illustrate the new developments in typographic design from continental Europe, believing that commercial art was a powerful tool for business. During WW2, this collection was placed in a back office until the late 1960s when it was rediscovered by design historians. MoMA’s collection has performed a consistent role in explaining the institution’s own narrative of graphic Modernism. Recent collaborations between the V&A’s National Art Library, MoMA and the Bard have resulted in shared scholarship and a commitment to learning more about these diasporic collections.
Robert Wiesenberger’s, paper “The Model Bauhäusler? Herbert Bayer circa 1950,” considered the history of Herbert Bayer’s painted wall mural, Verdure (1950) created for the dining room at Harkness Commons, in the Harvard Graduate Center. Harvard staged the first Bauhaus exhibition in 1930 in the USA and Walter Gropius, chair of Harvard’s department of architecture, commissioned site-specific works from Josef and Anni Albers, Hans Arp and Richard Lippold and others. Bayer was inspired by the idea of re-romanticising nature, dynamic circulation and equilibrium. The work has been subjected to decades of damage. Ironically, some damage was caused by the plant life installed in front of it. It was restored in 2005.
Lester Beall. Slide of publicity material for the Rural Electrification Administration (1937-41). Steven Heller paper ‘The Americanization of the New Typography.’ 22 March 2019. Bard Graduate Center, New York.
Steven Heller’s paper, ‘The Americanization of the New Typography,’ considered how the USA was, and continues to be influenced by the New Typography and why it lagged behind. Heller suggested that, without a long typography tradition to rebel against and no ideological need to introduce the radical forms of the New Typography, advertising designers were more influenced by the fashions promoted in trade magazines and journals. ‘Moderne’ was adopted as a means to signify the ‘new’ and streamlining became the signature modern style. Heller highlighted key texts of the period, from W A Dwiggins’ ‘Layout in Advertising’ (1928), who was indifferent to the avant-garde, to Douglas C McMurtrie’s ‘Modern Typography & Layout’ (1929) who adapted their ideas for American use. Examples from Lester Beall, Alvin Lustig, Shirley Plaut, Paul Rand and Ladislav Sutnar illustrated the different interpretations of New Typgraphy that co-existed.
To conclude, as Stirton proposed in his introduction, Tschichold was at the centre of both the exhibition and symposium, yet absent. His collection, a survey of the most innovative graphic Modernism from continental Europe illustrates how design, technology, politics and aesthetics contributed to its formation and continues to be a source of inspiration and debate some 100 years’ later.