Abstract Typography

 How abstract art changed the shape of letters


This is the second part of a series on modernism and typography. Read the first part here.

At every moment of the past all variations of the old were “new”—but they were not “THE” new. We must never forget that we are at a turning point of civilization, at the end of everything old. This parting of the ways is absolute and final.

-Piet Mondrian

Piet Mondrian was a painter. He took up the art around the time when impressionism and cubism were challenging the boundaries of what painting could be. And then WW1 shattered everything—those boundaries included. The frontiers of artistic possibility opened up. Artists, Mondrian among them, proposed radically new interpretations of the world.

Piet Mondrian's Tableau I

Mondrian stands out not only for his strikingly new art, but for the ideas behind it. Mondrian’s paintings were, simply put, a visual manifestation of the simplest ideas—all derived from a ruthlessly idealist philosophy. His work was deeply influential, not only in painting but in sculpture, architecture, and typography.


What is abstraction?

Thousands of years before Mondrian was born, the philosopher Plato suggested a new way of thinking about reality.

Imagine prisoners chained in a cave, facing a wall. The wall is all they can see. A fire behind them lights the cave; things moving between the fire and the wall cast shadows on the wall. The prisoners see the shadows, give them names, and believe this to be reality.

Their sense of sight tells them nothing else, but if they think about it, they can use their power of reasoning to determine that the shadows they see are only approximations of the real objects behind them, out of sight.

Plato's cave, as depicted in a print by Jan Saenredam

We see a world that’s constantly changing and riven by endless differences. Each particular thing we see is not the same as any other particular thing. And particular things change over time. Yet we know, thanks to our power of reasoning, that our dog, despite his unique spots, is a dog. And that he remains both our dog and a dog even as he ages and the spots on his muzzle grey.

This is the power of abstraction. We abstract from our particular dog the ideal dog—the essence of what makes every dog a dog: dogness.

What is abstract art?

Piet Mondrian applied Platonic principles of idealism to art. Coming at the world during a time when the old was intent on destroying itself, making something really new called for understanding newness—the essence of the ideal new.

Like Plato’s real objects that cast shadows in the cave, Mondrian argued that “abstract art is... the true vision of reality.” The abstract artist’s job, then, was to make visible the reality that we can normally only “see” with our sense of reason.

Plato, compared to modern humans, had it easy. According to Mondrian, “In past times when one lived in contact with nature, abstraction was easy; it was done unconsciously. Now in our denaturalized age abstraction becomes an effort.” In other words, we long ago reasoned our way to broad abstractions: species, geometry, colour, math. In the modern, industrialized world, where technology like half-tone printing and photography made reproduction of particulars easy, our power of abstraction dimmed.

Why hold an ideal dog in mind when we have a photo of our dog in hand?

Buster Keaton, holding his dog in sight.

Abstraction, reality, and communication

You may notice that claims about abstract reality are at odds with how we think about communication in Letters. We say that the experience of the particular is the real. Your dog nuzzling your hand is eminently more real than the ideal dog or ideal hand, concepts like friendship, the stories we tell about friendship, or the abstract means (like words and letters) we use to tell them.

So much of our experience of reality comes from within us, the subjects of that experience—the flood of emotion, the fixing of memory, the physical response—that any attempt to idealize the experience, so fixated on the object of the experience, will never capture it. Abstractions are handy, human-made creations to replicate and disseminate approximations of particular experiences. But they aren’t real. They’re artificial—plastic, if you will.

Mondrian probably wouldn’t disagree. Mondrian was an artist: he was aware that his art was experienced by subjects, he was interested in evoking a response in those subjects, and he understood that the act of abstraction was also an experience.

Mondrian’s use of abstraction was, therefore, ruthless. Everything could be abstracted into an ideal. Ideals could be abstracted into ideals of ideals, reducing everything to a few universals. The only limit to abstraction was opposition—from one night we can abstract idealized night, from idealized night we can abstract darkness, from darkness we can abstract black. But we can’t abstract white from black, nor black from white.


Piet Mondrian's abstract art

Mondrian’s paintings were a representation of these idealized ideals, limited only by opposition, but constructed from that opposition. If the universe is in balance, the opposing ideals in a painting should represent that balance. Over years, Mondrian explored this vision of reality, using only vertical lines, horizontal lines, primary colours, black, and white.

A cover of De Stijl

Unifying all visual arts under this method would create what Mondrian called a “new plastic reality”. He called his style neoplasticism. His friend and fellow painter, Theo van Doesburg, went neoplastic on the name and called it De Stijl—the style. They launched a magazine with the same name. This is where Mondrian’s ideals hit the presses and manifested typographically.


Abstraction applied to type

De Stijl soon found a willing and skilled disciple in Piet Zwart. Zwart had trained as an architect and only began designing graphics in his late 30s. He received his first commission in the early 1920s, designing advertising—including type—for Laga, a flooring company.

Piet Zwart's Laga flooring poster.

Zwart allows himself to play with the type here, evoking rolls of rubber flooring in "loco" and the Sans Serif, Fat Face-esque "Rubber Vloeren". This is an act of abstraction, but the influence of De Stijl is strongest in Zwart's Laga logo. Straight lines oppose each other in verticals and horizontals. Overall, colours are simple, primary, used in opposition to non colour. The visuals aren’t symmetrical, but balanced between empty space and occupied space—fullness and emptiness: two complete and opposed abstractions.

In 1922, Theo van Doesburg—by then an ambassador for De Stijl—moved to Weimar, Germany. There, he joined talent from all over Europe, attracted to an exciting new school of applied arts with a thoroughly modern design philosophy—one that, like neoplasticism, would build the world in minimal forms and colours, expressed through unified arts and crafts: Bauhaus. In 1929, Piet Zwart would also find his way to Bauhaus as a guest lecturer on type design. The movement towards abstract letter design was building.


This is the second part of a series on modernism and typography.