How modernism became the new typographical norm
This is the conclusion of a series on modernism and typography. Read the first part here.
The Nazi backlash to modernism came just as modernist typography was growing out of its rebellious adolescence. By 1933, radical exploration of the outer limits of letterforms via abstracted geometry was over. In its place came sober thought on the practical applications of recent experiments. It all came together a new typography.
Modernist typography's maturation started back in 1923, when Bauhaus presented its first exhibition. Among their visitors was a young typographic designer named Jan Tschichold. His story brings our story about modernism and typography to its conclusion.
How Jan Tschichold became a great typographer
Tschichold spent the years following his introduction to Bauhaus connecting with the German design community, collaborating with everyone from Bayer to Zwart, Lissitsky to Schwitters. In 1926 he started working under Paul Renner—the designer of Futura—at his Master’s School for German Book Printing.
And Tschichold was a master.
Bauhaus was built upon the fusion of art and practical mastery—something like the principles behind Arts and Crafts. But the reality of modern production put complete mastery of production beyond the reach of individual craftsmen. Modern printing, for example, was the work of collaborating specialists—artists, designers, typesetters, press operators, and more.
Producing type was no different. As a manufactured good, fonts churned along a production line, step by step, from inkling to ink. Acquiring practical mastery of any one step of the process would have required a specialized education and significant time commitment. Mastering the process itself? That should have been impossible.
But Tschichold was raised to design type. He was born in Leipzig in 1902—then the German centre for printing. His father was a sign painter and calligrapher who took his son on as an apprentice. In 1919, the year after Mondrian declared the end of everything old, Tschichold began his studies in printing and applied arts. By 1923, he’d taken on a brand-new position: typographic designer at a large Leipzig printing company. Soon after, he made his visit to Bauhaus, and his conversion to modernism was confirmed.
To the artists he befriended, Tschichold was an incredible asset. With his training, he knew how to get what he wanted. He could, therefore, effectively communicate artistic vision to printers, thus producing exactly what artists wanted.
A collaboration between Jan Tschichold and El Lissitzky—part of a book cover from 1929
Jan Tschichold and The New Typography
The experience and capabilities Tschichold gained managing projects augmented and broadened his already-significant practical knowledge. In 1928, he assembled his expertise in a book, The New Typography.
As its name would suggest, Tschichold was philosophically inspired by Mondrian’s ideas about The New. Accordingly, Tschichold used the Great War as a divide between The Old (everything pre-1914) and The New, and set forth the commandments for typographers in The New era. The New Typography was also a clear-eyed look at contemporary typographical trends—as much descriptive as it was prescriptive.
Many of Tschichold’s typographical rules have a direct link to De Stijl: asymmetry, a positive use of empty space, an impactful use of colour, preserving the integrity of blocks. With respect to type itself, Tschichold generally favoured Sans Serifs—with a qualified nod to Romans when set in text. He singled out Blackletters, in particular, as obsolete and needlessly nationalistic—an impediment to communication between different countries. He was, however, sensitive to Blackletters’ advantages in German, and proposed a universal alphabet that introduced new letters, eliminated other letters, and even did away with uppercase.
Tschichold’s treatment of photos was particularly radical, although we may not think so today. On the most basic level, he argued for actually using photos—this was still controversial. He also argued for preserving blocks of text by setting photos within columns, rather than wrapping text around images centred on the page—even more controversial! Finally, he was in favour of integrating type and photos, creating what he called typo-photos—literally just photos with type set within them but an act of degeneracy if ever a Nazi saw one.
Throughout The New Typography, Tschichold argued for standardization. The Deutsche Industrie-Normen (German Industrial Norms) had recently established certain standards with which all industries could work. This was a huge win for industry—taking care of certain irregularities, such that they were no longer a concern, opened up opportunities for creativity. The same, Tschichold argued, was true for printing: through standardization, the designer was freed from dealing with trifling minutia, like the size of paper, and was able to focus on better design.
Behind the typographical specifications in TNT, there’s a clear statement on modernism. Design, in this case, is not the act of decoration, but the act of giving form. Art has been abstracted into the forms of architecture and industrial design. Anonymity is desirable—all rules of design transcend the individual. Creation is a collective endeavour, shared between technicians.
This was also a descriptive statement. By 1928, modernism wasn’t just a utopian idea honed on post-war grit—it was built reality. Robust institutions had developed to train the technicians that took their place in the collective act of creation. Capitalists and socialists alike rallied behind the virtue of efficiency.
International style architecture in Berlin's Hansaviertel
In 1932, Henry-Russel Hitchcock and Philip Johnson published a book identifying the architectural developments of the preceding decade as International Style—the title of the book. This new style manifested as volume rather than mass, regularity over symmetry, and materials over decoration. In coining the name ‘International Style’, they didn’t mean that designers in all countries had spontaneously lurched into eerie homogeneity, but that they undertook the same experiments.
The following year, the Nazis began their conquest of Europe, scattering the continent’s modernists. Ironically, this made International Style more international than it had ever been. Many modernists, including Piet Mondrian, Walter Gropius, and Herbert Bayer, fled to America. Kurt Schwitters managed to stay barely a step ahead of the Nazis before ending up in Britain. Wassily Kandinsky fled to France and lived in seclusion. El Lissitsky had already returned to Russia by 1933, but Soviet oppression there forced him to abandon modernism.
Jan Tschichold fled to Switzerland. In exile, even he turned on modernism and the precepts he’d established in The New Typography.
Why did Jan Tschichold ultimately reject modernism?
On a 1937 visit to London, Tschichold met the king of New Traditionalists, Stanley Morison. Whether or not the encounter was a catalyst for his own changing thoughts on typography, a year later, ten years after he published The New Typography, Tschichold had gone full traditionalist himself, and resumed work with pre-industrial types. The appeal of pragmatism was there—serifs really did make text more readable. But he also declared the whole New Typography experiment to be too formal and rigid—even fascistic.
Decades later, Tschichold produced his most popular font, a Garamond-inpsired Roman called Sabon. True to what he’d accepted about serifs and readable text, it proved enduringly popular with book publishers. Sabon never reached Times New Roman’s heights of ubiquity, but in our article on the most popular Roman ever, we mentioned other, better Romans that followed the juggernaut. We submit that Sabon is one of the best Romans.
Sabon bold, Jan Tschichold's fine Roman type
While Jan Tschichold buried The New Typography and embraced the merits of tradition, The New wasn’t dead—it was just no longer THE New that Piet Mondrian promised. Through the chaos, brutality, utopianism, and reactionary thinking that characterized the emergence of modernism, this new had simply become what all news eventually become: old.
Latter-day Tschichold’s full-throated renunciation of TNT stands at odds with the reality of modernism’s impact on typography. Nobody sets photos centred on the page, like Century Illustrated used to. The last 70 years of advertising would be unimaginable without the so-called typo-photo. Flush-left, ragged-right typesetting is still a great look. Even the humble Sans Serif, supposedly useless for continuous text, has enjoyed a renaissance in digital text.
In its success, modernism became mundane. As it matured, modernist typography became part of the typographic landscape. And it stood tall among the mountains of Tschichold’s adoptive country. There, Swiss designers picked up his fallen standard, and created the International Style of typography. Thus began work on the giant of giants—the greatest font of all time.