The contradictory perfectionist designer
by Nicholas Fabian
Jan Tschichold was born on April 2, 1902 in Leipzig, Germany. From early childhood he was exposed to his father's sign writing business and that exposure to professional hand lettering left an indelible mark on his life. After completing his schooling at the Leipzig Academy of Graphic Arts, where he studied under the type designer Walter Tiemann, he worked as a teacher, calligrapher, book designer and type designer. In fact, in 1921 after graduating he became an instructor at the Academy. Tschichold spent most of working life as a teacher and book designer, and he only occasionally designed type. In 1926, Tschichold was invited by Paul Renner to become an instructor at his Meisterschule für Deutschlands Buchdrucker (Master School for German Book Printing) in Munich, it was an opportunity that he could not refuse. He stayed with the school until 1933, when the Nazis arrested and interned him for "culturally subversive" activities. (For many people today it is difficult to understand, but in Germany, at the time, the practice of "new typography" was considered to be a subversive activity!) It is absolutely certain that getting acquainted with the Bauhaus¹ movement in 1923, influenced both his professional and personal life more than any other event ever had. Being a highly emotional person, Tschichold sometimes made rash statements about his evolving theories (about everything), and some of his assertions were not based on facts or reasonable inferences. Regardless of his personal idiosyncrasies, he was one of the great advocates of Bauhaus philosophy and avant-garde design.
His entire life and design philosophy can be crystalized by two influential books he wrote. In 1928 he published Die Neue Typographie (The New Typography) which advocated asymmetric retilinear design layouts, and (mostly lower case) sans serif typography. In 1935, he published Typographische Gestaltung (Typographic Arrangements),¹¹ in which he diametrically opposed his own previous assertions and called for a more balanced and traditional typography, one that was based on the golden section. The greatest organization wide design challenge he ever faced in his life was the total re-design of Penguin Books. Tschichold spent four years in England (1947-49) bringing the Penguin Books project to a superb professional conclusion, in which he actually re-designed not only the Penguin books but the operational flow of the entire Penguin publishing organization. Tschichold worked mostly in Germany, Switzerland and England.
Tschichold designed "Transito," an extra bold stylized stencil type, which was followed by "Saskia," a variable-weight italic sans serif with short ascenders and descenders. His "Sabon," is a beautiful classic serif typeface family based on the original Garamond designs for the roman and Granjon for the italic, with many hard-to-notice technical and design improvements. The project was a monumental design undertaking saddled with many technical constraints because of the wide ranging equipment targeted for the production of type (Foundry, Monotype casting and Line casting). Without any question, in terms of type design, the design of the "Sabon" typeface family was the pinnacle of Tschichold's life. He died on August 11, 1974.
Jan Tschichold was one of those rare people who publicly contradicted his own theories about "new typography" and design. His initial enthusiasm and fervour in the 20s and early 30s about Bauhaus, asymmetric typography, rectilinear design layouts, and the exclusive use of sans serif fonts (all in lower case, of course!), was replaced, later in his life (after 1935), by a more balanced and larger historical view. At times, when he was extremely agitated, Tschichold declared that the "new typography" (his own previous work) was the result of Fascist influence! In statements such as this, Tschichold the perfectionist, was reviewing history with 20/20 hindsight and handing down punishment to his other self, the one who did not measure up. The fact is, that the Nazis banned "new typography" because they considered it visually subversive, because it dared to be different. But, of course, there is no solution to philosophical problems entwined in circular logic.
Some of the typefaces designed by Jan Tschichold:
TRANSITO (1931); SASKIA (1932); SABON [Stempel] (1964), [Monotype] (1967), [Linotype] (1967); Uher Standard Grotesque ( ), [Similar to Gill's sans serif.]
¹ The radical simplicity, "form follows function," architectural and design movement (1919-1933) that originated in Weimar, Germany. It is interesting to note that no Bauhaus typeface was ever produced by any of the "insiders" of the Bauhaus. The two best known artist/instructors who experimented with "new typograhy" letterforms were Herbert Bayer¹² and Josef Albers, but non of their experimental alphabets ever reached commercial production. In terms of type design, the significance of Bauhaus was the effect it had on designers outside the movement, such as Paul Renner, Jan Tschichold, and many others.
² English translation by Ruari McLean, published 1967 by Faber in London.
¹¹ Other boooks by Jan Tschichold: Eine Stunde Druckgestaltung (A lesson in design for print) , Schriftschreiben für Seltzer (Lettering for compositors) , Typographische Entwurfstechnic (Typographical layout methods) . An Illustrated History of Writing and Lettering (Originally published in German in1940; English translation in 1946 and reissued 1948.)
¹² In 1935, Bayer did produce a Bodoni-like condensed roman typeface family called, "Bayer Roman," a typeface with very short descenders.
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