Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Jan Tschichold Master Typographer: His life, Work & Legacy

I first became aware of Jan Tschichold not through his most well known contribution Die Neue Typographie (The New Typography) but rather his poster designs for Germany's largest cinema the Phoebus-Palast. These posters dating from the late 1920's combine photographs and type into dynamic compositions that reflect the spirit and energy of the avant-garde and could be seen as creating a corporate identity for the theater as all shared common characteristics.

A new book from Thames & Hudson, Jan Tschichold Master Typographer: His life, Work & Legacy, offers up a seemingly exhaustive look into one of the most outstanding and influential designers of the twentieth century.

For many Tschichold's Die Neue Typographie was the necessary handbook in which to break with traditions in typography that didn't correspond to modernism. Asymmetry, positive use of empty space, use of contrast and color were its principles to help develop "its visible form out of the function of the text." Through paradoxical theories of standardization meant to bring about order, design could achieve an efficiency of use not formerly recognized.

One principle of Die Neue Typographie was his insistence on the use of a sans-serif typeface. 'All lettering, especially type, is first and foremost an expression of its own time, just as every man is a symbol of his time. What textura and also rococo type expresses is not religiosity, but the Gothic, not cheerfulness, but the Rococo: and what sanserif expresses is not lack of feeling but the twentieth century!'

It would be twenty some years later that Tschichold changed his position on his ideas about the principles of Die Neue Typographie. By 1946, Tschichold had formulated new criticisms that were notable for their political and moral arguments. The most damning of which appeared in print: 'Its (Die Neue Typographie) intolerant attitude certainly corresponds in particular to the German inclination to the absolute; its military will-to-order and its claim to sole power correspond to those fearful components of German-ness which unleashed Hitler's rule and the Second World War.' On a less hostile note, he also later recognized the dominant legibility of serif typefaces over their sans-serif counterparts.

Jan Tschichold Master Typographer includes five contributing writers that discuss Tschihold's career running from early poster design, to the reworking of Penguin books, to his creation of the typeface Sabon. Lavishly illustrated with over 330 color and b+w plates this volume is a fitting home for such an important subject. Handsome in its own design and nicely printed it celebrates its subject with the same spirit of form and function and clarity of communication that Tschihold championed throughout his life.

For those interested in reading Tschichold's The New Typography, a recent edition was published by the University of California Press in 2006.