May 22

“Perfect typography is a science rather than an art. A thorough grasp of the craft is indispensable but it is not all, for the sound taste which distinguishes the perfect is based on a clear knowledge of the laws of harmonious form. It is true that it springs, as a rule, even though only in part, from an original feeling, but feelings are of little worth as long as they cannot be expressed as reasoned opinions; they have to be changed into knowledge about the consequences of decisions on artistic construction. There are, therefore, no born masters of typography: only by gradual training can such a status be reached.”

The American Institute of Graphic Arts paid tribute, on this day in 1954, albeit belatedly, to Jan Tschichold, the author of the above statement, by presenting to him its medal for distinguished services to the graphic arts.

As a young man, Tschichold visited the Weimar Bauhaus exhibition in 1923 and was inspired to apply the precepts of the Bauhaus artists and architects to typography, utilizing type as a constructional element of design. The typography of the period was unimaginative, the greatest stress being placed upon the use of supposedly exotic types rather than upon creative design. The principles of the Bauhaus movement, being at variance with established habits, were slow to make headway among typographers, but a small group of young designers began to discuss the possibilities of the new concepts. Herbert Bayer, El Lissitzky, and others, among them Tschichold, adopted the new ideas as representative of the creed of the era.

Tschichold’s contribution was major. He published, in 1928, Die Neue Typographic. which blew like a typhoon through the typographical world, creating about as many critics as adherents. But that it had tremendous effect on typographic design for a generation there can be no doubt. The book was also to come under political approbation. When Hitler came to power in Germany it was banned as “cultural bolshevism” and its author taken into protective custody.

In 1933 he left Germany to live in Switzerland. Here he was to work and teach for a period of twenty years, except for a two-year period in England following the war when he was typographic director for the famous Penguin editions. The format for these books may be credited to him. It has undoubtedly had a significant effect on the typography of pocket books in the United States.

In his mature years Tschichold has reversed his field somewhat, to the dismay of the avant-garde typographers. He now believes in the lasting values of traditional design, stating: “As typography is addressed to everybody, it does not allow of revolutionary alterations. . . . Comfortable readability is the paramount rule of all typography; but judgment on this matter can only be pronounced by one who is really trained in reading. . . . A perfect knowledge of the history of printing types is an indispensable precondition of perfect typography. Still more precious is a practical knowledge of calligraphy.”

Tschichold is now back in Germany as a teacher, continuing to influence the new generation of typographers. He has published some forty books, too many of which have unfortunately not been translated into English for the benefit of the younger designers who need so much to listen to such a wise counselor.

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