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Wolfgang Weingart’s typographic landscape

Keith Tam

Originally published in Polish in 2+3D magazine, issue i-2003, Nr 6
PDF with full transcript of the Q&A session and images (1MB)

He started it all. It was he who ignited the spark of ‘typographic anarchy’ that exploded on the verge of the nineteen nineties. It was he who fathered what was subsequently dubbed ‘Swiss Punk’, ‘New Wave’ or whatever you care to call it – perhaps even post-modernism. His name is Wolfgang Weingart. Weingart was born in the midst of the World War II in Germany. Most famous for his experimental, expressive work that broke the mould of classical Swiss typography, Weingart began his typographic career in the early sixties as an apprentice of hand composition at a typesetting firm. He then decided to further his studies at the Basel School of Design in Switzerland, the cradle of classical Swiss typography. Following his rather unsuccessful attempt at completing his course, Armin Hoffmann, who was then the head of the Basel School, invited him to teach there, by the sheer admiration of his work. He has been teaching there ever since and had made extraordinary impact on the contemporary typographic landscape.

What exactly is ‘Swiss typography’? Swiss typography was founded upon the teachings of the Bauhaus in Germany soon after World War II and became a rational approach to typography. The use of grid systems was the key to the logical disposition of type and images on the page, along with sanserif typefaces for clear, functional communication. Figures such as Armin Hoffmann and Emil Ruder were the major proponents of Swiss typography, who were teachers at the Basel School of Design at the time. They believed that typography should be unobtrusive and transparent, in order to clearly communicate its textual content. By the beginning of the sixties, the language of Swiss typography had already gained reputation the world over. Swiss typography became synonymous with corporate design for multinationals, and subsequently referred to as the ‘international typographic style’.

At this point, our dear Mr Weingart barges in, hurriedly corrects my one-sided viewpoint of Swiss typography: ‘not only one conception of typography exists in Switzerland’. He would proudly acknowledge that his experimental typography is also Swiss, because it was a ‘natural progression’ from the classical Swiss typography as we know it. To call what he did and still does as ‘deconstructive’ would be too simplistic a comment. His typographic experiments were strongly grounded, and were based on an intimate understanding of the semantic, syntactic and pragmatic functions of typography. Whereas ‘traditional’ Swiss typography mainly focused on the syntactic function, Weingart was interested in how far the graphic qualities of typography can be pushed and still retain its meaning. This is when the semantic function of typography comes in: Weingart believes that certain graphic modifications of type can in fact intensify meaning. ‘What’s the use of being legible, when nothing inspires you to take notice of it?’ How true.
Weingart’s work is characterized by his painterly application of graphical and typographical elements. The emotionally-charged lines, the potent, image-like qualities of his type, the almost cinematic impact of his layouts, all speak of his great passion of creating with graphical forms. His typographic layouts are compelling yet lucid, free yet controlled. Some of his personal work is almost akin to landscape paintings, only that his paintbrush is replaced by type, rules and screens. He doesn’t seem to perceive a divide between fine art and typography. His inspirations were mainly drawn from the processes of typesetting and reproduction, where he finds great pleasure in discovering their characteristics and pushing them to their limits.

Since the first day when he arrived at Basel as a student, it was clear that Weingart was a rebel. In a class he had with Armin Hoffmann, the students were asked to work on a line composition using ruling pens. Instead of drawing the lines as he was told, he went over to the type shop and made a contraption that he could use to print lines. Weingart’s ingenuity is simply impressive: he took a plank of wood, screwed L-shaped hooks on it in a grid format, then turned them at 0, 45 and 90 degree angles to form compositions, inked it and printed it on a letterpress. He screwed the hooks into the wood at different levels so some received ink at type-high and some did not. Perhaps ‘rebel’ is too harsh of a description – he was simply inquisitive. There is no doubt that Weingart bent the rule of classical Swiss typography – both literally and figuratively. When he was an apprentice at a letterpress workshop, he was pondering about why the brass rules that were used to print tabular matter always had to be straight and at 90-degree angles to each other. He created highly abstract letterpress prints with rules shaped into elegant curves, almost resembling rolling hills in a beautiful countryside.

Weingart works with a very limited palette of typefaces. He suggests that four typefaces are enough to address all typographic problems. One of these typefaces would certainly be Akzidenz Grotesk, an early sanserif of the grotesque genre designed by the Berthold Foundry in Germany at the close of the 19th century. ‘I grew up with Akzidenz Grotesk and I love it. Akzidenz Grotesk has a certain ugliness to it, that’s why it has character.’ He feels that Univers, which is Emil Ruder’s favorite, is too slick and cosmetic for his taste. The simplicity of his choice of typefaces speaks of his fondness of simple tools.

Weingart’s fascination with everything mechanical started at an early age. When he was a young boy, he once completely disassembled his bicycle and put it back together again. In his typographic work, Weingart has been equally fascinated by the technology and mechanical reproduction processes. ‘For me, typography is a triangular relationship between design idea, typographic elements, and printing technique,’ writes Weingart. The possibilities that these technologies offer seem endless to him, and he finds it hugely satisfying to explore the materials: ‘The thing that is so special for me… is the variability of the materials under the influence of idea and technique.’

Technological progression eventually led Weingart to experiment with photographic reproduction processes. Not satisfied with the rather limited range of sizes that metal type offered, Weingart began to explore the possibilities of the repro camera. He found that with the repro camera, a more fluid range of type sizes was possible. Working alongside Emil Ruder’s class at Basel, Weingart was able to continue pursuing his letter ‘M’ series of typographic studies that he had begun when he was working part time at a typesetting firm. He printed a few letter Ms by letterpress, pasted them down on a cube, and photographed them from different perspectives. This unique process yielded dramatic black and white letterforms in perspective and formed the basis of many engaging abstract compositions.

In the midst of his emotionally satisfying work one will also occasionally encounter work in his repertoire that is undeniably Swiss in its original flavor – calm, rational and clear. ‘That’s my schizophrenic personality,’ says Weingart. As much as he tries to be expressive with type, he feels that there are times when the clients’ wishes and the users’ needs are of a more urgent priority. Weingart simply knows when he has to put his ego aside and emphasize on solving particular design problems. It is the tension between his desire to express and his consideration for communication that creates this interesting mix of work and his perpetually inquisitive working ethos.

How well was his progressive idea about typography received at that time? Weingart recalls, ‘in my presentations in 1972, there was always a group of audience that hated it, one group that loved it, and the rest would all leave during the lecture.’ The people who were against his experimentations dismissed it as something that could never be adopted commercially. It wasn’t until the early eighties, when his American students like April Greiman and Dan Friedman brought back to the US a wealth of typographic arsenals from Basel and co-opted it into the mainstream of graphic design. From April Greiman’s ‘hybrid imagery’ to David Carson’s deconstructive page layouts, anarchy reigned supreme in the nineties. Those were the days for graphic design superstars, whose style many a graphic designer adored and imitated. While no one can give a definitive answer as to whether these American graphic designers took what Weingart did and brought it to new heights, they certainly managed to make it a huge commercial success. ‘They were doing it as a style and it was never my idea to create fashion’, denotes Weingart. The teaching at Basel for Weingart is not about trends but a ‘stability’ that they try to move away from, but never totally.

Weingart’s typographic experimentations spanned across three different eras of typesetting technology: letterpress, phototypesetting and the computer. Yet, despite how readily he accepted and pushed the boundaries of the letterpress and phototypesetting processes, he is rather unenthusiastic about the computer technology. The computer, to him, is too illusive. He compares the computer to a digital watch: a traditional watch shows a ‘landscape’, it tells a story; a digital watch only shows a particular moment. That’s why Weingart’s students do not design on the computer – they are asked to first work out their ideas by hand. Weingart wants his students to experience design as a tactile, hands-on experience. It is surprising that he was probably also the first person to introduce the Macintosh computer into the type shop in Switzerland.

In 2000, Weingart published a substantial monologue simply titled My way to typography, a remarkable object of design in itself. If you haven’t read it, I suggest that you do because it is just about as much as one can look into any designer’s life, work and influences. The book doesn’t just give you glimpses, but detailed accounts of his life and times, leaving no stones unturned. ‘Every page of the book is a handmade cookie.’ He had spent five years to put this book together, and it contains much of his personal exploratory work that had not seen the light of day until now. Flipping through the book is almost a voyeuristic experience – it is almost as if you were looking through one’s personal sketchbook or diary. ‘Sometimes I wish I was living in the nineteenth century,’ writes Weingart in one of the pages. Why? ‘I’m an old granny you know? I miss many things that I grew up with during and after the war that can never be found any more.’ These provocative statements are sprinkled throughout the book, intended as foods for thought for students to contemplate what it is that they are doing. This book is perhaps a token for his passion about teaching. Or perhaps it is an antidote for his rather grim view on the future of graphic design: ‘graphic design is in a big crisis. The education in our school is not the best any more. The value of living has changed. The computer and electronic tools in general are destroying our natural needs.’ The natural needs, perhaps, is our need to create, to express.

Let me leave you with these wonderful words from Weingart: ‘what still surprises and inspires me today: to turn blank paper into a printed page.’ Nothing can be more reassuring than to read words like these from someone who has almost forty years of experience behind him. What more can you ask for in a career?

Epilogue

This article is the result of my personal encounter with Wolfgang Weingart at the Emily Carr Institute of Art & Design in March 2001, where I was a student at the time. We had an immensely enjoyable afternoon of discussions and an insightful lecture in the evening. His visit was certainly one of the main highlights of my days at design school. I also consulted several sources when writing this article, and corresponded with Weingart on a couple of occasions. I would like to extend my personal thanks to Mr Weingart here.