Jan Tschichold played a significant role in 20th Century graphic design. A trained calligrapher and typographer, Jan went onto write several theoretical texts including the seminal, Die neue Typographie and later became design director of Penguin Books in the 40s. He was instrumental in defining the design movement known as “the new typography”; a movement arising out of Weimer Germany aiming to “make printed text and imagery more dynamic, more vital, and closer to the spirit of modern life.”
In a new exhibition currently showing at the Bard Graduate Centre Gallery, Jan’s private collection of innovative graphic design exhibits alongside his own work. On until June this year, the exhibition sees work by El Lissitzy, Kurt Schwitters, László Moholy-Nagy and Herbert Bayer appear together for the first time, encapsulating the movement of the new typography.
Curated by Paul Stirton, the exhibited works typify the design movement with their use of asymmetrical layouts, sans serif letterforms, as well as the integration of photography with text “in a manner that expresses a new and modern sensibility.” These guidelines were expressed in his magnum opus Die Neue Typographie “described as a ‘manual’ providing guidelines for the practising graphic designer,” explains Paul.
On the man himself, Paul tells It’s Nice That, “Jan Tschichold was not the originator of the new ideas that appeared in the 20s and 30s. He was more important as an interpreter of theories and practices that emerged from the avant-garde.” He differed from the designers of the time as his interests lay in the “practical techniques” of design and print rather than the abstract form and social change expressed by his associates. In his book, Jan wrote: “Asymmetry is an expression of our own movement and that of modern life… Sans serif is egalitarian and universal. It expresses clarity and concentration on essentials, and so is the essence of our time.”
From quotes such as these, Paul evaluates, “one can sense from these statements how the new typography sparked a revolution in visual culture.” The influence of his writings can still be felt today, proving his longstanding legacy as the Swiss style of graphic design (that derives from the new typography) remains a major school of thought today. However, back when Jan first put these thoughts on paper, graphic design was just becoming a recognised profession. “The new approach was gaining popularity especially in advertising,” explains Paul, “but the Nazis tried to put a stop to it by imprisoning Tschichold and sacking the new designers from their positions.”
Their attempts to suppress ideas inspired by the new typography movement failed, however, and so its graphic sensibilities continued to develop and refine into what has now become ubiquitously known as Swiss Style. “Ironically, during the 30s, Tschichold began to doubt the universal relevance of Modernist design,” says Paul. “He advocated a more liberal approach, asserting that different styles should be used depending on the job at hand.”
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