Jan Tschichold and the new typography

Like many of his con­tem­por­ar­ies, Jan Tschich­old ad­hered to a kind of “apolit­ic­al so­cial­ism” dur­ing the 1920s. Wal­ter Gropi­us, Lud­wig Mies van der Rohe, and nu­mer­ous oth­ers shared this out­look. He helped design books for the left-wing “Book Circle” series from 1924 to 1926. Tschich­old quoted Trot­sky’s Lit­er­at­ure and Re­volu­tion (1924) with ap­prov­al in the in­aug­ur­al is­sue of Ty­po­graph­is­che Mit­teilun­gen, pub­lished that same year:

The wall di­vid­ing art and in­dustry will come down. The great style of the fu­ture will not dec­or­ate, it will or­gan­ize. It would be wrong to think this means the de­struc­tion of art, as giv­ing way to tech­no­logy.

Dav­id Crow­ley and Paul Job­ling sug­gest that “Tschich­old had been so en­am­ored of the So­viet Uni­on that he had signed his works ‘Iwan [Ivan] Tschich­old’ for a peri­od in the 1920s, and worked for Ger­man trade uni­ons.” Some of this en­thu­si­asm was doubt­less the res­ult of his con­tact with El Lis­sitzky and his Hun­gari­an dis­ciple László Mo­holy-Nagy, a le­gend in his own right.

In 1927, a pen man­u­fac­turer ac­cused Tschich­old of be­ing a com­mun­ist, which promp­ted fel­low ty­po­graph­er Stan­ley Mor­is­on to rise to his de­fense. From that point for­ward, his work be­came even less overtly polit­ic­al.


Yet he re­mained cog­niz­ant of the re­volu­tion­ary ori­gins of mod­ern or­tho­graphy. “At the same time that he was pro­mul­gat­ing the de­pol­it­i­cized func­tion­al­ism of the New Ty­po­graphy,” writes Steph­en Eskilson. “Tschich­old still re­cog­nized his debt to Con­struct­iv­ism’s Rus­si­an, com­mun­ist roots.” Chris­toph­er Burke thus also writes in his study of Act­ive Lit­er­at­ure: Jan Tschich­old and the New Ty­po­graphy that

Tschich­old’s com­pil­a­tion con­tains the Con­struct­iv­ists’ Pro­gram in an ed­ited and abridged — one might even say adul­ter­ated — Ger­man ver­sion ad­ap­ted by Tschich­old him­self. The Marx­ist-Len­in­ist rhet­or­ic of the ori­gin­al is sig­ni­fic­antly toned down: for ex­ample, the pro­clam­a­tion in the ori­gin­al that reads “Our sole ideo­logy is sci­entif­ic com­mun­ism based on the the­ory of his­tor­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism: loses its ref­er­ence to sci­entif­ic com­mun­ism in Tschich­old’s ver­sion. He was ob­vi­ously tail­or­ing the text for his read­er­ship in Ger­many, where the Novem­ber Re­volu­tion im­me­di­ately after the First World War had been ruth­lessly sup­pressed. The Ger­man Com­mun­ist Party lead­ers, Karl Lieb­knecht and Rosa Lux­em­burg, were murdered in cold blood on 15 Janu­ary 1919 by right-wing, coun­ter­re­volu­tion­ary troops with the ta­cit ac­cept­ance of the So­cial Demo­crat gov­ern­ment of the Wei­mar Re­pub­lic it­self.

Tschich­old him­self called for an ob­ject­ive, im­per­son­al, col­lect­ive work destined for all, es­pous­ing a vaguely left-wing but not overtly com­mun­ist point of view com­mon to many state­ments from this peri­od of In­ter­na­tion­al Con­struct­iv­ism in Ger­many. Des­pite quot­ing Trot­sky in Ele­ment­are Ty­po­graph­ie, Tschich­old did not be­long to the Ger­man Com­mun­ist Party, nor was he as­so­ci­ated with any par­tic­u­lar “-ism” or group, apart from the Ring neue Wer­begestal­ter later in the 1920s and 1930s, which had no polit­ic­al di­men­sion.

Re­gard­less, the Nazis sus­pec­ted Tschich­old of har­bor­ing com­mun­ist sym­path­ies. Moreover, his cri­ti­cism of tra­di­tion­al Ger­man Goth­ic or Black­let­ter script was seen as “de­gen­er­ate” and mod­ern­iz­ing. (His long­time friend and col­lab­or­at­or Her­bert Bay­er, des­pite shar­ing Tschich­old’s prin­ciples and hav­ing a Bauhaus edu­ca­tion, ended up work­ing for the Nazis and de­signed their ex­hib­i­tion of “De­gen­er­ate Art.”)

And so he emig­rated to Switzer­land, and then to Bri­tain, where he began work­ing for Pen­guin Pub­lish­ers in the 1940s. Tschich­old by then had re­pu­di­ated many of his mod­ern­ist prin­ciples, hav­ing re­turned to a more clas­sic­al style. Nev­er­the­less, here is his mod­ern mas­ter­piece, The New Ty­po­graphy, along with some of the movie posters he de­signed for Phoe­bus Palast dur­ing the 1920s.

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The New Typography (1928)


7 thoughts on “Jan Tschichold and the new typography

  1. That timeline you have is a little bit messed up. Here’s a more detailed version:

    Dude grew up in Leipzig, went to see a design show and ended up meeting Moholy-Nagy, and changed his name to Ivan for a while. Published Elementary Typography in 1925, Die Neue Typographie in 1928, and was imprisoned for six weeks. He emigrated soon after to Switzerland, barely making a living by working part-time for a publisher.

    Only after he came to Britain did he meet Morison and his army of neoclassicists. It’s also worth noting that even in 1928 he was already doing classical stuff, and this classical tendency never went away. Going to Penguin only made his classical side win. There was actually no hard-and-fast “turns” or “betrayals”. That “der Berufsphotograph” poster was done in Britain.

    Dude NEVER emigrated to US—he stayed in Britain for the job, and then once the war was over and the pound plummeted, he returned to Switzerland. He died of cancer in Locarno, Switzerland.

    You also missed the famous Tschichold-Bill debate.

  2. Great to see an appreciation of Tschichold – probably the greatest typographic designer of the twentieth century.

    But please – this is one of the weaker articles both in its political inferences and in some very sloppy factual mistakes – “And so he emig­rated to the United States, where he began work­ing for Pen­guin Pub­lish­ers in the 1940s.” No
    He was pursuaded by Allen Lane on Oliver Simon’s recommendation to be recruited to Penguin in Harmondsworth, England, UK – not US! – and returned to Switzerland a few years later – all the biographies are clear about this. Strange mistake.

    Yes his politics and design principles are not always easily divined although he was one of the more literate of pioneers of graphic design and left multiple programmatic and best-practise guidelines, The New Typography, The Form of The Book (essay collection) and the almost revolutionary in industrial quality – Penguin Composition Rules. One of the classic housestyles for quality in detail taypography.

    Anyone who was politically aware in that period in Germany – would we hope – have developed a healthy scepticism towards the slavish adherence to the stalinist communist party official doctrine – their role in the disaster of german politics – where Trotsky’s light shone strongest “The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany”.

    That Tschichold never repudiated his politics is more than many of his generation achieved into the cold-war. His body of work speaks to his personal commitment to a new humanism and this was born out by his masterly switch, from being the programmatic standard bearer for subtle detailed functional modernist reform in typography, to his realisation that even that could become the basis for a stylisticly co-opted anti-social dogma adopted by both fascism and capitalism, and his post war advocacy and demonstration of a revival of humanist traditionalism in ‘vernacular’ everday publishing – in the service of quality publishing for working class auto-didacts. Tschichold was not alone in this eg the Neuraths (for whom he had worked) – see Anna Nyburg’s ‘Emigres’ – in advocating an enlightenment educational approach to critical literary consciousness for ordinary people.

    I think criticising him for not being a card carrying stalinist in this period – does not do him the justice he deserves.

    More sad that he had to end up doing pharmaceutical packaging for Vallium in later life – but even his packaging was still meticulously done.

    Declaration of Interest – As Senior Designer Adult Text at Penguin in the late ‘eighties, early ‘nineties – part of my job description was ensuring adherence and maintenance of his Penguin Composition Rules – which even then still formed part of the contract for every piece of text typesetting commissioned by Penguin – and still does I expect.

      • Way beyond Penguin – because Penguin changed the volume of book consumption they were using many of the biggest and best organised compositers and printers – once those compositors had accepted and learned to work to Tschicholds rule’s – they became defacto the established standard for almost all British book typesetting because those compositors also set the work from other publishers – few other publishers would insist on substantive differences in their house-styles for mass market publishing – and so the post-war quality of British book design was substantially raised across the board in most respects by Allen Lane’s support for Tschicholds dictat.
        The Rules were contractually enforced – resetting to adhere to the rules was the compositors/printers responsibility (red ink corrections rather than green or black for editors or authors changes at cost to publisher). If there was any doubt a synopsis of the rules was printed on the reverse of the standard Instruction Sheet for Text Composition that went out with every job.
        This remains one of the classic case studies in Design Management.

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