|Wolfgang Weingart - Type Artist
||close this window|
| Typographer Wolfgang Weingart began his career in graphic design in an era when metal typesetting was still common and rigidly structured typography was widely accepted. From there, Weingart started a revolution in typographic design while retaining a strong sense of form. He based his designs not on dogma and a strict sense of order but on the world he saw. His strong creative, independent spirit led him to break with the accepted style of reductive typography and pursue the creative potential of type elements. Drawing inspiration from such disparate sources as other twentieth century typographers and ancient architectural forms, Weingart constantly experimented and applied this acquired knowledge in his work. He in turn influenced a number of other designers, applying his intuitive approach in teaching. By the late sixties and early seventies his experiments and creativity were a prime force in postmodern design.
Early in his life, Weingart's family traveled extensively, providing him with his first taste of the landscapes and ancient ruins which would inspire his approach to typography. In his book My Way to Typography, Weingart notes his memories of his family leaving his homeland of Germany to live in Portugal in the mid-fifties and being exposed to ancient Iberian sculpture. His parents also took him with them on trips to Spain, the Middle East, and northern Africa. There he absorbed Moorish architecture and Arabian culture, documenting things which caught his eye with a camera. Young Wolfgang also explored Lisbon, which had changed very little from when Portugal had been a world power centuries earlier. Meanwhile, a teacher at the German school in the Portuguese capital soon discovered Weingart's inclination towards art. In the spring of 1958, his parents enrolled him in a Stuttgart art school, the Merz Academy. There he learned not only painting and drawing but also printing and graphic design. He quickly began experimenting with type, helping out in the school's print shop and making up assignments for himself (a practice which he continued to utilize throughout his career). Then in 1960 he began an typesetting apprenticeship with Ruwe Printing and came into contact with another major influence on his work: Swiss typography.
The International Typographic Style, also called the Swiss Style, sprang up in postwar Switzerland. This rational style grew up around ideals of structure and unity, building on the modernist ideas of movements like the Bauhaus and Constructivism. Work in this mode was characterized by strict use of a typographic grid, sans-serif type, left-aligned type, and photographic illustration.2 Though some argued that it is formulaic and predictable, others touted its clarity and purity and noted creative solutions still were possible. Above all, the approach was scientific and objective, seeking to spread information.3 Regarding Weingart, two Swiss typographers in particular influenced his career: Emil Ruder and Armin Hofmann. In 1947, Ruder took a position at the Basel School of Design and began teaching Swiss Style typography. Emphasis was put on legibility and readability, a utilitarian approach to typography. He also dealt with the integration of elements-type, image, diagram, and so forth-via the grid. Eventually these ideas on teaching and application of the Swiss Style were collected and demonstrated in Ruder's book Typography: A Manual of Design.4 (Fig. 1) Armin Hofmann too began teaching at Basel in 1947. Seeking unity of his designs, Hofmann enjoyed using contrasting elements which added life to his designs in the resolution of the conflict and unification into a harmonious whole. A graphic designer (whereas Ruder was a typographer), Hofmann produced advertising, logos, and posters, such as the 1959 poster for the Basel theater production of Giselle which shows his love of contrast in the hard-edged, fixed type and blurred, dynamic photographic image.
At any rate, young Wolfgang's first encounter with Swiss Style typography came in 1960 when he presented his work to Ruwe Printing's Karl-August Hanke, who harshly rejected it as antiquated compared to the Swiss Style he had been taught at Basel. Though crushed, Weingart chose to see Hanke's disapproval as a wake up call and resolved to learn from and model his work after Swiss typography. Notably, he saw Hofmann's 1959 poster at an exhibition of Swiss posters and, as he wrote in his book, then began to understand the "unity between type and image." Meanwhile, in his apprenticeship at Ruwe, he began experimenting and playing with type on his own time, discovering the creative potential of type and letterforms and gaining an appreciation for the craft of metal typesetting and printing. In the early sixties he traveled throughout the Middle East, drawing and making prints. At one time he worked with schoolchildren in Jerusalem to produce a book of their drawings, a book in which he applied all that he had learned about Swiss typography. Then in 1963 he applied in person to the Basel School of Design, meeting Armin Hofmann and, through him, Emil Ruder. Both men were so impressed by Weingart's portfolio that Hofmann asked him to join not as a student but as a teacher for a new postgraduate graphic design curriculum they sought to establish. Weingart, however, opted instead to finish his apprenticeship and enroll as a student; not until 1968 would Hofmann and Ruder's postgraduate program be realized and Weingart begin teaching there. At any rate, Weingart took the state qualification test for typesetters in 1963 and passed. One part of the exam required the student to design a business card; Weingart's orderly design shows the influence of the orderly Swiss Style.
Although coming to Basel to learn from Hofmann and Ruder felt like a dream come true at first, Weingart soon began to feel uncomfortable with the school. He continued to experiment with printing and type, permitted personally by Ruder to work freely in the school's type shop. Ruder observed and encouraged Weingart's experiments, and the young designer was allowed to stay at the school beyond the end of his two-year term as an independent student. Yet Weingart was growing restless. His thoughts turned to "how Swiss Typography would or could change," driven by the sense that it was stagnating, that he had to find a way to reinvigorate it. Around the same time, the social unrest and student activism of the late sixties was beginning, and this need for creative communication led to informal typographic experimentation. All the while, Weingart continued his travels, photographing and finding inspiration in the buildings of Jerusalem and Damascus, the ruins of ancient Palmyra, and the murals in villages in India. Ultimately, he was pushed further into revolt by the acceptance of "rules" of typography. Now he began employing the various things he had seen in his travels, using them as "sketches"for typographic pictures. Text was put in blocks that recalled steps or building blocks of ancient ruins (Fig. 4), or it was stretched across the page and called a landscape (Fig. 5). He also turned to photomechanical processes, distorting type with an enlarger instead of with a printing press. Then, in April 1968, Weingart taught his first class at Basel.
As a teacher, Weingart approached typography the same way. He was concerned with teaching the craft of typography and encouraging experimentation and dismissal of set criteria. As Weingart wrote in 1985, he did not want to limit his students to a small number of options but rather to give them a basic design vocabulary which they could draw upon and augment themselves. He brought into question accepted practices such as tight letter spacing and paragraph indentation while introducing ideas like changing type weight midword and emphasizing specific words by reversing them out on solid blocks of black.8 One of his most important themes, however, was the refusal to limit his students with opinion or conviction. He wrote that students should be allowed to experiment and discover the process and concepts of design independently; teachers like himself were supposed to guide and stimulate, not impose. He wanted to create designers who could think and design for themselves, not having to rely on any set of rules. He even criticized those who would use the motifs he himself created without considering why, saying "I never intended to create a 'style.'" His desire was to expand the language of design, not reduce it.9 Adopting his ideas (and not just his "style") were teachers and designers from and/or working in America: Dan Friedman, April Greiman, and Willi Kunz studied under Weingart at Basel and embraced his rejection of style and doctrine in favor of individual exploration.
As for influences on Weingart, he gives few clues other than his travels and their influence on him. However, he does mention several typographic experimenters in My Way to Typography. Kurt Schwitters, El Lissitsky, and Piet Zwart all held certain things in common with Weingart and his various exercises. German Dadaist Schwitters, for example, created his famous Merz collages, which can be linked to the film collage techniques Weingart would use. However, another link with Weingart can be seen in his collaboration with Théo van Doesburg on the book Die Scheuche Marchen. (Fig 6) In it, type is used as an illustrative element; Weingart too used type out of its normal context, though perhaps not to the same extent.11 Constructivist El Lissitsky had collaborated with Schwitters in 1924, but also notable was his solo work. His design for the cover of Vesch magazine features a powerful, dynamic diagonal bar with overlapping letter forms made of elementary linear shapes.12 (Fig. 7) In this way, Lissitsky anticipated Weingart's film-layered collages, active compositions, and creation of letter forms. Then there is Piet Zwart, a Dutch architect-turned-designer whose rejection of de Stijl was remarkably similar to Weingart's disapproval of the Swiss Style. Both felt that the movements were too rigid and dogmatic for their liking and sought more expressive but still structured layout.
Yet despite his rejection of the Swiss Style's inflexibility, as well as the concept of style in general, some "movements" can be tied to him. Without a doubt, the Swiss Style had some affect on his aesthetic sense. As he pointed out, his intent was not to reject it outright but to use it as the springboard to new approaches. The designs still had a sense of underlying order.14 And in the case of his catalogue design for the Art 11 convention, he used order and structured layout exclusively. (Fig 9) This assignment, he wrote, convinced him he could work in a more systematic way as well as in a more radically experimental way.15 However, that experimental style links Weingart to the movements which fall under the general term of "postmodernism." According to Alan and Isabella Livingston, postmodernism as applied to design is defined as a reaction against the strictness of modernism, a return to visual wit and symbolism. Philip Meggs stresses the highly personal element, the desire to design according to intuition rather than logic. However, they generally agree that the objectivity of modernism was being challenged and that Weingart was one of the major exponents of "postmodern" design.16 Indeed, he did prefer to explore his own ideas and rejected the Swiss Style if for no other reason than he felt its "rules" were stifling him.
These explorations took on many different forms, beginning as far back as his apprenticeship at Ruwe Printing in 1960. One day he was putting away a drawer of type when he lost his grip and spilled type all over the floor. While putting the letters back, he got the idea to pack a cardboard ring with type and print both sides. What resulted were what he called "round compositions." One side revealed letters, but printing the other side yielded abstract tracks, left by grooves from the casting mold on the the reverse side from the letter. (Fig. 10) He also observed what happened to the marks as the type shifted during printing, leaving one side lighter than the other. In 1990, he returned to this experiment, this time using color.17 The next experiments involved the line. As a student at Basel, he used type rules instead of hand drawn images for a project involving line. (Fig. 11) Soon he developed a way to print curved lines by bending metal strips and used these lines to evoke the various desert landscapes he had seen in his travels.18 Another project developed in his time as an apprentice involved the letter "M". Apparently, he had to make large lettering himself and thus became fascinated with the shapes of the letters themselves, and in particular the M. The next step was to print the letter M, glue those prints to a box and then photograph the box (and the lettering) at various angles. The negatives from these photos produced radical alterations of the letter's form which were impossible for mere metal type to duplicate. In making various combinations of these distorted M's, he created some strikingly dynamic and evocative imagery.19 (Fig. 12) He continued to address the shapes and forms of typographic characters as he began teaching at Basel. He and his students used metal type to experiment freely with the limits of readability, playing with letter spacing, substituting type symbols turned on their side and/or combined for other characters-comparable to El Lissitsky's graphic letterforms and, perhaps, also to Marcel Duchamp's subverting the original function of his "readymades" by changing the context in which they were viewed-and so on.20 (Fig. 13) However, the creative possibilities of metal type were limited, and soon Weingart and his students felt that their work was becoming repetitive. In response, he used the idea of repetition directly in his work, setting repeated type elements and seeing what would come out. He still recognized the visual impact of these repeated elements, describing one such composition of repeated R's as a herd of elephants marching across a barren landscape.21 (Fig 14) Then in the early seventies, he broke free of the limits of metal type when he discovered and taught himself photomechanical techniques, exploring film collage. The juxtapositions he achieved, the use of halftone screens, the way he could layer type and imagery without having to run his prints through again and again-the potential of film collage excited him and reinvigorated his creative side.22 In works like the poster for the 18th Didacta/Eurodidac and the cover for Idea magazine, he used layers of transparent film to create an illusion of space, overlapping some elements and sliding others behind. Photographic elements are juxtaposed with purely graphic ones, creating a complex mixture of realistic, dimensional figures and flat, abstract imagery.23 (Figs. 15-17) All throughout the process, Weingart stayed involved. He committed himself to the realization of his projects every step of the way. This commitment is called the "Gutenberg approach," referring to the earliest printers. Weingart believed that designers must be involved in everything from conceptualization to the final printing.
This level of commitment to his art, combined with a unique aesthetic vision, made Wolfgang Weingart a revolutionary figure and fascinating artist. By treating typographic elements as more than just fragments of written verbal communication, investigating the many ways in which their visual potential could be tapped, and exploring the characteristics of the media which he used, Weingart broke with the established schools of thought in order to seek personal expression. He worked in a manner similar to other artist/typographers but retained a basic sense of structure from the Swiss Style. When teaching others he did not wish to fashion slavish imitators of his work but rather intelligent, capable designers who could respond to any task in whatever way he or she saw fit. As Weingart once said: "By itself, typography is as boring as hell. What makes it exciting is how you interpret it."