History of a radical type

The heyday of influential Swiss design journal Typografische Monatsblätter is examined in a fine new book from Lars Müller Publishers

Throughout its 80-year history, the Swiss publication Typografische Monatsblätter has provided an important forum for the discussion of both historical and contemporary issues relating to typography and type design.

Founded in 1932, it was under the editorship of Rudolf Hostettler – from 1952-1980 – that the journal became an important platform for the exposition of significant developments in Swiss typographic design. This was as key practitioners strove to move ‘Swiss Typography’ away from the ‘International Style’, the functional grid-based approach to design that was already well established by the 1960s. A new book, 30 Years of Swiss Typographic Discourse in the Typografische Monatsblätter, published by Lars Müller, focuses on these developments during the period 1960-1990.

TM remains a monthly, relatively small circulation (circa 2,500) trade journal distributed mostly to paid-up members of the various professional organisations with which it is affiliated. From the outset it also gained a following with a small but influential international audience. Some of the special issues and related side projects, such as TM Communication (instigated by the designer and teacher Wolfgang Weingart in 1972), have become part of the canon of Swiss graphic design. The less familiar editions of TM shown in the new book provide a fascinating rounding of the picture.

The journal’s list of contributors is impressive and, alongside Weingart, includes Jan Tschichold, Emil Ruder, Hans-Rudolf Lutz, April Greiman, Jost Hochuli, and André Gürtler. The book offers an insight into the interaction between the various protagonists both within the pages of TM, from interviews conducted by the authors, and occasionally in quotes from unpublished correspondence with Hostettler. For example, this from a letter written by Tschichold in 1972, the subject a recent cover by Weingart: “This is hopefully the last time that an issue of TM will be published with a cover by Weingart. I have my doubts as to whether the man is in his right mind.”

By the mid-1980s, following Hostettler’s retirement, TM arguably lost its pioneering reputation for showcasing radical typographic experimentation. It is perhaps no coincidence that the end of this era also marks the point at which the computer had begun to impact the nature of the working environment, for both the designer and design students. The remarkable work by Weingart and his students from the early 1970s grew out of a strong workshop-based approach to process and making; hands-on with the materials and tools. The processes (and thinking) changed as designers later gravitated to the computer for both design and production.

The TM book started out as a research project by Louise Paradis at the Ecole cantonale d’art de Lausanne (ECAL). It is not without significance that the project originated in the French-speaking part of Switzerland – as Paradis points out in her introduction, she approached the project from the position of an “outsider”. Historically, TM was driven mainly by designers and teachers working in the Swiss German-speaking cities of Basel and Zurich.

The book opens with a brief history of TM from its inception in 1932 through to 1959 which culminated with the publication of a special edition entitled ‘integrale typographie’, now considered a landmark in the development of Swiss Typography. The authors provide background for the development of TM throughout, including the politics of the various branches of German- and French-speaking allied trades, financial dealings, factional infighting and so on. At times this can perhaps seem a little parochial, but it provides important context and a grounding for the story. As part of its remit TM has also sought to place emphasis on education from both technical and theoretical viewpoints. It is the latter which marks the publication out as being special and gives it an important place in documenting new developments in teaching and design.

The main part of the book, divided into five chapters, focuses on TM during the period 1960-1990. During these years the Basel School of Design is prominent in the contributions of its teachers and students to TM – from Emil Ruder and Robert Büchler, both of whom encouraged their students to experiment with approaches to typographic design which challenged the orthodoxy of the Swiss International Style and, later, from Weingart. Hans-Rudolf Lutz (a former Ruder student) provided an alternative and more eclectic perspective through his own work and teaching in Zurich and Lucerne that ran in parallel to Weingart’s contributions.

Ruder’s 1961 series of TM covers (see previous spread), showcasing Adrian Frutiger’s Univers, hinted at an approach to typographic design which was more organic and less structured than the by then familiar ‘Swiss’ design style. As Paradis writes in her introduction, summarising the breadth of the TM output, “the notion of Swiss Typography being linked to a rigid aesthetic dogma was not completely warranted”.

The book is beautifully designed and produced, with the high standards one expects from Lars Müller, and as a history of Swiss typography from a different perspective it enhances our understanding of some of the most radical developments in 20th Century graphic design. A highly recommended read.

Hamish Muir is co-founder of Outcast Editions, MuirMcNeil and formerly of design studio, 8vo. 30 Years of Swiss Typographic Discourse in the Typographische Monatsblätter TM RSI SGM 1960-90 is edited by Ecole cantonale d’art de Lausanne (ECAL), Louise Paradis with Roland Früh and François Rappo. Published by Lars Müller, €50. lars-mueller-publishers.com

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