The simpler the assignment, the more difficult the solution,” writes Wolfgang Weingart in his book, Typography.
It’s a statement that harks back to his teachers Emil Ruder and Armin Hofmann at the Basel School of Design in Switzerland – Weingart recalls that Hofmann “was convinced that the more elementary the exercise, the more it would stimulate and empower the imagination of the student”. Weingart founded his entire career on this simple principle, yet his manipulation of materials and deep exploration of single ideas began well before his time at the school.
In 1962, while on a three-year typesetting apprenticeship mentored by Karl-Auguste Hanke, Weingart dropped a type case full of 6-point semi-bold Berthold’s Akzidenz-Grotesk on the floor of Ruwe Printers in Stuttgart. The incident spurred him to consider letterforms as surfaces to be printed, rather than symbols to be configured into legible business cards, letterhead and books. He encircled hundreds of pieces of the fallen lead type with a strip of cardboard and printed the first of many ’round compositions’, a technique he would revisit numerous times, lastly in 1990.
The round compositions are woven through his Typography book (first published by Lars Müller in 2000 and recently reprinted) but also act as an introduction to the Museum für Gestaltung in Zurich’s current retrospective of Weingart’s work. The circular works appear as projections on the gallery floor, with other work emerging from the surfaces in the space.
Barbara Junod, the museum’s graphics curator, has brought together the Weingart Typografie exhibition in a manner that illustrates the performative and three-dimensional nature of the works on paper. But Weingart himself says that if these spatial and architectural qualities are present – they are not intentional. “It is an accident, I don’t interpret things, I do it,” he says.
“If it’s three-dimensional, it’s three-dimensional.” Weingart views the act of making as an integral educational tool. Intellect, he says, “can be expressed and cultivated through handwork.”
In the gallery, a selection of his design principles and anecdotes are applied to the walls, drawn directly from the pages of Typography. One reads: “Typography is not only for reading and must not be a pain. Typography can be a game and a lot of fun.” Another says: “There are two ways to get interesting work today: 1. Play golf and meet the right people, or 2. Build your name into something stronger than golf.”
As here, Weingart’s sense of humour together with his defiance towards blindly employing norms in design, is also played out in one of the central pieces to the exhibition – his ‘M’ project. While informed by Swiss Typography, Weingart wanted to advance typographic practice beyond the method’s strict objectivity – and soon his irreverence to the method began to tarnish his relationship with the Basel school. In 1965, he committed to a year-long project using the ‘M’ from Adrian Frutiger’s Univers; a quieter criticism of his fellow classmates whom he believed were using the face to no end. Weingart preferred Akzidenz-Grotesque’s “ruggedness” but in this new project he worked within the confines of self-initiated practice to explore new approaches, such as photochemical reproduction. For Weingart the letter M was “an arrow pointing to itself”. He enjoyed the “increased flexibility of mixing sizes, positions, and angles” and found “dynamic aspects of the letter’s form which would have been impossible to attain in wood or metal”.
Previously, Weingart’s work had been shaped by the way he challenged the constraints of lead type, punctuation and furniture, paired with more malleable woodcuts and linocuts, but the M project utilised a camera – aimed at an ‘M cube’ among other things – and took the designer into the darkroom where he began layering sheets of lithographic film. By the 1970s, Weingart had adopted Xerox photocopying into his practice.
Yet digital reproductions of his printed matter do not translate the innate ‘dimensionality’ of the work. Layers of ink printed on top of one another create a subtle texture that is only overtly visible close up. Adding further to the experience of seeing the work first-hand, the joins between layers of film or paper are made evident by the pieces of tape that have yellowed with age. The points where these layers are brought together expose the potential for a new understanding of his work – here it can be viewed as the product of a visible production process, a meticulous layout of layered elements that come together to form a whole.
In contrast to the first two-thirds of the exhibition which is dedicated to Weingart’s work, the final section is reserved for his former students – Hamish Muir, Michael Sohn, Philip C Burton, Gregory Vines and Barbara Dillon, among others – some of whom encountered Weingart as a result of the Yale Summer Program in Graphic Design which ran from 1974-1996 (Weingart had begun his teaching career in 1968 at the Basel School’s Advanced Class for Graphic Design). Like their teacher, the students focused on creating a dynamic rhythm on the page by managing the relationship between printed forms and negative space – and answered briefs that were as simple as those set by Hofmann in the 1960s. The five display cases in the exhibition, dedicated to research, calendars, colour and layouts for books and magazines – reiterate Weingart’s tendency to focus his investigations on a single idea.
One statement on the gallery wall also highlights his educational philosophy. “School,” it reads, “[is] gradual growth, branching in many directions on open ground, evolving like the organic and interlocked architecture of a desert village. Nestled in an oasis, surrounded by sand dunes, palm trees, fertile fields, and flowers. Untouched by government control.” In a sense, the Basel School’s typeshop became a place for the “gradual growth” of skills and ideas – and so it feels like the right place to end the exhibition.
Armin Hofmann wrote that Weingart broke new ground in teaching that was rooted in his “master-apprentice principle” and that, together at the Basel School, they “carried on the Basel typographic tradition from Tschichold through Ruder, and into a new age”. Now no longer practicing as a designer, Weingart has donated the work included in the exhibition to the museum. The hope is that his former students continue to deliver their own advancements on his teaching to students in national institutions, and that, in the future, an exhibition of his work would include typographers from yet another younger generation.
“My vision, fundamentally compatible with our school’s philosophy,” Weingart writes in his book, “was to breathe new life into the teaching of typography by reexamining the assumed principles of its current practice. The only way to break the rules was to know them.” 1
Sarah Snaith is a design writer and editor based in London. Weingart Typography is at the Museum für Gestaltung in Zurich until 28 September. museum-gestaltung.ch. Typography has just been republished in a softcover edition by Lars Müller; £35. lars-mueller-publishers.com