illustrated critical biography of modernist typographer
German typographer Paul Renner is best known as the designer of the typeface Futura, which stands as a landmark of modern graphic design. This title is the first study in any language of Renner’s typographic career. It details his life and work to reveal the breadth of his accomplishment and influence. Renner was a central figure in the German artistic movements of the 1920s and 1930s, becoming an early and prominent member of the Deutscher Werkbund while creating his first book designs for various Munich-based publishers. As the author of numerous texts such as Typografie als Kunst (Typography as Art) and Die Kunst der Typographie (The Art of Typography) he created a new set of guidelines for balanced book design.
Renner taught with Jan Tschichold in the 1930s and was a key participant in the heated ideological and artistic debates of that time. Arrested and dismissed from his post by the Nazis, he eventually emerged as a voice of experience and reason in the postwar years. Throughout this tumultuous period he produced a body of work of the highest distinction.
Christopher Burke’s biography is a PhD thesis which has been transformed into an elegant commercial publication – designed and typeset by the author himself. It follows a chronological structure, tracing the relationship between the history of Germany and Renner’s theories and practice as an artist. He helped lead German print out of the conservative Gothic or Blackletter tradition into the use of modern fonts such as his own best-selling Futura. His life also parallels German cultural history in the twentieth century.
Burke is very good at revealing the political, economic, and social forces which influenced the development of the new aesthetic movements of the period. For instance, he details the post-inflation shortages of the 1920s which gave the Bauhaus its impetus to link art and technology to produce machine-made objects. (Renner participated actively in this movement, developing alongside people such as Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius.)
Another wonderfully revealing instance is his discussion of the Nazis’ 1941 ban on the use of gothic script. What was once part of national identity was suddenly denounced as a ‘Jewish abomination’ – when in fact the truth was that the Germans had occupied much of France, Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, and Norway, and they needed to make their propaganda understandable to people in these countries.
Burke sometimes seems to bury Renner’s theoretical and aesthetic work under lots of historical data. I was amazed that he gives so little attention to Typografie als Kunst (1922). But fortunately he traces the development of Futura in great detail, complete with reproductions of preliminary sketches of the letter forms and their variants.
He discusses the interesting notion that this essentially modernist font actively suppressed the differences between lower and upper case in the pursuit of a purely ‘rational’ design. Yet a weighted stroke emerged as it developed – because it was quite clear that the purely geometric form looked ugly.
Sometimes the politics and typography are not so comfortably integrated. After forty pages of letter forms, we’re suddenly jerked back into the political crises of the time – though it has to be said that part of Burke’s argument is to rescue Renner from the taint of Nazism which might be attached to any survivors of the period who stayed within Germany. Renner maintained a humanitarian stance against the Nazis, which he expressed significantly in his Kulturbolschewismus?, for which he as arrested in 1933 and then went into a period of ‘internal exile’.
Renner was obviously a survivor. The book ends with his post-war contributions to a debate between typographic modernisers and conservatives, in which he characteristically took the middle ground. He even saw a relationship between book design and political ideology:
In Renner’s view, the taste for large volumes, which equated weight with prestige, betrayed a potential flaw in the German character: ‘the “fatal desire for greatness”, by which Hitler was also notoriously motivated
This is a very attractive book which will appeal to both typographists and cultural historians. It will also have a passing attraction for bibliophiles who will appreciate the sheer pleasure of a beautifully illustrated and carefully designed book printed on high quality paper. If this is the level of work done in the department of typography and graphic communication at Reading University, then Christopher Burke is a very good advert for it.
© Roy Johnson 2002
Christopher Burke, Paul Renner: the art of typography, London: Hyphen Press, 1999, pp.223, ISBN: 1568981589