“Everything had to be reconsidered.”

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Herr Spiekermann, what is the “Bauhaus” aspect of fonts by Joost Schmidt, Schawinsky and co.?

The approach of reinventing everything. The Bauhaus disliked the fact that we use a system of characters that is almost 2,000 years old.

If writing is culture, what does the Bauhaus approach tell us about the period?

Everything had to be reconsidered. The existing culture was bourgeois, backward and had not prevented the disaster of World War I. So a new culture had to be created.

Was working on fragments by Bauhaus masters rather like archaeology or more a creative process?

Both. When working on historical sources, you always have to guess what the intentions were at the time, what simply couldn’t be done better from a technical perspective and what the designers simply couldn’t improve on. Then we transfer that design intention to the new technology, which also has its own laws and therefore its own signature. The result is hopefully what our colleagues from the past would have produced using the tools of today. 

What was your greatest challenge?

Precisely that: transposing the original concept to the new technology; not changing its content, but only adapting the technology. Mistakes had to be ironed out in terms of the craftsmanship of the original designers. Since neither the students nor the teachers were experienced font designers, aspects such as the horizontal contrast were often incorrect. The horizontal lines therefore appeared to be fatter. Round forms had the same diameter as angular ones, although we know that an arc must be a little higher than a straight-line conclusion.

Similar visual phenomena occur when several lines cross, where stains appear and in the case of diagonal lines, which can appear thicker or thinner than horizontal or vertical lines. Our font designers had to correct all that, otherwise the new fonts wouldn’t be usable today. 

László Moholy-Nagy, Abbildung zu „Zeitgemäße Typographie - Ziele, Praxis, Kritik”, in: Gutenberg-Festschrift, Mainz 1925.
Gutenberg-Museum
László Moholy-Nagy, Abbildung zu „Zeitgemäße Typographie - Ziele, Praxis, Kritik”, in: Gutenberg-Festschrift, Mainz 1925.

What is the relevance of the five digital fonts you have produced with respect to designers in 2019? Did any of the typographical visionaries fascinate you particularly and why?

The relevance lies in working on forms that we regard as established and unalterable. Our Latin alphabet is subject to laws based partly on historical, partly on visual and to a large extent on technical aspects. Since both technology and history are in constant flux, it is necessary to question those paradigms. That is as true today as it was 100 years ago.

The sources were not comparable because some designed almost all the letters of the alphabet, while other students only produced drafts for printing, with only a few hand-drawn sketches. These seem to be consistent in their application, but they did not have to prove they would actually work as printed fonts. The bold poster fonts by Alfred Arndt were an example with only very few capital letters. Celine Hurka managed to think the concept through to its conclusion and develop a functional and highly unique poster font out of it.

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Many thanks for talking to us, Herr Spiekermann.