Modernization in Weimar Germany

The 1920s in Weimar Germany saw a surge in adherence to modernist ideas about art and craft, including typography and type design. Weimar modernists, eager to put the nationalistic past of the Wilhelmine Empire and World War I behind them, promoted art and design that they saw as universal.

Typographer Jan Tschichold (1902-74) proclaimed a movement in printing he dubbed Die Neue Typographie (The New Typography). Tschichold announced that only the sans-serif letter — stripped of the traditional, small finishing strokes at the ends of the main strokes — was appropriate for the modern age.

Many Weimar modernists developed crisp sans-serif designs, but the most successful was 1927's Futura, a geometric sans-serif designed by Paul Renner (1878-1956). The underlying geometry of Futura, with its undecorated circles and lines, was thought to speak in a universal formal language that transcended national identity.

Renner's modernist type fit well within the cultural climate of Germany during the Weimar Republic period (1919-33), which had its roots in developments earlier in the century. The Deutscher Werkbund, an organization of designers and manufacturers founded in 1907 in Munich, helped to foster an environment in which socially-engaged design was encouraged, and quality, craftsmanship, and functionality were of primary importance. As a fine artist coming into the printing trade, Renner brought with him not only a refined aesthetic sensibility, but also Werkbund principles concerning quality and resourcefulness. As the country progressed into post-World-War-I industrialization, standardization became an integral part of maintaining quality and consistency. The implementation of standards was accompanied by a new approach to art and design that was upheld by members of the Bauhaus, the influential design school contemporary with the Weimar Republic. Both the Bauhaus and The New Typography movement fostered an environment in which type designers like Renner were able to relate socially-driven ideals to modernist aesthetic principles.

The context in which German designers and manufacturers operated during the '20s shaped the need for new methods of expression that would bear witness to their industrialized atmosphere. In the increasingly modernized setting of Weimar Germany, life had effectively been altered and as things and ideas were moving more rapidly, a sense of cultural renewal and optimism for the future also took shape. The possibility of cultural and spiritual rejuvenation through a pure, rationalized approach to design motivated new approaches to typography. In his introductory statements to Die Neue Typographie, published in 1928, a young Tschichold presented an impassioned sketch of a culture in the midst of a dynamic, changing environment. He stated, "The new age has created an entirely new visual world, and has guided us to the primary elements of human expression: geometric shape and pure exact form."1 The shapes used to convey "pure exact form" are inherently free from national or individual associations through the geometric nature of their construction. Modernist type designers, including Renner, looked to the sans-serif as the ultimate expression of a new reality that was informed not only by social considerations, but also by technological developments.

Futura's geometric foundation corresponded to the modernist aesthetic of the 1920s that favored unornamented forms and uniform line weights that eliminated any indication of the writing hand. Futura's letters looked constructed, not written. Renner's intention was to create a typeface that would be a successful tool of communication that could be issued in a range of sizes and weights. Promotional materials issued by the Bauer type foundry illustrate Futura's innovative, sensitive design and its ability to transition from a clear, compelling display type to one suitable for longer settings. The subtleties of Renner's designs can be seen in their slight departure from precise geometry. In the final versions of the lowercase "a", "p", and "q", for example, the counters (open areas within letters) are slightly offset ovals to enhance readability. The revision of Futura's lowercase letters was sparked by the need for recognizable letterforms that would be accessible to an international market. The combination of classical proportions with geometric principles granted Futura its appeal as a modern typeface, but it was the pursuit of improved, efficient communication that made it appealing to an international audience.

Immediately following Futura's release in 1927, the typeface became an instant and lasting international success. The wide range of Futura's possible applications, whether in advertisements, signs or books, contributed to its popularity. The ultimate basis for its enduring appeal, however, does not rely solely upon its versatility, but upon its ability to transcend national identity through the use of geometric principles and simplified, universal forms.

— Traci Olinger

1Jan Tschichold, The New Typography: A Handbook for Modern Designers, trans. Ruari McLean (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 12.

Suggestions for further reading:

Burke, Christopher. Paul Renner: The Art of Typography. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998.

Kinross, Robin. "New Typography." In Modern Typography: An Essay in Critical History, 103-19. 2d ed. London: Hyphen Press, 2004.

Tschichold, Jan. The New Typography: A Handbook for Modern Designers. Translated by Ruari McLean. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.