Rudolf Koch and the modern German blackletter

Blackletter types (sometimes called "Gothic") were the letterforms used by Gutenberg in the 15th century. Blackletter forms are tall, calligraphic and segmented compared to the forms more familiar to us, which Germans call "antiqua." For example, a lowercase "o", circular in antiqua type, appears as a tall hexagon in blackletter type. In central Europe, traditional blackletter printing still thrived into the 20th century, but was increasingly crowded by publishing in antiqua.

Consequentially, debates were staged in German books and even in the German parliament (1911) about the appropriateness of blackletter. While proponents argued that the internationally employed antiqua was easier to read, blackletter supporters emphasized the "German" quality of their preferred types.

Many of the designs of the German calligrapher and type designer Rudolf Koch (1876-1934) are updates of the blackletter form. They proudly acknowledge the German blackletter tradition while altering the letters toward simplicity and legibility in an effort to make them work for modern times.

The pivotal years before World War I saw intense industrialization, modernization, mass consumerism and a growing middle class. However, as excited as the Germans were to modernize and bring Germany to the forefront of the international scene, they were also afraid to lose pieces of their past, pieces that made them distinctly German, including blackletter. Though Gutenberg had printed in blackletter, books in Europe had already begun to be set in roman type as early as the late 1550s. It was only in Germany, German-speaking Switzerland, and Scandinavia that ordinary vernacular books continued to be printed in blackletter throughout the hand-press period.

Blackletter had its critics. Already in 1852, Jakob Grimm defined blackletter in his German Dictionary as "misshapen," "ugly," "bad" and "tasteless," declaring that "it makes books look barbarian." He thought the capital letters "unreadable and offensive to the eye," and "the individual forms ornate and disjointed." 1 Grimm was not alone. Many of the educated elite decried blackletter writing and printing as symptomatic of a lamentable resistance to modernization among the German masses.

Rudolf Koch desired to create versions of the traditional blackletter that lent themselves to better readability and yet still maintained their German identity. While Koch designed all kinds of types during his career, he felt "quite happy with the commonly used blackletter, a letterform which to him was beautiful symbol of the German nationalistic spirit." 2 This sentiment was also shared by the Klingspor foundry where Koch worked his entire career. When most foundries were hiring designers based on formal training in the industry, the Klingspor foundry hired Koch for his artistic abilities and not for his knowledge of type design. Koch considered skill in lettering and impeccable craftsmanship "to be of utmost importance."3 Thereby inspired by historic manuscripts and their elaborate calligraphy, Koch began his designs with a broad nibbed pen. His blackletters maintained the overall decorative qualities but also had clarity and distinction when compared to traditional blackletter. The result was a blackletter type design that had more fluid expressiveness versus designs that were based on formal geometrics.

No doubt, part of the continued success of the blackletter in Germany until the mid-20th century is due to the efforts and works of Rudolf Koch and his devotion to the type form. Even before his death his achievement in this field was noted. In a 1926 book review, Julius Rodenberg stated, "Rudolf Koch and his lettering and type design probably [did] more than any other to save the blackletter for Germany."4 Koch's strong spirituality and immense artistic ability allowed him to create new letterforms that transcend the prejudice against things created in blackletter. All of his work conveys the clean strength of the blackletter design combined with the poetic decorative details that makes his blackletter distinctly German.

— Caroline Baum

1Gerald Cinamon, Rudolf Koch: Letterer, Type Designer, and Teacher (London: The British Library, 2000), 30.
2Gerald Cinamon, Rudolf Koch: Letterer, Type Designer, and Teacher (London: The British Library, 2000), 29.
3Siegfried Guggenheim, “Rudolf Koch, His Work and the Offenbach Workshop,” Print 5 no. 1 (1947): unpaginated.
4Quoted in Gerald Cinamon, Rudolf Koch: Letterer, Type Designer, and Teacher (London: The British Library, 2000), 30.

Suggestions for further reading:

Cinamon, Gerald. Rudolf Koch: Letterer, Type Designer, and Teacher. Oak Knoll Press and The British Library, 2000.

Guggenheim, Siegfried. Rudolf Koch. Woodstock, Vermont. Reprinted from Print: A Quarterly Journal of the Graphic Arts vol. 5 no. 1.

The Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography, Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. Blackletter: Type and National Identity. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998.

Kredel, Fritz. The Little ABC book of Rudolf Koch: Designs by Rudolf Koch and Berthold Wolpe. Reprint, Boston: David R. Godine, 1976.