Jan Tschichold has, since his death in 1974, acquired the stature of a typographer's typographer. Though a pioneer throughout his life, he has come to represent the best kind of entrenched conservatism: the unfailingly thoughtful good taste that may be used to locate the central nerve of a fine tradition. He was in the thick of it, always, at ceaseless war against ugliness, ignorance, and "self-expression". He was an authority.
Swiss by luck and disposition, Tschichold came out of a Leipzig family with inclinations to design. His father was an accomplished sign-painter, and the son could thus practise calligraphy early and often. Lettering is anyway among the first arts we teach a child, whether well or poorly, and no-one who is literate will forget the sensuous joy that first came from studying the form of the large print in children's books: the descending g like a wobbly pair of spectacles; the j like a fish-hook; the s like a snake; the f perhaps a seahorse; the b your pregnant mother. To be entranced by such letters is to knock at the door of the libraries of the world, and throughout his life Tschichold was an ever-hungry reader-which is true of most typographers and of few art directors.
His horror of "self-expression" was a horror of illiteracy: that the designer of pages should presume to stand in the writer's way, and make irritating gestures while the reader is trying to see what the writer is saying. It is the typographer's craft to be in perfect harmony with the material he is setting, attentive to minute questions of line, spacing, shape, and style, so the reader need never be distracted. Great skill is required to maintain that harmony; the requisite degree and kind of anonymity does not come easily to anyone; whereas "self-expression" can be achieved by any drunkard.
Arriving into manhood at the high tide of Modernism in the mid-twenties (or whatever we are to call that huge surge of international creativity that lifted all arts between the world wars), Tschichold was immediately an informed and uncompromising exponent. At the age of twenty-three he filled a special number of a German trade journal with a "manual of elementary typography", introducing the work of El Lissitsky and others to the broad audience of practical printers. He was in the vanguard of a formidable troop of artist-typographers, chiefly Dutch and German, changing the face of art as much as print: Lissitsky, Theo van Doesburg, Kurt Schwitters, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, H. N. Werkman, Piet Zwart, Herbert Bayer; all playful, all deeply serious. They and their contemporaries in many fields were trying to effect a collision between fine art and the machine age, by smashing through the aesthetic euphemism of the nineteenth century, and embracing new technology. We have tired of their successes, and they have gone out of style.
Tschichold's book Die Neue Typographie (1928) remains the standard exposition of the asymmetric, sans-serif principles that we have come to associate with the Bauhaus, though he never attended that school, and later returned towards symmetry and serifs. (An English translation, The New Typography, was reissued by the University of California Press, in 1993; a facsimile of the original was reprinted by Verlag Brinkmann & Bose, in 1987.)
His life's work thereafter was to harness the spirit that Modernism had freed: to bring discipline to its excesses, and establish continuity with the finest lettering that could be found, from Roman gravestones forward. He studied widely, contributing monographs and journal articles on subjects as various as Chinese poetry papers and stamping blocks, typography in Japanese, Spanish lettering models of the sixteenth century, the development of scientific symbols, Renaissance ratios and proportions, Ben Nicholson's reliefs-together with useful commentaries on many specific typefaces and their designers. When commissioned to design an edition, it was in Tschichold's nature to study the author so intently that he found himself writing literary criticism, too: for instance on Laurence Sterne's adored persona, Yorick.
His move to Basel in Switzerland, and then to Berzona, near Locarno, where he lived the balance of his life, took him out of the traffic of the printing trade, and helped grant him leisure to think in a house whose walls were lined with books (and with a work table before almost every window). It did not begin as a voluntary journey. The Nazis had come to power in 1933, and Tschichold was among the first artists they were to honour with an accusation of Kulturbolschevismus. The local party scum agreed that he exhibited a peculiarly unGerman typography, and so deprived him of his livelihood as a teacher in Munich's Meisterschule für Deutschlands Buchdrucker. Paradoxically, the Nazi propagandists learned much about the dramatic possibilities of graphic art from the artists they exiled, and, noticing this, Tschichold began to recoil from what he had helped to invent.
He wrote with precision and élan in English as well as German, but the mass of his considerable writings are in German only, and except for his several major books had been hard to find even in that language till now the Berlin house of Brinkmann & Bose has brought them out in two utterly worthy volumes. Entitled Schriften 1925-1974, they provide a solid reference text and bibliography, exquisitely set, printed, and bound as if under the direction of Tschichold's ghost. In the cosmopolitan German custom, the several articles written originally in English are reprinted thus, without translation, faultlessly checked and proofread. How I wish we in Anglo-Saxony could return such compliments!
Tschichold's biggest commission was from Allen Lane for Penguin Books, in 1946. He was asked to redesign the whole series of paperbacks, and spent three years in London meticulously revolutionizing each aspect of their production in turn. Most people who have done any sort of work in English-language publishing have encountered Tschichold through his much-xeroxed "Penguin Composition Rules", and verily, any typographer without them in his files may be safely accused of nescience. This six-page house manifesto called for closely word-spaced type, avoidance of holes or wide spaces, generous leading (spacing between lines), light punctuation, a subtle decorative use of letter-spaced small capitals to mark chapters, old-style numerals (with ascenders and descenders), understated headings and folia, and everywhere a tense symmetry. The delectably refined, neo-classical readability of Penguin paperbacks (later wrapped in Germano Facetti's gorgeous art covers) had much to do with the success of the firm in putting a huge selection of good literature into the mass market. Penguins got read, became addictive, and a whole post-war generation was raised to expect higher typographical standards than their parents had put up with. We (I incidentally belong to that generation between the War Heroes and the post-articulate Generation X) may even have read more than our parents because of these attractive, disposable books; for try reading the previous generation's Everymans in bulk and you will soon go cross-eyed.
The "Penguin Composition Rules" appeared on the threshold of the photo-typesetting age, and in many ways Tschichold's mature work anticipates the lightness and smoothness of touch that became attainable as printing detached itself from the cumbersome metal of the linotype machines. By the late fifties, the direction of technological change was clear, new and better methods were emerging, and designers were no longer catching up-as architects and industrial designers in the twenties had been catching-up with nineteenth-century inventions-but now thinking ahead. In our own time, the sophisticated clarity of Apple/Macintosh computer graphics owes much, unacknowledged, to Tschichold's mind and aesthetic: transplanted and Americanized.
Yet we have much to learn, and always relearn, for humans are apt to forget the basics. Now as then, tawdriness and indifference condemn most commercial printing, and while some of our advertising and pictorial graphics are superb, most are cheap, cute, and showy unless dead. Our periodical press is in the worst way. Popular magazines today are assembled at phenomenal expense but with absolute contempt for the needs of a reader: columns of narrow, small, mechanically kerned (letter-spaced) text squished against gaudy pictures and repulsive ads, criss-crossed by redundant sloping lines and then whammed with ingots of lead in the form of reversed (black) quote panels. There are rude page jumps, space-wasting witless poster-sized headlines, glossy paperstock that shines in your eyes-and everywhere the desperate narcissism of art directors trying to draw attention to their tedious insecurities.
The fact that millions of people have become de facto typesetters through their word processors promises much for good and ill. The good is that they are made slightly aware of what typesetting involves, and over time become more discerning consumers-just as natural habitats tend to get saved after people take a casual interest in ornithology. The bad is that the opportunities for "self-expression" have meanwhile been almost infinitely enlarged.
It is therefore to our contemporary art director that such a useful pointed manual as The Form of the Book: Essays on the Morality of Good Design should be presented. He (or she, as the case will often be) must be sat down with the book and forced to read it through, at gunpoint if necessary. The book is frequently entertaining, in a dry, unAmerican way that may drift irretrievably over the art director's head. But it is the hortative tone that the over-emancipated reader will more likely misidentify as pedantry. Tschichold, grand master of his craft, enjoyed laying down the law, almost as much as he enjoyed contradicting himself. He is not beneath declaring an axiom then reversing it in the next paragraph-in full cognizance of what he is doing. In this way he resembles a Carlyle or Ruskin (or Whitman for that matter), and may claim the same extenuation: his line-of-sight is constantly shifting, he describes one aspect of the truth at a time. What you must never do in one situation, you must always do in another; pay attention and you won't get lost. And while some of his injunctions are mere personal prejudice, the personal prejudices of so wise and accomplished a master should never be merely ignored.
So many of those prejudices bring joy to my heart. For instance, one of the essays in The Form of the Book is on dustjackets, and he explains that after you have bought a book and taken it home you must throw the dustjacket away. It is only packaging-protection from sunlight in the shop window and from browsers who "cannot trust their hands to be clean"-and it is a moral error on the part of the book designer to make a dustjacket so attractive and indispensable that you may want to keep it. Protecting it in a plastic sleeve-the jacket around a jacket that may be seen in public libraries and on "modern first editions" in pretentious "antiquarian" bookshops-is a depravity beyond polite contemplation. On the other hand, the book designer is within his rights to surround a very good dignified learned book with a screaming vulgar dustjacket to help sales, because that is what packaging is for. Since childhood I have instinctively discarded dustjackets (and coupons from magazines) and always thought there should be a branch of the police to make others do likewise.
In the main, Tschichold's knowledge of typography was founded on characteristics of the universe that are essentially unalterable, and he is seldom truly eccentric. While beauty is various and unpredictable, it is not, really, in the eye of the beholder. The fact that it can be communicated from one mind to another reveals a certain amount of common human aesthetic hard-wiring. Tschichold took an especial interest in laws of proportion, and helped to popularize the geometrical ratios that make for an attractive depth of page, agreeable margins, and appropriate type areas. The Golden Section is the most famous of many fascinating, irrational (in the strict sense) numbers that may be used as ratios to construct proportions that arrest the human eye by their "rightness"; each is also written into nature (in, e.g., the design of sea shells). The square roots of prime numbers such as two, three, and five, and the height by the base of a regular pentagon, yield other such proportions. When we say, "God is in the details," we may use these for our proof.
Similarly, Tschichold strikes a universal gong in his abhorrence of Whore's Children and Cobbler's Apprentices. These are the German expressions for what in English we call the widow (short line dangling at end of paragraph) and orphan (last line of paragraph at top of next page) respectively. Both should be remorselessly hunted down and killed, if at all possible, for they eat away the crucial rectangle of the page. Tschichold gives useful advice in The Form of the Book and elsewhere, but unlike most art directors, never recommends asking an author to solve his problem by removing or adding words or phrases. For whether or not that author is dead, the text is always sacred. If it were not it would hardly be worth the effort of fine typesetting.
Hartley & Marks, publishers with offices in Point Roberts, Washington, and Vancouver, are to be praised for putting a couple of typographical classics back into circulation in North America, using appropriate typefaces (in Tschichold's book, his most famous and enchanting face, called Sablon), proper stitch binding, and fine laid paper, though in soft covers only (not quite an indictable offence: at least the books are bindable). Another of their efforts, Geoffrey Dowding's Finer Points in the Spacing & Arrangement of Type, is a short, practical treatise from the sixties, elegant in a more workmanlike way, which, being a reference book more purely, should have been smaller and handier, but ah well. Both books have charming introductions, Dowding's by Crispin Elsted and Tschichold's by Robert Bringhurst; Bringhurst's introduction is also informative.
The prospective disciple of Tschichold should immediately obtain (while stocks last!) the master's Treasury of Alphabets & Lettering, recently reissued in paper covers by the British art publisher, Lund Humphries, and newly introduced by Ben Rosen. Translated from the German edition of 1965, this large-format compendium is a visual survey of the Western typographical tradition, in 176 magnificently assembled plates, preceded by nine short essays and followed by concise, eye-opening notes on the plates individually. The product of many decades of Tschichold's trials and experience, the book is a kind of Orbis Sensualium Pictus of typography.
David Warren (Books in Canada) -- Books in Canada
--This text refers to the Paperback edition.