In the 1920s and ’30s, the New Typography movement spearheaded by the likes of Jan Tschichold, Karel Teige, Herbert Bayer, and El Lissitzky transformed graphics and information design, spurring not only a new aesthetic style but an unprecedented way of working.
In an era when new forms of industry and production were wildly shifting the creative process, there was one small yet significant exhibition in Berlin that predicted much of what was to come for typography. Curated by the former Bauhaus master László Moholy-Nagy in 1929, Where is Typography Headed? provided not only an overview of the ideas integral to a new design movement in Europe—it anticipated how the aesthetics of communication would change in the future. Across 78 plates of text and images, Moholy-Nagy outlined key ideas and approaches that, in many ways, would become what we now know and recognize as graphic design.
Now, in one of many shows in the German capital loosely tied to the 2019 Bauhaus centennial, Berlin’s Kunstbibliothek Art Library at the Kulturforum has attempted to reconstruct Moholy-Nagy’s original exhibition, titling itself Moholy-Nagy and the New Typography. The show catalog, designed by Isabel Naegele and Julia Neller and published by Verlag Kettler, similarly attempts to put Moholy-Nagy’s exhibition into a 21st-century context with contributions from the likes of Steven Heller, Ellen Lupton, Erik Spiekermann, and Peter Bil’ak. Both book and exhibit set out to highlight the importance of Moholy-Nagy’s surprisingly little-known exhibition to the history of typography, and while their motivation and accompanying texts lack critical perspective, the historical research behind the endeavor is meticulous and impressive.
By 1929 Moholy-Nagy had just left the Bauhaus to open his own design studio in the neighborhood of Charlottenburg in West Berlin, where he worked on photomontages for the women’s magazine die neue linie as well as on print adverts for a menswear chainstore and a glass factory. He was one of a number of artists from the avant-garde that saw advertising as a space to turn design experiments into a source of income, alongside the likes of Kurt Schwitters, who had also set up his agency MERZ-Werbezentrale in Hanover in 1924. Around that time, advertising had began to be taught in art schools as a standalone subject: at the Bauhaus in Dessau, Herbert Bayer led the print and advertising workshop while also working commercially.
These avant-garde practitioners were approaching commercial advertising using a style that had become known as “The New Typography.” The term was first made popular in an essay by Moholy-Nagy that accompanied a Bauhaus exhibition in 1923, and referred to new formal possibilities arising from the ability to integrate photography and type due to changes in printing processes. With traditional processes like hot metal typesetting, all type elements had to be arranged side-by-side. If an artist wanted something to overlap, a second printing process was needed, along with a test print, to see whether the overlapping was in the correct place, which could only be done with the help of a trained letterpress expert. In the early 1920s, Schwitters, El Lissitzky, and Moholy-Nagy began experimenting with montage using new offset and intaglio printing. Liberated from the constraints of letterpress printing processes, Moholy-Nagy devoted himself to the idea of “typophoto,” playing with ways in which type and image could be arranged simultaneously with transparent films.
Designers no longer needed to arrange type in symmetrical columns, and embraced their newfound ability to create strikingly asymmetrical compositions combining blocks of type and illustration as photomontages. The New Typography style also became synonymous with stripped back, sans-serif typefaces such as Futura, which aimed for pure functionality and deliberately moved away of the ornamental, swirling hand-drawn type of the previous century.
While avant-garde artists embraced the possibilities of the New Typography, the commercial world still had to be convinced that audiences would be drawn to business cards, brochures, magazines, and posters designed in this newly energetic but stripped-back style. That’s why in 1928, Schwitters banded together a group of other designers working in advertising to form an association called the der ring neue Werbegestalter [The Ring of New Advertising/Publicity Designers]. The idea was that together the designers would convince the commercial world that their design approach created a strong and persuasive promotional impact through talks, exhibitions, magazines, and more. In 1929, they began to organize their inaugural major show in Germany, which was to be, as Swchwitters wrote, their “first encounter with like-minded advertising designers from abroad.”
This show, held at Berlin’s former Kunstgewerbemuseum (today the Martin Gropius Bau) was titled New Typography, and Moholy-Nagy was invited to curate his own room for the event, staging Where is Typography Headed? in a room just by the entrance to the larger show.
For his exhibit, Moholy-Nagy first looked back at the origins of the New Typography through plates which showcased how the Italian Futurists arranged text in an “image-like” way, and examples of Russian Constructivist typographical compositions. He then went on to summarize the current design landscape, focusing on several key factors that led to The New Typography. These included the importance of new DIN Standards, which standardized paper sizes in Germany in the 1920s, meaning type on communications such as business letters were also standardized. Herbert Bayer experimented with this early on, and created organizational systems that could be applied for different clients following simple templates, such as “name of the promoted product + shorthand symbol + product photo + manufacturer + size + promotional description.” Moholy-Nagy included examples of design defined by DIN standards from Bayer and Jan Tschichold in his exhibition.
Moholy-Nagy also emphasized the moves towards sans-serif typefaces and “uncapitalization” amongst New Typography designers, a strategy initially spearheaded by Herbert Bayer at the Bauhaus in order to “write in a more economical way.” According to Bayer, “nothing is lost by uncapitalization, but writing is easier to read, easier to learn, and considerably more economical.”
Lastly, and perhaps most intriguingly, Moholy-Nagy defined the way in which graphic and typographic design would take a huge leap in future decades because of the new possibilities for the fusion of text and image thanks to photomontage. This development, Moholy-Nagy predicted, would change the design process completely: “In the future, all printing establishments will have their own photochemical-photomechanical unit, effectively doing away with many hands-on typesetting ‘construction’ jobs,” he wrote in the exhibition text.
In this final section of his exhibition, he vividly illustrated what the technology of design would look like in the future—when no distinction would be made between letters, images, and other elements, and when text could be easily adaptable and scalable. In 1930, his prophecy was realized with the invention of the first phototypesetting machine, the Uhertype. It wasn’t until the 1960s, though, that phototypesetting became widely used. Moholy-Nagy envisioned a landscape in which type was no longer material, and style, weight and spacing could be simply and easily modified.
Moholy-Nagy and the New Typography not only tells a less-known story of a well-known name, but is also a rarity as an exhibition that takes the commercial output of avant-garde artists seriously. If we do see commercial work in an exhibition context, it’s often under vitrines where it serves as contextualising examples alongside art. In many ways, the show is a historical document that testifies to how early 20th century advertising designers appropriated subversive ideas as developed in the avant-garde for commercial purposes. In recreating the show without any critical framework that explores this tension though, Moholy-Nagy and the New Typography celebrates the developments of early modernist advertising design with much of the same technological utopianism as the designer himself.