Jan Tschichold: Transcending Typography

In 1902, Jan Tschichold was born directly into the world of book design in Leipzig, Germany.  At the time, Leipzig was the utmost in German book-printing, and his father, a designer and letter-painter.  In Tschichold’s youth, he studied to be an artist and calligrapher.  At age 21, he attended the Bauhaus exhibit at Weimar, a city roughly 120 km from Leipzig that was a hub for intellectual and cultural productivity, and home to prominent members of the Avant-Garde movement.  Reportedly, he left the exhibit “a changed man”(5), and within two years, he would manifest the first expression of his typographic principles in an article titled “Elementare Typographie” which ran as an insert in a local journal, Typographische Mitteilungen.  The New Typography, as it was called, instructed how to compose typography by promoting the necessity of efficient design through the use of sans-serif type, unused page space, photography, asymmetrical design, and standardized paper sizes, among other principles.  In 1928, his first of many books and manuals on the subject was published.  Die Neue Typographie became the handbook for modern printers of the era, setting the standards of International Style.

As the Nazi regime took hold of Germany, avant-garde styles became considered anti-national, and as a key modernist, Tschichold was forced out of a teaching position at the printing school in Munich.  He fled with his family to Switzerland in 1933, working again as both book designer and instructor in Basel.  Here he began to soften from his intensely structured design ideals, and embraced the use of serif types and classically inspired layouts.  He was highly criticized for renouncing his early style, but he maintained deliberate use of geometry and proportion in layout, employing the grid and Golden Ratio in design, seeing himself more as engineer than artist.

In 1935, Tschichold was invited to London for an exhibition of his own work held by Lund Humphries.  The avant-garde movement had largely bypassed Britain, and his distinct style led to several commissions, including the design of the 1938 edition of the famous Penrose Annual.  By the 1940’s, Tschichold was well known both in Europe and in Britain for his writings and his superb craftsmanship.  In 1945, he was approached by Penguin book publisher Allen Lane to move to London and become Penguin’s master typographer.  From 1947-1949, Tschichold set to work standardizing the design of hundreds of Penguin publications, further established through his writing of the “Penguin Composition Rules”.   His guidelines so influenced book printing of the time that they served to improve the quality of the industry throughout the country.

After Penguin, Tschichold returned to Basel, writing books about typography and design, and working as a design consultant.  A notable and lasting contribution from his latter years was the development of the typeface Sabon, released in the mid-60’s simultaneously by three type foundries: Linotype, Monotype, and Stempel.  Based on Garamond, the type was, most importantly, the first font to be unvarying in its form between linotype, monotype, and hand setting.  Tschichold passed away in Switzerland in 1974, an esteemed and honored trailblazer of typography.

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