24 Hours In Leipzig

September 2019 · 5 minute read
print design notes travel

Jan Tschichold Exhibition At The DNB

I got a chance to spend a day in the German city of Leipzig recently. As I had done some research beforehand, I knew there were a couple of exhibitions that I wanted to see, namely, the Tschichold exhibition at the National Library (Deutsche Nationalbibliothek) as well as the Museum of Printing (Druckkunstmuseum). It turned out that I also had time left over to visit the Grassi Museum and see the Bauhaus exhibition which, coincidentally, was on at the same time.


First off, I made my way to the DNB, the German National Library, which was hosting the Tschichold exhibition. The massive buildings of the DNB consist of an old wing (early 20th century) as well as a newer structure built alongside it. As it happens, I chose to enter through the old building and upon asking for directions to the exhibition and seeing my interest in the building, a kind woman gave me a small tour of the ground floor where the main “Lesesaal” is located. The DNB is a “Präsensbibliothek”, which means books are not loaned out. Also, there is no “Freihandbereich” – everything must be ordered online. The vast catalogue includes more than 19 Million volumes. Apparently, the DNB collects copies of everything published in Germany. This is enforced by law – publishers have to deliver two copies to the DNB of anything that is published at no charge. They also collect anything published in German abroad, e.g. books published in Switzerland, Austria, or elsewhere for that matter. Naturally, this can’t be enforced, but they do their best to acquire a copy of every German-language publication. Lastly, they also collect translations of German texts, e.g. Faust in Chinese. I was told that though the building sustained some bomb damage during World War II, they were lucky to lose only around 50'000 artefacts – mostly newspapers – as much of their collection was moved to areas outside Leipzig before the war for safekeeping.

The library also has an archive of a substantial quantity of Jan Tschichold’s work (the other parts of his work are kept at archives in Los Angeles and St. Gallen, Switzerland). I’m not sure at what point in time they were given the “Nachlass”, but that they would have at least some material makes sense, as Leipzig was Tschichold’s birthplace. The exhibition, while not large, was very well presented and documented. It was structured chronologically and comprised exhibits of each major period in his life – from his time at school, his years spent as an educator in Leipzig, as well as his subsequent moves to Munich, Basel, and London, where he designed book covers for Penguin.

But let’s start at the beginning. Born in 1902 Jan Tschichold was turned on to the charm of letters at age 12 upon seeing an exhibition at the Bauhaus in Weimar. By the time he was a teenager, he’d become a gifted calligrapher (as evidenced in the image below) and made quick progress. By the early 1920s Tschichold started exploring the geometric construction of letterforms and in a sense moved away from calligraphic representation and expression. In 1925 his studies culminated the seminal essay “elementare typografie” which was published in the influential journal “Typografische Mitteilungen”. The paper proposes a “new” approach to the construction of letterforms combining elements from Soviet constructivism, De-Stijl, and Bauhaus typography. This propels the young Tschichold to the forefront of graphic design and he receives wide acclaim for his ideas. He is just 23.


Soon after the publication of his essay, Tschichold marries Edith Kramer (1926) and moves to Munich where he takes up a position teaching at the Buchdruckerschule under Paul Renner (the man who would become most well-known for designing the Futura typeface). During this time, he designs many posters (in particular for the Phoebus cinemas), again, to much acclaim in the world of graphic design. In contrast, his typeface designs do not yet garner much attention. The political turmoil of the early 1930s forces the Tschicholds into exile in Switzerland in 1933. He gradually moves away from the “New”, functional, approach to typography he so vehemently put forth only a few years earlier. Tschichold starts shifting his focus back to antiqua forms with straight axes and expresses a particular admiration for the British punch cutters of bygone centuries. It comes as no surprise that he takes a job designing book covers for Penguin in London during the post-war years (1947-49). At Penguin Tschichold is instrumental in establishing the “Penguin Composition Rules”, a rule-book of sorts, indended to help harmonise the diverse and sometimes haphazard typographic choices editors and printers made at the time. This in turn established the clean and consistent look to Penguin books which has since become a design classic. Once again, this work garners him high acclaim in the world of graphic design.


Tschichold’s spelling not quite as impeccable as his typography

After their time in London, the Tschicholds move back to Basel in 1949. He is employed by various organisations during this time: initially as a teacher at the AGS (Allgemeine Gewerbeschule, now Schule für Gestaltung), at Schwabe and Birkhäuser publishers and, from 1955, at Hoffmann-LaRoche, the chemicals and pharmaceuticals company, where he is tasked with designing their corporate identity. This affects everything from signage to letterheads and order forms. In parallel Tschichold works on and releases Sabon (1966), an elegant serif face with British influences and his most important typeface. Jan Tschichold stayed in Basel for the rest of his working life before retiring in Berzona (Tessin) where he remained until his passing on August 11th 1974 at age 72.


Furter reading: Guardian article on Tschichold by Richard Hollis

In-depth article on Tschichold by Wolfgang Beinert

A Visit To The Druckkunstmuseum