type design & national identity: ideas for an exhibition?

eliason's picture

Hi all

I am presently putting together a proposal for a museum exhibition on the intersections of type design and national identity. The era I have in mind spans from the end of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth (essentially the era dominated by production for Monotype/Linotype machines).

I am looking for two kinds of ideas: suggestions of appropriate "case studies" that fit the theme; and suggestions of what types of "objects" might make for an engaging exhibition of historical type design.

For the case studies, I already have some ideas in mind, such as
- Norwegian identity and Gerhard Munthe's revival of medieval lettering
- Koch and the modern German blackletter
- Gill's Sans as against nationalism and internationalism
- modernization and standardization efforts in Weimar Germany (with an eye to international markets)
- the changing Nazi policy on blackletter
- Frutiger and Swiss design education
- Zapf's Palatino and the meaning of Italian Renaissance at midcentury
- Goudy, Dwiggins, and the development of an American type design

For the objects, any suggestions are welcome. I am sure I could display books that show some of the types at issue. I also think it'd be nice to show a linotype slug or the like, if I can get my hands on one. I'll particularly be looking into local (Twin Cities, MN) special-collections libraries for exhibitable material.

I appreciate all input you can offer on both of these questions. Thanks in advance.


kegler's picture

We might lend a Goudy pattern or two if needed:
or some monotype matrices. Contact me offlist if you wish.

George Horton's picture

Good choices. Most Czech type of the period should work well with this. The late nineteenth-century British revival of Caslon, and the great success of Monotype Baskerville, could be thought of as encouraged by a mild patriotism. Even Times Roman was designed, Morison claimed, to be "English".

hrant's picture

You have a lot of great stuff covered already. What I would definitely add
however is the ongoing saga of the fate of Gaelic, a politically-charged
typographic roller-coaster ride. Let me know if you need leads on that.

And/but I would ask:
Is this limited to Latin type?


William Berkson's picture

I think that Bauhaus and Swiss design were in a way intended to be anti-nationalist, and to a certain extent they succeeded. The championing of sans for text--which was neither German nor the custom elsewhere--was an important part of this. And so was the effort at being 'neutral'. If you compare Futura and Goudy Sans you have a very striking difference in direction. So I think the anti-nationalism thing would be an interesting contrary note in the exhibition.

hrant's picture

> the anti-nationalism thing would be an interesting contrary note

Very good idea - it would make for a great "side-bar" I think.
(Although ironically such movements do tend to become their own "nation"s! :-)


eliason's picture

Thanks for the encouragement and the great tips already. Keep them coming!

On Morison: do you have a citation for the "English" claim about TR? I'd be very interested to work that in.

On Gaelic: a superbly relevant idea that hadn't occurred to me. I would love leads on it. (I just browsed here which hinted at the roller-coaster ride.)

On non-Latin type: I am open to ideas beyond Latin type. That said, the research for the exhibition will be done by me and my graduate students, so language may prove an obstacle for some areas; moreover, to some extent the exhibition must be built around the objects that are accessible and available for display, which may prove limiting too. On the other other hand, the borders between Latin and other letterforms might be the very most important spots to investigate the role of nationalism. And I would certainly expect that with Russian nationalism and Communist internationalism at play, issues in Cyrillic type design of the period might be fascinating.

Thanks again for your stimulating input!

eliason's picture

> So I think the anti-nationalism thing would be an interesting contrary note in the exhibition.

Thanks, that's certainly one I intend to include. (In my mind I had already placed it under the "Weimar modernization" topic, but your post rightly shows that I should be more explicit in my proposal.)

hrant's picture

Gaelic: I'll put you in touch with Matha Standun - he's the expert.

Non-Latin: I'll have to think how it applies to your specific
time period... But perhaps the best case is the application of
Linotype news setting to Arabic (and to a lesser extent, Greek).


William Berkson's picture

>I had already placed it under the “Weimar modernization”

Right, the 'international style' is in fact German-reading in origin, though it was intended to be international. So some extent that 'neutral' feel is still more Germanic than anything else, and perhaps also Dutch. But it did conquer the world, in the form of Helvetica, so it became international. As Hrant points out, there are interesting ironies and contradictions.

Great idea for an exhibition!

hrant's picture

Isn't neutral/International more Swiss? Or at least is it not
generally seen as such? Maybe because after WWII people
can't get themselves to think of Germans as such...


thierry blancpain's picture

just an idea: an interesting topic could be the use of the occupiers or the suppresseds type in colonies (india, etc). maybe even the use of blackletter in german colonies.

william: sure, some of the origins of the swiss style came from germany, because german "refugees" came to switzerland and influenced the local graphic design. but still, isnt neutral a word normaly linked more with switzerland than germany?

on the "layer" of personal opinion: swiss people are way more neutral than german people. often, when swiss people stay "nice", german people can get very direct (which is sometimes hard to interpret right, as a swiss guy).

hrant's picture

With the imposition of Latin onto Vietnam by the French
being a superb example of that. But the timeframe is off.


thierry blancpain's picture

yes, but the colonial history could be seen as one piece (with different facettes!), thus allowing to implement the viatnamese history, too.

eliason's picture

Intriguing possibility, though would that be too much about the use of type rather than the design of it?

I wonder, were the types used in European colonies all imported, or was there any type design/production happening within the colonized territories?

Nick Shinn's picture

was there any type design/production happening within the colonized territories?

In Canada, not until 1967.
But it has been noted that JEH Macdonald, had there been a Canadian type foundry in his day, would have produced something along the lines of his contemporaries Cooper or Goudy, based on his lettering.

Interestingly, the "foundational" style of the US is Caslon, a British face, as that was the foremost face in use in the colonies in 1776 -- whereas the comparable style of Canada, in which many early documents of nationhood were set, c. 1867, was Scotch Modern, founded in the US as likely as the UK.

William Berkson's picture

Oh, my: Dutch, German, Swiss. To an outsider the type trend--a cool, neutral and very disciplined, polished style--don't seem so different. I'm sure there are interesting things to be said about how the aspiration to be international changes with the times and locations of the movement, but I don't know much about that--an exhibition would help! --Will you have a catalogue?

hrant's picture

> would that be too much about the use of type rather than the design of it?

Well, in the case of Vietnamese it would be something
that engulfs both: the "design" of a writing system!

BTW, not just in colonies, but even within Europe there was a fair amount of inter-country "borrowing", like how the British started their printing with type imported from the Netherlands*, or how for the longest time Baskerville's type was used most of all in... France! And they still love it there.

* The reason the Eth and Thorn ended up being dropped from the English alphabet; the English didn't want to spend the time/money to [learn to] make sorts for them, to add to the imported fonts.


eliason's picture

> —Will you have a catalogue?

I would like to, and your statement of interest may help me make a case for one in the budget. I also wondered if the scholarship generated for the exhibition could form a special issue of a type-related journal - or perhaps both (a special issue that served as a catalogue). All ideas and leads welcome...

Charles Leonard's picture

I think your interest in Weimar and its commercial appropriation of internationalism is excellent. I dealt with both in my thesis. Paul Renner and Futura: The Effects of Culture, Technology, and Social Continuity On the Design of Type for Printing
As you may well be aware, the series Weimar and Now of the University of California press is explicitly directed at taking the historical lessons be learned from the Weimar republic and bringing them forward to illuminate the events of our own era. One or the more typographic significant events of that period was the development of Futura. In his 1922 book Typografie als Kunst, Paul Renner wrote the words shown in the attached samples as the concluding sentence of the first paragraph of the chapter of the history of European letterforms.
The words must have been of utmost significance to Renner because they also appeared in a test proof from 1927, are paraphrased in Mechanisierte Grafik, and are in quoted in full in a brief memoir—"Vom Georg-Müller-Buch bis zur Futura und Meisterschule: Erinnerungen Paul Renners aus dem Jahrzent von 1918 bis 1927”. Imprimatur: ein Jahrbuch für Bücherfreunde, 9, 1939/1940—where Renner quotes the entire passage and states the quote was in his mind as he began the design of Futura in 1924.
It is my personal feeling that is the most telling written and typographical statement of Renner’s goals for Weimar typography, and an apt inclusion in any exhibition of typography in that period.
The first image is a trial cut of Futura as shown in F.H. Ehmcke’s Schrift: irhe Gestaltung und Entwicklung in neuerer Zeit. As reproduced in Burke, “The Authorship of Futura,”
baseline No. 23 1997.

The Second is a proof print of Futura Light, 24 point type Bauer
typefoundry. Dated December 1927, as reproduced in Burke, Paul Renner: The Art of
New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998.

The distance between the two speaks volumes about the supression of national identity in the search for international commercial success.

thierry blancpain's picture

im not sure if you provide a translation of the text in the picture in your pdf - im going to translate it anyway. mind, my english isnt the best.

Roman Capitals are the peak of european type, based on circle, triangle and square, the simplest shapes one could think of, altough they are also the most oppositional shapes.

only in the second picture: Strangely shines the elegant and noble simplicity of this type into our time.

William Berkson's picture

>supression of national identity in the search for international commercial success.

But was Renner really trying for 'national identity'? Wasn't he trying from something more universal, and not just for commercial reasons?

I don't know the answer, just asking. For the Bauhaus I believe they had internationalist socialist ideals...

eliason's picture

Charles -

Thanks for your input. I do think central Europe is where this effort towards modernist internationalism was most acute, and certainly Renner & Futura are at the heart of it.

I've downloaded and begun to read your oft-linked thesis. Congratulations on your fine work and thank you very much for sharing it with us!

William -

> Wasn’t he trying from something more universal, and not just for commercial reasons?

We can see much of the same rhetoric surrounding abstract painting (my first field of expertise) of that time and place, too, which is a field with a much more slack connection to markets. There is ideology at play here, and not just marketing. But I wouldn't want to overstate the independence of those two motivations.

Charles Leonard's picture

It is my contention that Renner began by trying to make a new German script that was more compatible with an international aesthetic. He was trying to accomplish what one century earlier Unger had done with his "neo-classic" Fraktur, applying a Western-European style to fundamentaly German forms. Of course Renner abandoned the enlarged minuscule and uncial capitals of fraktur and replaced them with Roman capitals and then applied the geometric logic of roman capitals to the definition of the lowercase characters. He was indeed trying for an international font, but an international style that included forms familiar to German readers rather than simply accepting the Western-European roman as the norm.
It is more accurate to think of Renner, named by his clerical father after the Apostle Paul and friend to Thomas Mann, as a "Christian Socialist" than as an international socialist.
The following is how the quote appeared in 1922 set in Unger Fraktur. (Composite image taken from pages of Typografie als Kunst Munich: Müller, 1922)

John Hudson's picture

Nick: In Canada, not until 1967.

I think you have to acknowledge the contribution of James Evans and Edmund Peck, whose syllabic writing systems are still used by Indian and Inuit across northern Canada, and of Father Adrien-Gabriel Morice's Déné Syllabics, although these fell out of use. Morice's types were cut in Brussels, but to his specification and based on the forms he had designed. Evans, of course, not only designed an entire orthography, but cut and cast his own type. The Cree and Inuktitut scripts are of considerable interest in terms of national identity -- or 'first nations' identity -- and are also close to unique in being writing systems that were created in typographic form before they were handwritten.

jazzsammich's picture

Regarding non-latin systems, or the borders between latin and non-latin systems, it might be interesting to investigate the boundaries between Serbian and Croatian typography, where, if I remember correctly, what is essentially the same language grammatically is represented primarily in the Latin alphabet in Croatia but Cyrillic in Serbia. Perhaps that distinction is lesser now than it has been in the past?

As to where to start with that investigation, I have no idea.

--Jim K.

John Hudson's picture

Perhaps that distinction is lesser now than it has been in the past?

No, the distinction is very much greater.

During the breakup of Yugoslavia, script differentiation played a very important role in the ugly process of linguistic cleansing that accompanied and supported the very much uglier process of ethnic cleansing. The Latin script was taken as a token of Croatian nationalism, along with the Catholic religion, contra the Cyrillic script and Orthodoxy of the Serbs. The Croats were also keen to exploit any linguistic differentiation they could find, and there were efforts to reform Croatian spelling on phonetical lines (as there had been during the fascist period) in order to differentiate it from Serbian spelling (prior to this, the same Serbo-Croatian text could be displayed in either script simply by switching fonts with parallel 8-bit Latin and Cyrillic encoding). There was also a proposal to remove all words of Serbian origin from official use, and there was a famous example of the nationalist politician who made this proposal giving a speech on television which then had to be dubbed for rebroadcast to remove all the Serbian word he had used. I remember at the time meeting Croatian nationalists in Canada who were insistent that Croatian and Serbian were totally different, mutually unintelligible languages. But I have yet to meet a Serb who couldn't carry on a conversation with a Croat.

In the tighter and bloodier context of Bosnia, it was the Bosnian Serb nationalists who saw their Cyrillic script as a tangible symbol of their distinct identity. During the war there, Bosnian Serb schoolchildren were briefly made to write even their English language homework in the Cyrillic script.

John Hudson's picture

A shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot
מיט אַן אַרמײ און פֿלאָט אַ שפראַך איז אַ דיאַלעקט
A language is a dialect with an army and navy

- Max Weinreich, Yiddish linguist

Nick Shinn's picture

writing systems that were created in typographic form before they were handwritten

Lots of notan!
A few years ago I was hired to design the identity for an exhibition of Inuit art in Italy.
Rather than just use available fonts, which looked like Futura to me -- very European -- I had a go at doing something calligraphic.
The top two comps were rejected: the Inuit members of the organizing committee just hated my chirographic assault.
The bottom is the end result (Palatino: very Italian, although designed by a German), and I did the Inuktitut part of the logo as a sans.

John Hudson's picture

An interesting example, Nick. The problem I have with both your calligraphic version and the final monoline version is the size of the ᓇ (na). This is a full syllable, and should have the same visual presence as the ᐃ (i). You have made it the same visual size as the final ᑦ (t) consonant, which is a different class of character.

[Download free Inuktitut fonts from Tiro here.]

When someone's culture is being represented at at exhibition in a foreign country, I think that is a bad situation in which to try to innovate. Your calligraphic syllabics have some interesting features, but they don't represent the visual culture of the Inuktitut script in any way. They would create the wrong impression for Italians seeing the logo and not knowing anything else about the Inuktitut writing system. So I can see why the Inuit advisors would reject them for that purpose. Would they reject them in other circumstances? When he was on one of his trips to Iqaluit, Ross drew a few quite flamboyant cursive syllabics to encourage people to try thinking about their writing system in new ways. The general reaction wasn't negative: people were interested but non-commital.

Getting back to the subject of the thread: a writing system can be an important cultural identifier for a group of people, whether they constitute a nation in a political sense or not. If they are a minority group within a larger culture, seeking to preserve their distinct identity and foster their heritage, they tend to be protective and hence conservative about their script. One of the interesting things about the Inuktitut script is that it was invented by European missionaries, but has been so strongly adopted by the Inuit that they regard it as an important part of their cultural identity.

hrant's picture

> If they are a minority group within a larger culture, seeking to
> preserve their distinct identity and foster their heritage, they
> tend to be protective and hence conservative about their script.

Indeed. Such is the case with Armenian, since most Armenians don't live in Armenia. This is one of the points I emphasize, that the directions a script should take depends on the needs and desires of its users - it is attuned to politics much more than the personal aesthetic preferences of the designer.

But this does not mean innovation can't occur - it just has to be "internal", and careful. Sometimes it even needs to be consciously unlike the Big Brother's script; so making the Inuit script look like it was made by an Italian scribe 500 years ago is not only misleading, but culturally endangering. Better to look for inspiration from whale bone carving, or even biology or mathematics.


John Hudson's picture

At the same time, though, one has to beware of the restrictiveness of conservatism applied to the authentic diversity of the written forms within the culture. As remarked in the discussion of Scholderer's New Hellenic, the layman is typically ignorant about the history and variety of his own writing system. But type designers shouldn't be led by the conservatism of the ignorant, not least because such conservatism may easily be misplaced. It takes less than one generation for readers to get used to a particular or limited set of type styles, or to the output of particular typesetting technologies which may have significant technical limitations, and then to mistakenly cling to these as being 'correct', in the process abandoning huge swathes of the history, evolution and variety of their writing system. I remember, Hrant, your comment regarding the excellent Album of Armenian Palaeography, which you were pleased would provide evidence that forms which modern readers might find peculiar are part of the heritage of the script. This is the sort of thing to which I refer. Cultural conservatism has a tendency to be limited to a narrow range of cultural experience, often cut off from a broader cultural history and sometimes incorporating unrecognised external or technological influences that have already crept in.

hrant's picture

> type designers shouldn’t be led by the conservatism of the ignorant

But neither by their own over-valuation of history.

> you were pleased would provide evidence that forms which modern
> readers might find peculiar are part of the heritage of the script.

But you forget the key ingredient: it was more of a ruse, to get a certain type of person to accept my own ideas, simply because there was a historical precedent! I'm sure that's the point I was making back then. There's a lot of such "rusing" needed in design I think*, not because we need to be nasty, but because we need to bypass the reader's consciousness to some degree - think for example of how we try to make text fonts "transparent", but not really.

* Like the Paphos "j" - far right here: http://www.themicrofoundry.com/s_latin.html


matha's picture


A small comment on your last post (and a big hello - it's been a while) in relation to my own province - Gaelic typography. I'm not as much of an expert as Hrant is kind enough to suggest (and a big hello to you too Hrant) but as you both know, I'm working on it.

The presence of your mass of ignorant conservatives implies that somewhere there is a smaller population of open-minded, enlightened technicians. I would argue that this is not always the case.

In Ireland, for example, "enlightened" typographers (Morison and Ó Loclainn, for example) only took an interest in Gaelic type after it had already become officially (as far as the government was concerned) obselete. For the four centuries before that, the shape of Irish letters in print was an instrument of the invader, the Church, and various types of nationalists, none of whom had the first clue about type design.

Resistance did exist but in parallel manuscript form rather than in conflict with the printed letter.

A second point on the "less than one generation" timescale. I've recently developed a fascination with Mustapha Kemal's alphabet reform in Turkey and am currently working with one of my students on a comparison with the Irish typographic reform of the 1960s. In both cases it is clear that when the reading public is given no choice (they don't generally publish their own reading material), they can adapt practically overnight. During the perios of transition (only a few years) Irish schoolbooks contained chapters in both scripts, for example. The government published the books and the people did what they were told. Resistance wasn't really an option.


matha's picture

And to Craig,

Sorry for not mentioning you in the above post. Old habits die hard and I do like a good debate ;-).

I would be delighted to discuss ways of including Irish Gaelic Type in your exhibition proposal. It would be a shame to leave it out of your scope as printing type has always been an extremely politically charged issue in Ireland.

I will take this opportunity to also manetion a bit of a scandal. The Irish government (ignorant conservatives to a man/woman) have just permitted a "celebration" of the 90th anniversary of the 1916 rising against British rule in the form of a public auction of historical documents from this period.


Once again our print heritage is being shipped out of the country to the foreign universities with the biggest budgets while we do our utmost to keep a lock of Napoleon Bonaparte's hair safe and sound on our island:


Print history is perhaps better off left to the people. The experts are often more interested in hard currency. In Ireland, at least.

I obviously still like a good rant.


Nick Shinn's picture

John, where were you with the good advice in 1994?

hrant's picture

Matha, that was a riot! :->>


John Hudson's picture

John, where were you with the good advice in 1994?

Um, designing my first not very good typeface and completely ignorant of the existence of Inuktitut syllabics :)

John Hudson's picture

The Irish government (ignorant conservatives to a man/woman) have just permitted a “celebration” of the 90th anniversary of the 1916 rising against British rule in the form of a public auction of historical documents from this period.

Ah well, at least Dublin is still home to one of the world's great collections of Islamic calligraphy :)

Lee Jay Stoltzfus's picture

...speaking of type and national identity.

The Amish in the United States (my relatives) continue to read the same fraktur typeface that appeared in 1740 in the first type specimen broadside printed in North America.

In 1740 Christopher Saur, near Philadelphia, printed that first type specimen, using fraktur fonts from the Luthersche type foundry in Frankfurt.

The Amish hymnbook, the "Ausbund", is the oldest Protestant hymnbook in continuous use. A recent edition was published here in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, with fratur fonts that are very similar to those Cristopher Saur fonts ...similar to Monotype Durer which has also been used for Amish printing recently.

Today, American folk art collectors think of folk paintings when they think of the word "fraktur." A red "fraktur" alligator, with manuscript fraktur lettering, recently sold for $119,000 at auction.

Maybe you could borrow that alligator for your exhibit.

Lee Jay Stoltzfus

Bleisetzer's picture

A very interesting discussion (especially the part about Paul Renner).
See it as a compliment, please.


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