Wolfgang Weingart: Typography
A useful critical review of the monograph from the Swiss designer who bent the Swiss grid. Stuart Bailey looks at the contradictions in Weingart's book and his design work in context.
Thick books have been in vogue since the publication of Koolhaas and Maus landmark S,M,L,XL in 1995. At 520 pages and 45mm thick, Weingarts retrospective volume is physically only half as XL, but still achieves a similar presence. The global scope and number of projects in S,M,L,XL justified such a monumental object. For the autobiography and portfolio of a 60-year-old typographer, however, the form is wide open to accusations of vanity and grandiosity. Weingart is well-prepared for the potential controversy, though; Design History identifies him as single-handedly dismantling the grip of po-faced Swiss-based International style by bending straight lines, filling white space, and re-introducing texture, layering, collage and montage. Such elements became the formal ingredients of postmodernism and the graphic liberation seen in the work of such first-wavers as Greiman in North America and Dumbar in The Netherlands. Weingarts self-portait doesnt stray far from heroic rhetoric (Self-education in the spirit of protest) a tone set by Paul Rands glowing preface, though achieves more than simple self-mythologizing: the work is always carefully explained in relation to the social and technological events. As he states at the beginning: Look and read, understand my World of Pictures as reflecting the time from whence they arose.
That was predominantly 1960s and 1970s Switzerland. In the context of both the countrys neutral political stance and its isolated typographic circle, his experiments with printing processes seem politely contrary rather than anarchistic. In fact, the whole book suffers from an antiseptic exactness, despite the abundance of rough black and white material. Weingarts dry language is at odds with the implied passion of his early free work (though this could be the fault of translation). He recounts his life as a succession of distinct phases, revelations and turning points which seem inhuman and contrived, particularly when summed up in a chronological chart whose bars depict the overlapping phases of his location, education, inspiration, way-finding and professional work.
The majority of his work explores the poetic graphic potential of mechanical processes such as letterpress, film- and plate-making. Weingart fed his artistic endeavours by repeatedly immersing himself in new printing techniques. By combining the activities of printer and designer, and being solely responsible for the outcome, he was able to create unique visual expressions. These visual adventures were regularly supplemented by travels to the Middle East particularly the deserts whose photographs litter the books, influencing the patterns and textures of subsequent work. From 1968, his energetic teaching at Basel strongly influenced the new generation, including many foreign students who, attracted by the sober Swiss style, arrived to find Weingart practising the opposite.
It is difficult to identify any objective benefit in manipulating technological processes as an approach to designing, though Weingart offers much inspiration to find ones own way. Graphic design writing regularly obscures such basic encouragement by confusing what are really personal artworks with being some kind of wider way forward for design. Whilst certainly flirting with such a notion, the book remains full of easy wisdom: his reversion to the master-apprentice approach of teaching; practising his own work in the school workshops to enable hands-on teaching; the natural desire to push the limitations of technology; the self-motivation, energy and dedication to his craft; the realisation of the value of mistakes.
Weingarts celebrated lifetime of experiment has, however, resulted in a surprisingly limited graphic repertoire. The practical application of his ideas occupies only one of the books ten parts, all of which are disappointingly safe commissions; countless numbers of the journal Typographische Monatsblatter, brochures for various educational establishments he attended, and posters for an annual art fair. Weingart states Fortunately, Ive never had a client who has wanted to change my proposed designs. Working within this contented bubble results in a collection devoid of the charged ambition of, say, the equivalent Tibor Kalman volume.
The form of the book itself demonstrates the contradictions in Weingarts work. As an object it contains enough apt perversions to sustain interest: white hardback jacket, modest uncoated paper, most of the book in stark black and white with occasional bursts of colour, and set throughout in deadpan Times. Yet the internal organisation is overblown and disorienting; illustrations are barely used to clarify the text, where they could so easily have done so. Furthermore, by inserting images other than those being described on the page are inserted, the confusion is doubled. Captions are not included on the page, but clustered in caged grids every few pages; superficially attractive yet maddeningly unfunctional. In such details and in a more general sense, Weingart and his book walk a thin line between an engaging conviction and an excluding arrogance. Finally, the prohibitive price probably tips it towards the latter.