World of signs and pictures
Lars Muller Publishers, £75
The work of Wolfgang Weingart may to some mean simply the series of extraordinary Weltformat (905x 1280mm) posters he created in the late 1970s and early 1980s, culminating in “Das Schweizer Plakat”, a maelstrom of montage, framing elements and halftone screens. The posters constructed dizzying visual spaces that were a pleasure for the eye but disorienting for the intellect bent on meaning. Here were the signs and signifiers of process reproduction gone mad, engulfing familiar images and words in a fractured world of moiré, colour separation and the effects of make-ready. Like much craft of the highest order, the assembly of the posters was a puzzle: their beginning and end was obvious; pulling apart the process of making in between, anything but. They were at once self-evident and mysterious.
Where designers are known only by
a fraction of their work – frequently reproduced, iconic and isolated – an anthology offers a chance to rediscover their influences and first principles of design buried in old or difficult-to-find books and journals, if published at all. Weingart’s own first and formative statements on design and pedagogy were made in the early 1970s, on lecture tours (“How can one make Swiss typography?”, see p. 66-68) and in Typographische Monatsblätter. Though his lectures have been republished, interviews given and teaching methods again profiled, Weingart’s own retrospective Typography allows him to make known a more representative body of work and the pattern of experiment that supports it.
Towards the end of Typography Weingart writes: “technical equipment enabled me to realize my world of signs and pictures”. This important theme travelling throughout the book is traced to his training as a trade compositor where the incidental, accidental or hidden features of metal type – the printed feet of the type body, for instance – suggested a compelling, alternative world of signifiers far removed from the image of type well set. Later, as a student and teacher at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Basel (now the Hochschule für Gestaltung und Kunst), experiments with type on the proofing press and in the process camera didn’t simply enable Weingart to realise his world of signs and pictures but helped populate it with similar contraventions. These experiments were part of a wider scheme of design and teaching that sought provocatively to re-order the conventional meanings of typo-graphic form (Weingart’s preferred orthography) while protesting as unrealistic “value-free” Swiss typography.
By some measurements, his output is neither large nor diverse, despite signals the book’s 500-plus pages and 2.2kg weight might send to the contrary (the book, however, leaves almost entirely aside the story of 30 years teaching). But the lack of expanse is redressed in a distillation of creative cause and
effect, following a logic Weingart
insists characterises his development. Unrealistically neat or not, the reconstruction of six progressive “Independent Projects” has a useful programmatic momentum one might expect of a teacher. They also support Weingart’s claim that he is himself largely self-taught.
Typography is pedagogical in other ways, too, offering sequences of pure two-dimensional design (“The Letter M” or “Typography as Endless Repetition”) that are salutary as exercises in the conceptual evolution of form and as sources of inspiration (the Near East deserts and their classical ruins). The sum is a catalogue of signs, pictures and techniques whose use and meaning assume a self-referential order in Weingart’s world and help make sense of the “real jobs” shown in the book’s later section “Correspondence between Experiment and Practical Application”. This is valuable in tracking the film layering and collage experiments that initiated the crescendo of his late posters.
Where Weingart has less to offer is in considering text. His own concerns about it are found already in the lectures of the early 1970s, though on the evidence of Typography, the matter seems little addressed since. The book’s own text is hard: justified and locked block-like
into heavy-handed layouts; marginal references to illustrations are confused with page numbers; the Times New Roman type is often large and continuously underlined while the English translation is in italics, pushing reading to the edge of discomfort. As image, these choices successfully counterpoint hand-drawn textures and sparsely inhabited spreads. But in other respects it seems that Weingart’s view of text is a pictorial one that begrudges concessions to the reader’s efficient use of it. This may not be a problem or even a surprise. After all, the iconic quality of Weingart’s work is partly what makes his work (his pictures) so fascinating and so challenging.
Anyway, conventional efficiencies
were what he set out to re-assess. Here, though, are limits. For instance, what orders much typography now and gives it meaning often lies beneath the visual surface; it is structured by coded markers and penetrated by interrogators that make it functional and efficient. This fluid, digital typography is conceptually distant from that which is static, iconic, idiosyncratic. Of course, it’s unfair to comment on what Weingart does not offer in Typography; he implores us to “ . . . understand my world of pictures as reflecting the times from whence they arose.” Nevertheless, since the mid 1980s (the date of his last significant projects) he has continued to work, teach and consider the role of new technology in the production of communication.
But past technical paradigms may
well prove too burdensome. Weingart admits: “the assumption that digital or electronic tools would be the next step in my work was a delusion. My hands and the tangibility of my materials are the sources of my pleasure and creative inspiration. I am bound to my roots as a craftsman.”
At times in Typography it appears a line is being drawn under a career, that Weingart’s work will now simply provide ruins for our technical-aesthetic future where his seamless fusion of receding technologies and formal invention will be preserved and documented. Still, one can’t help hoping for another Weingart retrospective where we will again be shown some of the brave ideas that got us to where we are now.
First published in Eye no. 37 vol. 10, 2000