NESHAN, The Iranian Graphic Design Magazine

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Neshan 33


Musing at an Exhibition

Philip Burton

Between 6 May and 29 September, 2014 a retrospective of the work of Wolfgang Weingart was exhibited at the Museum for Design (Museum für Gestaltung) in Zürich Switzerland. Weingart enjoys an international reputation as a typographer and a teacher of typography at the School of Design in Basel, Switzerland. The exhibition was curated by Barbara Junod of the museum staff in consultation with the artist.
I was a student at the Basel School of Design from 1970 through 1975 as a member of the Weiterbildungsklasse für Grafik, an advanced class that was the brainchild of Armin Hofmann and Emil Ruder that began in 1968. Weingart was chosen to teach typography to this class. Because the typeshop existed for the young people of Basel who were studying to be typesetters, my class met in the evenings. When it became clear that I was working on a project that would go on for a longer period of time, Weingart invited me to work on Saturday afternoons and Sundays when the school was closed. It was a time when he would work there also, creating many of the pieces displayed in the exhibition, pieces that would make him world famous.
The typeshop was a beautiful facility with parquet wooden floors and huge glass windows that faced northeast over a community playground and the formal garden of a Baroque school building. The room featured rows of cabinets filled with shallow, multi-compartment drawers that held fonts of metal type, dingbats and rule material. The rule material was made of brass and came in fixed Cicero lengths and point thicknesses.
I considered this a very special opportunity because it gave me quiet time to do my work and because occasionally Weingart would talk about what he was doing and what it meant to work with typography. As a student in Germany he had pursued a direction with his work that was different than what was expected at that time. A combination of his rebellious nature and his artistic curiosity produced work that began to expand the realm of typography. A devotion to his work and an intense determination to reconsider the formal qualities and communicative power of typography defined his journey to create more expressive and provocative creations.
I had the pleasure of visiting the Weingart retrospective in Zürich several times, and I have chosen six pieces of Weingart’s work that have had the most impact on my life as a designer. 
Figures 1 and 2, are examples from a series of five line research studies that use typographic rules. Weingart himself gives credit to Armin Hofmann as the inspiration for this work. The first letterpress print Untitled Composition, 47.2 × 33.1 centimeters, is a simple composing with lead spacers between carefully selected rules of varying width and length that produce extraordinary results. A radiant glow of light, a waterfall, a thunderstorm, a compelling reconsideration of rhythm. The second Untitled Composition, 48.2 × 48 centimeters, is composed of rules of the same width and length at irregular intervals: a musical composition, a forest, a vineyard, a mountainside, all visualized in lead.

Figure 3, Bent Lead Composi -tion, 1965 – 67, 35 × 49.9 centimeters. This letterpress printed composition employs lead rules as well, wider ones of fixed width and length, thinner ones bent to create delicate curves. The juxtaposition of the two forms a composition that goes to the very core of the definition of typography. Without any letters or words, Weingart has taken us to a new place, a place in his imagination that sparks our own.
In Figure 4, 1969, 49.9 × 49.9 centimeters, we see more curved rule material, this time with words: What I would most like to do tomorrow. To study visual communication and sociology. To conduct an orchestra. To earn a huge amount of money. To buy an old house in Jerusalem. To teach typography in Switzerland, in the Near East or some other place. To publish books — with children’s’ drawings, excavations, aerial photographs and typography. To learn languages. Furthermore, to make beautiful typography. And once to fly to New York. The combination of rule elements, exaggerated letter spacing and leading, compact paragraph justification makes for an intimate look into the life of the artist. This typographic illustration is simultaneously compelling and explosive.
Figure 5, Moon Rufen, 1970 – 72 (to call the moon), 44 × 42.7, is a spread from the Kotzenbuch. It is composed in wood type and printed letterpress. To create it, Weingart has added the capital letter “I” and lowercase “L” to elongate and accentuate existing letters. The effect is stunning, especially when seen at full centimeter size. This simple idea elicits a climbing, traveling effect to these words and gives the pages visual depth.
Figure 6, Typografische Monats - blätter cover No.4, 1973, 29.7 × 23, centimeters, is one of many covers Weingart designed for this magazine using his choice of significant quotations by famous —and not so famous — designers. All the work that led up to this point inspire this practical application of text composition. The unexpected and interrelated shapes of the paragraphs and the gradation of color by manipulating the size and weight of the type brings a new meaning to the words and a stunning composition.
The simple studies I have chosen to describe form the foundation of later, more complicated work. They are remarkable because they are full of expression and fulfill the function of the designer to provoke viewers to see things in ways they have never been seen before. 
As his student, Weingart showed me a way to typography that I had never imagined nor even considered. I was not the only one, there were hundreds of students during the time he taught in Basel, and many hundreds more in schools all over the world. I was never the same after this wonderful experience and my own subsequent journey working with and teaching typography has brought me untold joy. Thank you Mr. Weingart.

Philip Burton

is a professor and chair of the graphic design program in the School of Design in the College of Architecture, Design, and the Arts at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Professor Burton has taught design for forty years. He has held full-time positions at the University of Houston, Rice University and Yale University. He is also on the graduate faculty at the Hochschule für Gestaltung und Kunst in Basel, Switzerland, His recent freelance design clients include Morningstar, Inc., SilverPepper hedge funds, and Brunswick Bowling and Billiards.

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