Martina Weiß & Dr. Stefan Soltek: What lettering has to say

To a large extent, writing is merely considered to be an information carrier and communication aid in our Western culture. That lettering can also be a form of artistic expression is generally not recognised at all; at best, handwritings from the Middle Ages, with their magnificent initials, are credited as being artistic. Offenbach, Germany, is the place where intense efforts are ongoing to consider lettering to be a form of artistic expression.

During the previous turn of the century, when the Arts and Crafts movement promoted artistic design for all spheres of life, attention was once again paid to lettering. Art nouveau (also known as Jugendstil) was characterised by the emphasis on the decorative, swung lines and jewellery in organic forms. Artfully designed handwritten features became decorative ornamental elements. Karl Klingspor, who operated a small type-­foundry in Offenbach, recognised the signs of the time and initiated a formally aesthetic renaissance of printing. While printed matter was primarily a transcript of old scripts up to that time, Klingspor was able to secure the services of contemporary designers to create new and modern works. The well-known artist Otto Eckmann was first: His swung Eckmann letterings with correspond­ing ornaments and ornamental pieces were introduced in 1900. The letterings made with a brush were highly successful and encouraged Klingspor to continue on the chosen path. Successful artists, such as Peter Behrens, Heinrich Vogeler and Otto Hupp, worked for Kling­spor; Rudolf Koch came to Offenbach and perfected his craft at the type-foundry, which was re­­named Gebr. Klingspor in 1906, and went on to become one of the most prominent font designers in the first half of the 20th century. The foundry enjoyed a worldwide reputation and sold its fonts in many countries. Offenbach had become a centre of modern and artistically designed fonts.

Also playing a significant role in this development was the Technischen Lehranstalten (Offenbach Institute of Technical Education), which later became today’s Hoch­­schule für Gestaltung (HfG – Offenbach University of Art and Design). Rudolf Koch taught typography at the university. His so-called “Offenbacher Schule” (Offenbach School) brought forth many prominent book and typo­graphy designers such as Friedrich Heinrichsen, Herbert Post, Berthold Wolpe or Fritz Kredel. Along with his typo­graphy designs, Koch created an extensive calligraphic portfolio, which documents the influence of paragons from the Middle Ages as well as his dedication to Expres­­sionism. In 1921, he founded the “Offenbacher Werkstatt” (Offenbach Workshop) at the school together with students. It was based on the cathedral workshop tradition from the Middle Ages. Paramount importance was placed on working together and the artistic design of the works. Members of the workshop saw themselves not only as artists, but equally as craftsmen. Fruitful for Koch was his friendship with the patron of the arts and collector Siegfried Guggenheim, who was also from Offenbach. He supported the members of the workshop and made sure they had enough orders. Guggen­heim is to thank that Koch could real­­ise completely new artistic ideas: Books had become too small for his typographic stagings, even large-format single sheets were insufficient. In order to realise his ideas of room-filling lettering, he designed large-­format tapestries with biblical texts. Guggenheim supported the project, which was without any paragon, by ordering several carpets, two of which were intended for a Jewish Seder service at his home. The long-time chairman of the Jewish community in Offenbach com­­missioned other religious items, such as a Seder bowl, a wash hand basin and a pitcher. Gug­genheim remained closely at­­tached to Offenbach even up to his death while in exile in New York and made the acquisition of his collection possible which has since been the centrepiece of the Klingspor Museum and its collections.

The Museum for Modern International Book Art, Typo­graphy and Calligraphy was opened three years earlier, in 1953. The nucleus of the museum was Karl Klingspor’s valuable collection of contemporary book art, supplemented by a comprehensive collection of lettering samples from the type-foundry. The estate of Rudolf Koch was added following the founding of the museum. The heirs of Rudolf (“Rudo”) Spemann, who died at an early age and who was also a typographic designer for Kling­spor, donated an extensive collection of several hundred single sheets and handwritings to the museum.

Spemann’s teacher was Ernst Schneidler, one of the most prominent personalities of calligraphy of the 20th century. He not only shaped his time as a calligrapher and book designer, his “Stuttgart School” – along with Offen­bach – was also the most important educational facility for type and book designers. This school brought forth an entire generation of typography protagonists. Primarily his less known free calligraphic work is extensively doc­­umented in the museum. He was acknowledged with a comprehensive solo exhibition in 2013. His utterly non-­calligraphic lettering displays the influences of different art movements of the 20th century; images and lettering coalesce in many of his compositions.

The typographer Rudolf Franke created typefaces com­­prised of handwriting, stencil printing, embossing and collages. He often went beyond the boundaries of the legible, whereby writing no longer serves transmitting text, but rather creates a graphic trail. Using the extensive body of works by this artist, who unjustly remains largely unknown, one can discover the man behind the art, whose works appear amazingly contemporary even 40 years after his death.

Calligraphy is no longer restricted to merely being two-­dimensional; many artists have created typographic works of art, headed by Hans Schmidt, a long-time professor for calligraphy at the HfG. He disassembled the alphabet in basic geometric forms using wooden and plastic sculptures, in order to provide texts with an entirely different interpretation. Calligraphic works have also made their way into Offenbach’s cityscape and public buildings thanks to efforts by the Klingspor Museum. The renowned American artist and sculptor, Fletcher Benton, created large-format steel sculptures depicting fragmented, folded letters; one of them, the “Folded D”, found a home in the entrance to Büsing Park in Offenbach. The book artist Peter Malutzki de­signed a calligraphy installation for the recently redesigned forecourt of the city hall in Offenbach. Uta Schneider and Ulrike Stoltz decorated the mayor’s office with a multi-­language word/lettering installation; Corinna Krebber accentuated the courtyard of the Büsingpalais palace. It becomes clear: the dedication to succinct statements using calligraphic design lives on under the moderation of the Klingspor Museum.

The broad spectrum of contemporary calligraphy can only be touched on. It is best discovered in the museum with its alternating exhibitions which document the range of the written, figurative and imaginative or by visiting its archive.

 

The author, born in 1956 in Cologne, studied art history, archaeology and law in Bonn and Cologne. Earned a doctorate with a dissertation on the Roman baptismal font in Freckenhorst. Numerous traineeships at museums in Cologne, London and New York. Curator of the Linel-Sammlung für Buchkunst und Ornamentstich (Linel collection for the art of books and ornamental prints) at the Museum für Angewandte Kunst Frankfurt am Main. Has headed the Klingspor Museum in Offenbach am Main since 2002. Also a member of the jury for the book art foundation (Stiftung Buchkunst), participated in selecting posters for German Protestant Kirchentag, and a member of the German Designer Club (DDC). Publications on artists’ book, 20th century art.

 

The author, born in 1963 in Offenbach, studied at the Fachhochschule für Bibliothekswesen (technical university for librarianship) in Frankfurt. After obtaining her degree in Library Science as a qualified librarian, she administers the scientific library of the Klingspor Museum in Offenbach, works as a curator for exhibitions on press printing, contemporary book art and calligraphy.