Jan Tschichold at Penguin Books: A Resurgence of Classical Book Design

  • Update:2013-09-27
  • Richard B. Doubleday Translated by Wang Yun

In the years following World War II, book publishers like Penguin sought the best typographic talent in Europe and offered designers unparalleled artistic freedom. When Penguin Books publisher Allen Lane (1902-70) brought in Jan Tschichold (1902-74) in March 1947, he may have been unaware that his new hire would set the standard for successful book design in Britain over the next three years.
By the time Tschichold arrived at the company from Switzerland, paperbacks had become a popular form of mass media, and Penguin Books in particular provided the general public with a wide range of affordable, easily attainable, and exceptional literature. Penguin Books’ design, however, fell far short of their literary reputation. Before Tschichold’s arrival, he had requested samples of a number of Penguin books and soon realized that composition rules and standards were virtually nonexistent at the company, as the production department depended on sample pages and different sets of house rules supplied by printers employed by Penguin. In addition, Old Style No. 2, Gill Sans and Times New Roman were the only fonts being utilized throughout all the series.
Tschichold decided to set a practical look for Penguin that would suit a large number of books and achieve balance, consistency, and legibility. In his view, adherence to the tenets of classic typography—legibility, (Figure 1) a balance of type styles, wide margins, exquisite contrast, simplicity, and integrated rules and ornaments—was integral to a book’s function. For example, he preferred classical typefaces for long pages of text, noting that “Good typography has to be perfectly legible and is, as such, the result of intelligent planning. The classical typefaces such as Garamond, Janson, Baskerville and Bell are undoubtedly the most legible.” [1]

Tschichold spent time studying civilizations, typography and the book arts in the Leipzig “Hall of Culture,” in 1914, at the age of twelve. It was during this period that Tschichold studied roman alphabets, calligraphy, ornate writing in illuminated manuscripts, the history and craftsmanship of written letters, old type specimens and thus shaped his educational foundation. Tschichold had witnessed for the first time the beautiful work of European writing masters such as Johann Neud ffer (1497-1563), Ludovico Arrighi (d.c. 1527), Giovanni Tagliente (d. 1527), Francisco Lucas, Vespasiano Amphiareo (1501-63), Juan de Y ar (1515-90), Giovanni Battista Palatino (d. 1575), (Figure 2) Jan van de Velde (1568-1623), Urban Wyss, and the punchcutter Pierre Simon Fournier le jeune(1712-68).
During his studies at the Teacher Training College at Grimma, Tschichold realized that he wanted to become a type designer and was given permission by his parents to enroll at the Academy for the Graphic Arts and the Book Production Trade in Leipzig learning book-binding, calligraphy, etching and engraving. Tschichold taught himself lettering and calligraphy by hand, examining the lettering in Edward Johnston’s (1872-1944) book Writing and Illuminating, and Lettering and Rudolf von Larisch’s (1856-1934) Unterricht in ornamentaler Schrift.(Instruction in Ornamental Writing). These self taught calligraphy exercises increased Tschichold’s knowledge and sensitivity to letter spacing, word spacing and leading by assimilating the lettering of Johnston and von Larisch. Apart from his studies at the Academy for the Graphic Arts and the Book Production Trade, Tschichold enrolled for one year at the School of Arts and Crafts in Dresden and was mentored by the type designer and writing teacher Heinrich Wieynck (1874-1931). Tschichold was inspired by many of Wieynck’s type designs-Mercedes Antiqua, Tranon, Woellmer Antiqua, Belvedere and Kolumbus, that were based on the Italian Renaissance writing scripts. In addition, Wieynck designed blackletter typefaces including Wieynck Gotisch, Wienck Fraktur and Wienck Kanzlei.
Tschichold began to look at the gothic revival lettering of Rudolf Koch’s (1876-1934) German scripts and embraced the handwriting style in his own type designs (Figure 3). During this time, he spent many hours studying the great type specimen book collection at the Master Printers Federation Library in Leipzig. The Italian Renaissance writing masters and reading room books and resources impressed Tschichold, and firmly established his classical typographical roots and would for many years later inform his approach to book design, particularly at Penguin Books.
In August 1923, at the age of twentyone, Tschichold attended the first Weimar Bauhaus Exhibition. He had seen for the first time the graphic design of Herbert Bayer (1900-85) and Laszlo Moholy- Nagy (1895-1946). Moholy-Nagy’s love for typography present in his interior catalogue layout for the 1923 exhibit, Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar, 1919-1923, inspired Tschichold’s interest in visual communication, stylistic devices, asymmetrical layout and led to his
experiments with integrating typography and images. (Figure 4) Tschichold utilized a composition’s “white space” and carefully placed typography within that space for balance and hierarchy, and sought exact interpretation of the contents for clear and precise communication.

Tschichold met El Lissitzky (1890-1941) shortly after the Weimar Bauhaus Exhibition in 1923. Tschichold was deeply influenced by his work. He began to apply Lissitzky’s treatment of typography as concrete and abstract contrasting shapes to his own work, including summarizing his observations of sans serif typography and asymmetrical layouts his 1925 manifesto, Typographische Mitteilungen, and titled ‘Elemental Typography’ (The Principles of Typography). He advocated the new typography as unwavering for clear communication of content. Legibility, distinctness, and basic elements of typography, lettering, asymmetry and sans serif type, in his opinion, the only typeface capable of expressing new-age ideas. Tschichold had embodied the Bauhaus and Russian Constructivists’ modernistic design concepts into his own design and developed a new approach to his work. Tschichold had first begun to pull away from “The New Typography” and the “functional” principles of the Bauhaus while designing books in Switzerland between 1933-46. (Figure 5, 6) He realized then that symmetrical and asymmetrical typographic treatments could equally accomplish the requirements of successful book design. As he stated in a 1959 lecture at The Type Director’s Club, New York City: “Obeying good rules of composition and book design in the manner of traditional typography is not ‘putting the clock back,’ but an eccentric style of setting is almost always debatable.” [2]
In April 1935, Tschichold’s change of design direction became public, when his article “The design of centred typography,” (Vom richtigen Satz auf Mittelachse) in Typographische Monatsblätter No. 4, stated that centered typography was acceptable, and typographic design is subject to the technical and aesthetic requirements and demands of book design, for example, title pages with short lines of text, are aesthetically more appealing when centered and symmetrical settings were easier and more feasible for compositors. Tschichold took great concern with title pages, having felt that they lacked any typographic feeling and had become a neglected area within books. In addition, the title page sets the tone and first impression for the reader and must depict the style of the book. He had fervently studied examples of title pages and centered typography from M. Brun’s (b.1778) Manuel Pratique de la typographie française, Paris, 1825 and Henri Fournier’s (1800-88) Traité de la typographie, Paris, 1825. These practical typographic handbooks, covered the fine details and nuances of composition, presswork and were principle French typographic reference books for virtually all of the nineteenth century.
Tschichold’s work at Benno Schwabe & Co. in Switzerland in the early 1930s foreshadowed his work at Penguin. The standard house rules Tschichold established and enforced there, which addressed word and letter spacing, leading, punctuation, and spelling, were a foundation for the composition rules at Penguin. Likewise, the practical, symmetric house style Tschichold set for Birkhser Classics (Birkhauser Verlag, Basel) was similar to his design approach at Penguin as well. Although produced for a mass market, Birkhauser titles were lavished with high production values, such as patterned paper and covers made of linen or sometimes leather. His work for Sammlung Birkhauser Collection, (Figure 7) the publisher’s series of classic editions, established a house style using black and one color on unbleached paper, ornate patterns, and all upper-case typography on three or four lines with a thin rule separating the title from the publisher’s name—elements that would be seen in titles produced later at Penguin.
The challenging task at Penguin was a natural evolution and perfectly suited for Tschichold as a designer, particularly with the decline in standards and appearance of Penguin books during and after World War II. The Penguin invitation presented an opportunity to develop a new set of typographic rules, exercise his typographic theories and apply his classic, historical knowledge of typography to the massproduction of books.


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