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Paul Renner- Bridge between Traditional and Modern Design
German typographer Paul Renner is best known as the designer of the typeface Futura, which stands as a landmark of modern graphic design. Renner can be seen as a bridge between the traditional 19th century and the modern 20th century design. He attempted to fuse the gothic and the roman typefaces. While he was never directly affiliated with the Bauhaus movement, he became an advocate of its aims and principles and became a leading proponent of the “New Typography”.
Paul Friedrich August Renner was born on August 9, 1878 in Wernigerode in the Harz region, a part of Saxony-Anhalt, which at that time fell within the kingdom of Prussia. His father was an evangelical theologian, who became court chaplain to the Earl of Stolberg in Wernigerode. Renner attended a Gymnasium, a secondary school where one studied the humanities. Nine years of studying Greek and Latin provided students with a ticket to higher education. Renner chose to study art after the Gymnasium, attending several academies, and finally completing his training in Munich in 1900.¹ He was brought up to have a very German sense of leadership, of duty and responsibility. He was suspicious of abstract art and disliked many forms of modern culture, such as jazz, cinema, and dancing. But equally, he admired the functionalist strain in modernism.²
Renner was a prominent member of the Deutscher Werkbund (German Work Federation). He created a new set of guidelines for good book design. Renner was a friend of the German typographer Jan Tschichold and a key participant in the heated ideological and artistic debates of that time. Even before 1932, Renner made his opposition to the Nazis very clear, notably in his pamphlet “Kulturbolschewismus” (Cultural Bolshevism). He was arrested and dismissed from his post in Munich in 1933, and subsequently went into a period of internal exile.²
Renner sought to influence culture by designing, writing and teaching. He wanted to use his aesthetic and intellectual skills to help in shaping the new life in both its material and spiritual forms. Instead of earning a living by easel painting, Renner spent most of his life in applied art, trying to bring high cultural standards to material objects for use – typefaces and books. On this matter, he preached to his students a recommendation from Goethe, whom he regarded as the prototypical modern person: “we should direct our view outwards, away from ourselves, into the world, not into the distance, but onto those things that are neat, within a hand’s reach.”¹
Renner always read widely, and was acquainted with the works of the great figures in German philosophy and literature (Kant, Goethe, Schiller, and Nietzsche). He made a thorough study of philosophy and its methods. From 1908 onwards, he wrote extensively about typography and design. This occupation with crafting the sense of words seems a natural accompaniment to a concern for their visual form. Heinz Haushofer, Renner’s son-in-law, commented: “A day when he did nothing, at least read nothing serious, was for him a day sadly lost.”¹
Paul Renner was one of five sons. According to other family members, his upbringing as the son of a priest left him with a strict Christian ethic, in thought and work, while his younger colleagues in typography were writing manifestos in the 1920s. Renner was alluding to Eastern philosophy in his writings. He resisted the polarization of political ideologies in Weimar Germany, and tried to select the most reasonable elements from both right and left. Renner had first settled in Munich at the turn of the century as a young painter and remained there for most of his life.¹
A tension between tradition and modernity was integral to two twentieth-century debates in German design. The first was the question of style in typography; German-speaking countries were unique in still using gothic letterforms during the first half of the twentieth century. Gothic type became enmeshed in nostalgic notions of German culture during the protracted conservative reaction that crystallized radically with Hitler’s accession to power. The relative virtues of gothic and roman type in a German context were the subject of much discussion during this time, and Renner had strong views on this matter.¹
The more widespread debate was the Streit um die Technik (the debate on technology), a dispute between conservative and modernizing elements in German society. Renner and his fellow members of the Deutscher Werkbund (the principal organization seeking to reform German design) were fully engaged in the Streit um die Technik. Renner tended towards the conservative side in this debate, but his thinking and activity shifted in the mid 1920s towards a conscious concern with modernity. During this period Renner attempted to resolve a style that suited Germany in the 1920s. At this time in central Europe, technology had begun to transform the media of entertainment and communication: cinema, public radio broadcasting, and sound recording were in their first phases of development; Logie Baird would demonstrate the first television in 1926. It seemed that science had begun to conquer the darkest corners of life. Renner too felt the progressive urges of his time: he observed that the discovery of the powered press, railway, and electric news transmission had encouraged the creation of “a public forum for our political-social life unforeseen in any utopian novel; not a public sphere operating from eye to eye, or mouth to ear, but in a spiritual dimension overspilling every temporal and spatial barrier.” However, Renner was reluctant to forget all the old values of the humanist culture in which he had grown up in.¹
Renner had assisted in reviving the bibliophile culture that he had known before the First World War with his work on editions for Georg Müller Verlag in 1924. However, the wealth of the book-buying middle class had been eroded by war and inflation. The New Typography of the 1920s and 1930s was not hampered much by the book crisis, because it defined itself mostly outside the field of book production. The new breed of artist-typographers, who had progressed into graphic design from painting, set a new agenda for typography, both in their writings and in the kind of work they did. Outside the confines of traditional book typography, they could use photography and the forms of New Typography to create dynamic, painterly compositions related to abstract art. Although the phrase “New Typography” was first used by László Moholy-Nagy in the catalogue of the seminal Bauhaus exhibition in 1923, the principal theoretician of the New Typography was Jan Tschichold.¹
The debate concerning the importance of gothic letterforms in German culture, which had been present in learned circles for some centuries, became a political issue in the early twentieth century. The first three decades of the century were a period of great political and economic change in Germany, which was redefining its role on the world stage; consequently, there was also a domestic struggle to define the German cultural identity, of which many believed Deutsche Schrift to be an integral part. ¹
Renner’s position on this issue was progressive: he openly called for the abolition of fraktur. In some respects, Futura can be seen to reflect his views on the appropriate style for letterforms designed in Germany – an alternative solution to the choice of gothic or roman. Renner’s answer to the question gothic or roman seemed to be a characteristically German yearning for a third way – a revitalization of grotesk (sanserif), to make it some kind of elemental, universal form of roman. Thereby Renner certainly denied that gothic was essential to modern Germany: instead he sought to enter into the arena of international, contemporary style, carried along by the rhetoric of the Moderns of the late 1920s.¹
Renner made the first drawings for the typeface that became Futura in the summer of 1924. Futura is a sans serif face designed by Paul Renner between 1924 and 1926. It is based on geometric shapes which became representative visual elements of the Bauhaus design style of 1919-1933. Futura was commercially released in 1927-1930 and it became a cornerstone of the “New Typography” classified as Geometrical Modernism, form follows function became the key words and careful reasoning constrained all the character shapes to their utmost functional simplicity. With Futura in typographical the industrial revolution had reached its logical conclusion.³
Initially, Futura was issued by the Bauer Foundry in six weights, a condensed version in three weights, and an Inline. Renner’s typeface family provided the right typographical tool for the professional designer and it became a popular choice for text and display composition. Even today, advertising typographers often use the combination of Futura Light/Book and Futura Extra Bold because of the design’s stylish elegance and commanding visual power.³
Under license, Deberny and Peignot issued the same type in France under the name of Europe. American type founders and Mergenthaler Linotype countered with a close imitation of Futura, named Spartan. Twentieth Century is another typeface which was inspired by Futura. Futura Black was added later, and it’s quite distinct from the rest of the family, it closely resembles a stencil type. The Intertype Futura Extra Bold was designed by Edwin W. Shaar in 1952, and the Futura Extra Bold Italic was added in 1955 by Edwin W. Shaar and Tommy Thompson. Paul Renner’s original drawings for Futura are now on display at Fundición Tipográfica Neufville, Barcelona.³
The Futura family members are: Regular, Light, Light Oblique, Light Condensed, Book, Book Bold, Book Oblique, Medium, Medium Oblique, Medium Condensed, Bold, Bold Oblique, Bold Condensed, Semibold, Semibold Italic, Extrabold, Extrabold Italic, Extrabold Condensed, Inline, Display and Black.³
Renner’s other design, which is generally unknown, is the “TOPIC” or Steile Futura family. It is a condensed sans serif face with rounded alternate characters for the letters “A”, “E”, “M”, and “W.” The family consists of Medium, Medium Italic, Bold, and Bold Italic. TOPIC was introduced by the Bauer Foundry in 1953-1955.³
There may be conformity with Renner’s strict Protestant upbringing in his choice not to pursue the life of a fine artist, but instead to devote his time to designing. He was drawn to a field of activity in which he could put his time to designing. He was drawn to a field of activity in which he could put his aesthetic skills to a utilitarian purpose. He said in later years that he only ever wanted to be a painter, and longed to rid himself of his typographic and educational responsibilities so that he could return to this occupation. Yet he does not seem to have tried very hard to extricate himself from the world of typography and printing, and he was constantly and easily enticed back into it. He felt a responsibility to those institutions – schools, publishing houses – who sought his collaboration, and was always concerned to set a good example in his work for the younger generation of typographers. Consequently he took his role as a figurehead of the Munich Meisterschule seriously. He had a very German notion of leadership: he considered himself a strong figure leading by example. Furthermore, throughout his time, he wrote a number of books; Typographie als Kunst (Typography as Art), Die Kunst der Typographie (The Art of Typography) and Color Order And Harmony to name a few. After a long career at the age of 78, Paul Renner died on April 25th, 1956 in Hödingen, Germany.¹
I think that Paul Renner was very influential in the transition between the traditional 19th century and the modern 20th century typefaces. His creation of the sans serif typeface Futura, marked that there was another alternative besides gothic and roman typefaces. By doing this, Futura is still used today because it is so bold and distinctive to typographers and graphic designers.
Paul Renner’s work is a good example of how form follows function. Every mark Renner made, he had a reason for making it, not making any arbitrary marks or decisions just because of the style during the 19th and 20th century. I see how he was trying to create a bridge from traditional to modern typography. In my opinion, he was trying to go from the old to the new in his work, trying to get people to accept and follow the change during the times.
¹Christopher Burke. Paul Renner The Art of Typography. New York: Princeton Architectural
²Wikipedia, “Paul Renner,” 8 February 2007 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Renner>.
³Nicholas Fabian, “The Bauhaus designer,” 1995-2000
Burke, Christopher. Paul Renner The Art of Typography. New York: Princeton
Fabian, Nicholas. “The Bauhaus designer.” 1995-2000.
Wikipedia. “Paul Renner.” 8 February 2007. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Renner>.