Published March 10, 2020 | Version 1,0
Thesis Open

Schriftkünstler: A historiographic examination of the relationship between handcraft and art regarding the design and making of printers' type in Germany between 1871 and 1914

  • 1. Hochschule für Bildende Künste Braunschweig


The visual appearances for most of the letterpress-printing typefaces published in Germany during the twentieth century are attributed to specific designers. Typefoundries, or the firms who manufactured those products, presented them as collaborations between individual artists and themselves as corporate entities. Only on rare occasions were the internal workers within the firms who produced the final forms of the products ever mentioned by name in publications about them, unlike the typefaces’ designers; however, from the earliest surviving drawings prepared by those typefaces’ designers, as well as from their written accounts about the type-design and type-making processes, it is clear that the work they submitted to the foundries could not have been implemented exactly as-is. In this research, I have analysed German typefounding in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through the surviving process and production drawings made for products, as well as through accounts written by participants involved in these steps. The typefaces for which accounts have survived only represent a small fraction of those mentioned in the history that follows. To form that narrative, I have used a synecdochic approach, relying on these parts to describe the industry as a whole.

A typefoundry’s products did not necessarily all originate in-house; but inside of the firms who did collaborate with external designers, the initiative to do so must have come from the respective company owners and directors, who would have believed that products based on the work of external contributors could prove financially successful, enabling their businesses to grow, and strengthening their “corporate identities” or reputations. The various foundry owners and directors who did this may have been influenced by one another, but by 1900, it was not uncommon in German industrial manufacturing for businesses to collaborate with external artists and designers in this manner. Not all of the individuals who foundries collaborated with were “artists and designers;” for example, some were academics with experience reading and writing other scripts. Nevertheless, all collaborators must have been able to offer foundries knowledge that they did not already have institutionally, be that linguistic or stylistic. Many collaborating designers would not have been aware of the exact details regarding typeface manufacturing; they were not “insiders” in the process, and could only have been responsible for part of a product’s final design. In some cases, I believe it was more likely that the firms’ punchcutter employees were the ones responsible for bringing the products to their final forms, instead of the external designers or foundry owners, directors, and other staff members. Yet at roughly the same time that the foundries were beginning to ascribe product authorship to specific individuals, these craftsmen – who as a professional group had been physically responsible for sculpting each typographic character to appear in print for centuries – were becoming redundant. New type-making machinery introduced from the 1870s onward helped to make them obsolete. Punchcutters were not part of typefoundries’ twentieth-century brand identities, even though they were integral employees within the organisations.

By collaborating with external designers for the design of new printing types, rather than continuing to entrust these entirely to their internal type-making staff, German typefoundries supported the development of a new professional activity during the early years of the graphic design profession: typeface design. The work that external designers performed unfolded in an environment where it had already become commonplace for the manufacturers of various goods to entrust the appearance of their products to “designers,” a new professional denomination primarily made up of individuals trained in art academies or arts and crafts schools (Kunstgewerbeschulen). Many type designers also came from that milieu. Some of the individuals who designed printing types during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also designed books and magazines, as well as tables and chairs, tea services and wine glasses – even whole buildings. During that time, most of the type-making workers inside of the foundries were anonymous to customers; they are also mostly anonymous to historians who investigated them later, including myself. Their anonymity was a result of the work they performed not being considered “worth mentioning;” it was just handwork, not art or design. Despite the individual craftsmen working inside typefoundries not being seen at the time as “authors” or “coauthors” of the final products, their potential contributions should be added into future explanations of typefaces’ origins. I hope that my research will cause other writers to use a more nuanced phraseology when it comes to the authorship of industrial-era foundry types’ designs. This kind of more-detailed specification may also be applicable to other industrial goods produced in Germany during its Imperial period, as well as to many of the typefaces produced in Germany and in other countries after 1914.

I gathered the new information presented below, both so that it could be published for the first time, as well as to prevent its being forgotten; it should remain visible for future generations of designers and design historians to access. My findings may help enrich the design history discipline’s understanding of the type-designing and type-making practices in operation within industrial typefounding in imperial Germany, explaining why German typefoundries during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries began to collaborate with external artists and designers, instead of continuing to develop new products entirely in-house.


Reynolds Dissertation Druck 2020.pdf

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