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Designer and instructor Wolfgang Weingart is recognized for his typographic explorations and teaching at the School of Design in Basel, and who, through the work of his students, created a more experimental and expressive approach to typography that was influential around the world.

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Wolfgang Weingart is an internationally recognized figure for his iconic body of work in the field of graphic designing and typography. His work is characterized as Swiss Typography. Moreover he is deemed the pioneer of ‘New Wave’ or Swiss Punk typography.

Weingart was born in 1941 in Constance at the northern foot of the Alps in southern Germany. He spent most part of his childhood in Germany and for a brief period moved to Lisbon with his family, in 1954. Four years later, he returned to Germany and enrolled himself at the Merz Academy in Stuttgart. There he opted for a two year program in applied graphic arts. While studying, he developed certain skills including linocut, woodblock printing and typesetting. Then he began a three-year apprenticeship at Ruwe Printing, where he learned typesetting in hot metal hand composition. He also had the opportunity to come across the company’s consulting designer, Karl-August Hanke. Hanke took up the role as his mentor and encouraged him to continue his studies in Switzerland.

In 1963, Weingart relocated in Basel after meeting Emil Ruder and Armin Hofmann. He attended the Basel School of Design, as an independent student. In 1968, he was requested to teach typography at the institution’s newly established department Weiterbildungsklasse für Grafik. He was one of the highly inspiring teachers the international Advanced Program for Graphic Design had until 2005. He accepted the teaching position at the Yale Summer Program in Graphic Design in Brissago, Switzerland, upon Armin Hofmann’s request.

For over four decade Weingart has extensively taught and delivered lectures across Europe, Asia, New Zealand, North and South America, and Australia. According to him, he never influenced his students to adopt a certain type of style, especially his own. However, his students misunderstood his teaching as his own style and spread it around as ‘Weingart style’. A retrospective of Weingart’s work was mounted by The Museum of Design in Zurich from May to September in 2014. The exhibition, Weingart: Typography, was the first one to showcase his personal work along with the product of his teaching.

In 1962 he chose to experiment with the letter ‘M’, this was an independent project that would follow him and interest him for many years to come. It was curiosity that influenced him to combine new signs with the letter ‘M’ and to experiment with changing its size, positions on the pages surfaces and also its angles. He learned to manipulate the letter he had chosen; bending it, twisting it, recreating it, deconstructing it and working with the space within the pages themselves.

Since the first day when he arrived at Basel as a student, it was clear that Weingart was a rebel. In a class he had with Armin Hofmann, the students were asked to work on a line composition using ruling pens. Instead of drawing the lines as he was told, he went over to the type shop and made a contraption that he could use to print lines. Weingart’s ingenuity is simply impressive: he took a plank of wood, screwed L-shaped hooks on it in a grid format, then turned them at 0, 45 and 90 degree angles to form compositions, inked it and printed it on a letterpress. He screwed the hooks into the wood at different levels so some received ink at type-high and some did not. Perhaps ‘rebel’ is too harsh of a description – he was simply inquisitive. There is no doubt that Weingart bent the rule of classical Swiss typography – both literally and figuratively. When he was an apprentice at a letterpress workshop, he was pondering about why the brass rules that were used to print tabular matter always had to be straight and at 90-degree angles to each other. He created highly abstract letterpress prints with rules shaped into elegant curves, almost resembling rolling hills in a beautiful countryside.

Weingart works with a very limited palette of typefaces. He suggests that four typefaces are enough to address all typographic problems. One of these typefaces would certainly be Akzidenz Grotesk, an early sanserif of the grotesque genre designed by the Berthold Foundry in Germany at the close of the 19th century. ‘I grew up with Akzidenz Grotesk and I love it. Akzidenz Grotesk has a certain ugliness to it, that’s why it has character.’ He feels that Univers, which is Emil Ruder’s favorite, is too slick and cosmetic for his taste. The simplicity of his choice of typefaces speaks of his fondness of simple tools.

Weingart’s typographic experimentations spanned across three different eras of typesetting technology: letterpress, phototypesetting and the computer. Yet, despite how readily he accepted and pushed the boundaries of the letterpress and phototypesetting processes, he is rather unenthusiastic about the computer technology. The computer, to him, is too illusive. He compares the computer to a digital watch: a traditional watch shows a ‘landscape’, it tells a story; a digital watch only shows a particular moment. That’s why Weingart’s students do not design on the computer – they are asked to first work out their ideas by hand. Weingart wants his students to experience design as a tactile, hands-on experience. It is surprising that he was probably also the first person to introduce the Macintosh computer into the type shop in Switzerland.

Swiss typography was founded upon the teachings of the Bauhaus in Germany soon after World War II and became a rational approach to typography. The use of grid systems was the key to the logical disposition of type and images on the page, along with sanserif typefaces for clear, functional communication. Figures such as Armin Hofmann and Emil Ruder were the major proponents of Swiss typography, who were teachers at the Basel School of Design at the time. They believed that typography should be unobtrusive and transparent, in order to clearly communicate its textual content. By the beginning of the sixties, the language of Swiss typography had already gained reputation the world over. Swiss typography became synonymous with corporate design for multinationals, and subsequently referred to as the ‘international typographic style’.

At this point, our dear Mr Weingart barges in, hurriedly corrects my one-sided viewpoint of Swiss typography: ‘not only one conception of typography exists in Switzerland’. He would proudly acknowledge that his experimental typography is also Swiss, because it was a ‘natural progression’ from the classical Swiss typography as we know it. To call what he did and still does as ‘deconstructive’ would be too simplistic a comment. His typographic experiments were strongly grounded, and were based on an intimate understanding of the semantic, syntactic and pragmatic functions of typography. Whereas ‘traditional’ Swiss typography mainly focused on the syntactic function, Weingart was interested in how far the graphic qualities of typography can be pushed and still retain its meaning. This is when the semantic function of typography comes in: Weingart believes that certain graphic modifications of type can in fact intensify meaning. ‘What’s the use of being legible, when nothing inspires you to take notice of it?’

Weingart’s work is characterized by his painterly application of graphical and typographical elements. The emotionally-charged lines, the potent, image-like qualities of his type, the almost cinematic impact of his layouts, all speak of his great passion of creating with graphical forms. His typographic layouts are compelling yet lucid, free yet controlled. Some of his personal work is almost akin to landscape paintings, only that his paintbrush is replaced by type, rules and screens. He doesn’t seem to perceive a divide between fine art and typography. His inspirations were mainly drawn from the processes of typesetting and reproduction, where he finds great pleasure in discovering their characteristics and pushing them to their limits.

Armin Hofmann

Armin Hofmann

Wolfgang Weingart

Wolfgang Weingart

Wolfgang Weingart

Wolfgang Weingart

Josef Müller-Brockmann

Josef Müller-Brockmann