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This summer, Wolfgang Weingart will
teach a summer program on typography in Basel, Switzerland. Even for
this veteran teacher, the prospect of fresh pedagogy and new students is
exciting. Here he discusses his educational roots, the current state of
the art and the promise of his new program.
Heller: You are a pioneer of the "new" typography of the
pre-digital age. What were your motives in developing an anti-Swiss
style manner of typography at a time when the Helvetica ruled the
Weingart: In 1959, I got nuts (in a good way) about Swiss
Typography, what you call the “International Style.” In spring 1963, I
visited Armin Hofmann and Emil Ruder in Basel, and Hofmann asked me to
teach at his school. A year later, I started a new design life at the
Basel School as a “guest listener.” I soon found, however, that this
International Style had limits, so I started to get rebellious and began
my own personal work. I also organized rebellious speakers to give
lectures against the school, including G.G. Lange from the Berthold
typefoundry, Anton Stankowski, Hap Grieshaber and others. Ruder almost
threw me out of the school. But I am not a pioneer.
Heller: How do you feel your typographic experiments (and
practice) relates to the earlier New Typography as codified by
Tschichold and the avant gardists in the ’20s?
Weingart: Forty-five years ago I was very uncivilized. I did
not know about the Bauhaus or Tschichold. I lived in my own world,
working seven days a week. History began to interest me in the ’70s,
when I gradually found out about many historical wonderful typographical
works. These days, frankly, I prefer to instruct students who know
nothing about typography.
Heller: You are dedicated to the painstaking craft of type and
typography. You produced much of your most important work using hot
metal types. What did you think when digital typography was introduced
and so many typographers used the medium to create anarchic typography?
Weingart: That my work was mostly done with hot metal types
comes from the fact that I have been around for a long time! We were the
first Swiss design school that, in November 1984, had Macintoshes in my
typeshop, it was a gift from Steve Jobs and Clement Mok. This reality
could be a proof that I am open for almost everything. In fact, in the
Basel typeshop we had hot metal, lithographic film, and the electronics
all together. My first principle to every student was: “Use every
technique to solve the problem.” Josef Albers said, in 1933, at Black
Mountain College, “Open the students’ eyes.” That’s an important part of
my mission in our “First Summer Program Basel 2005.”
Heller: What has been significantly gained or lost with digital-based typography?
Weingart: You can compose micro-typography much better than in
hot metal types. But you still have to know the existing rules exactly,
even the ones from hundred years ago.
Heller: Twenty years ago in Design Quarterly, your
principals of typography were published. This was, for many, the first
introduction to how abstract and practical principles were combined in a
virtual manifesto of type. Have these principles changed for you in any
way since that first publication?
Weingart: That Design Quarterly in 1985 was one of the
statements I’ve made about my activities in typography. Since the late
sixties, you will find I radically changed many things, yet the
principles are the same. [Leonard] Bernstein or [Herbert von] Karajan
conducted the Beethoven Symphonies in different ways, but the music by
Beethoven is still the same: great and amazing, just like his
compositions were over two hundred years ago.
Heller: Your classes at the Basel School of Design are
legendary. Indeed, like a magnet, you attracted many young designers
from all over the globe, especially from the United States. Many of
these, such as April Greiman and Dan Friedman, brought a so-called new
(neo-Modern) typography to the United States. Since last October you
have been "retired" from the Basel School. In all your years, what would
you say has been your proudest, as well as your most significant,
Weingart: I had, and I have still, a very serious mission: To
give the highest quality education to everyone who passes through my
classes. And I am sure this is true for all my Basel colleagues too. I
have never had time look back at what opportunities I made possible for
young students, but my biggest wish was for students is: “When you leave
our school, you must find your own path and dream.” And I did not
attract students from all over the globe. The alliance of great teachers
that made up the Basel School of Design attracted these students.
Though you are currently “retired,” you are certainly not removed from
teaching. This summer you are starting your "First Summer Program Basel
2005." What will you teach? And what do you hope to impart to students
who have been bombarded with all manner of typography from the classical
to the chaotic?
Weingart: I will be a typography instructor for one
week at the “First Summer Program Basel 2005” during July 3 to July 23.
The pillar for us is “basics.” We’ll rediscover the needs of basics as
the first step in beginning of each design education. No other school of
design offers a deeper or more serious basic program.
Heller: Was there a reason for leaving the Basel School of
Design to found your own summer program? Were your teaching principles
no longer compatible?
Weingart: I did not leave the Basel School of Design. I left
the University of Art and Design Basel, which split away from the Basel
School of Design in 2000. They split away to open a new type of
university design level, controlled mostly by the Swiss government. (In
Switzerland, there are nine institutions with the same scheme. 30
percent of that would be enough!) So, I went back to the original school
from where I came to work on different projects. One of these projects
is the “First Summer Program Basel 2005.”
Heller: How have your teaching methods and style
changed during the over thirty-five years since you began teaching? Have
there been any significant revelations in that time?
Weingart: The structure of the images changed, but the concept
is consistent still today. From 1968 on, my work was the opposite of
“Swiss Typography;” I was the rebel of the Basel School. In the
mid-1970s, many designers copied the Basel approach to create the
so-called “New Wave.” Yet I never wanted to create a fixed style, so I
radically changed the way I worked from that point on. My range of
operating with typography is still wide, and it makes the young
generation today nuts! Often I hear students say, “I paid over $100,000
for my design education. What I saw and learned in these three days at
your workshop was more than during my four years university!” One of
the secrets is that my instructions have nothing to do with fashion or
the “Zeitgeist.” We are timeless.
Heller: Do you still teach typography the same way you
did when designers had to cut and paste letters together? Or have you
accepted new technologies?
Weingart: We use electronics only when we really need the new technologies. A lot of work is done quicker by hand.
Heller: As a teacher, you are a strict formalist. But given
the capacity of the computer to enhance the expressive aspects of
typography, do you allow students an opportunity to experiment with
Weingart: Everything is allowed in my classes when it makes sense!
Heller: Having been a leading figure in typography, do you
foresee (or do you see now) shifts in practice that are unprecedented,
or are we returning to a kind of stasis in terms of classical and
Weingart: Not for me. Design is like fashion: the skirts are
once mini, and then as long as possible. But I believe we always have to
move our backside into the future with a great respect to the past.
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