Paul Renner (1878-1956)

Paul Renner (1878 - 1956)

If one event persuaded him to switch careers from painting to design, it may have been his attendance in 1907 at a meeting in Munich of the newly formed Deutscher Werkbund, a coalition of artists, craftsmen, manufacturers, and industrialists who, influenced by the British Arts and Crafts Movement, promoted both art and technology in the manufacture of everyday objects.

That year, Renner began to supplement his income by designing handcrafted leather book bindings. Inspired by the example of William Morris, and no doubt by the interest in the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) among end of the century architects and designers, he soon became dissatisfied with designing merely the bindings, and, unlike most "book decorators" of the time, insisted on being responsible for nearly all design-related aspects of a volume, both inside and out, including choice and arrangement of type.

As a result, Renner developed a profound interest in the relationship between form and function. In 1922, he wrote a pioneering book called Typographie als Kunst (Typography as Art), published with a strictly traditional design, in a Gothic typeface. Eventually, Renner's concern for readability led him to question the usefulness of Gothic (also called Blackletter or Fraktur) letterforms, then considered standard appropriate forms for German literature. Like lederhosen, Renner said, Gothic typefaces were a nostalgic leftover, the displaced remains of an earlier age. Renner's poster for an exhibition of work from the Bavarian Trade Schools held in Zurich, 1928. The hand drawn letterforms prefigure Renner's later typeface Steile Futura.

Because uppercase Gothic letters are excessively ornate, and because the German language capitalizes all nouns, Renner concluded that modern designers should use roman typefaces (and, even better, sans serif geometric fonts like Futura, which he described in a late-1920s article as "the typeface of our age"). "In the national interest," he argued in 1928, "and in the interest of our wonderful German language, we should finally renounce [Gothic typefaces]."

Renner made the first drawings for Futura in 1924, but three years went by before it became available. During this period, other designers were addressing the same issues and developing comparable Modernist fonts. In 1916, Edward Johnston devised a geometric face for use on station nameplates in the London Underground; in 1926, at the Dessau Bauhaus, Herbert Bayer released his own geometric sans serif typeface, Universal, which eliminated all uppercase letters; in 1928, Eric Gill developed Gill Sans, derived explicitly from Johnston's Underground face.

Of further consequence was the 1928 publication of Die Neue Typographie (The New Typography) by Jan Tschichold, whom Renner had hired three years earlier to teach typography at the Münich Meisterschule für Deutschlands Buchdrucker (Master School for German Printers). Die Neue Typographie dogmatically called for the use of sans serif typefaces, asymmetrical layouts, and grid-based geometric shapes.

While never a Communist, Tschichold had openly sympathized with the Bolshevik Revolution. In March 1933, only a few months after Hitler became chancellor of Germany, Tschichold was arrested by the Nazis and held for four weeks in what was called "protective custody." Protesting Tschichold's arrest, Renner served only to focus attention on his own activities-particularly his outspoken essay on Kultur-bolschewismus (cultural Bolshevism), published a year earlier, in which he had inveighed against the anti-Semitic and anti-Communist propaganda of the National Socialists.Renner's book "Mechanized Graphic Design" from 1931 is one of the few serious books on the New Typography.

Less than a month after Tschichold's arrest and only seven days before the Bauhaus was raided, Renner was also taken into custody (and then released the following day after the intervention of Hitler's deputy Rudolf Hess, a friend of Renner's family). Soon after, the Nazis denounced Renner as "nationally untrustworthy." At 55, he was dismissed from his teaching post and forbidden to work at a regular job for the rest of his life. Renner survived this humiliation by resorting to what an acquaintance described as an "inner emigration." He turned his attention to graphic design, and in 1939 he published an influential book, Die Kunst der Typographie (The Art of Typography). Ironically, two years later, the Nazis reversed their policy on typography, condemning Gothic typefaces as abominations promoted by Jewish printers, and proclaiming roman fonts to be the state-sanctioned letterform.

Unlike Tschichold, Bayer, and other prominent designers who fled their homeland, Renner chose to remain in Germany, though he was understandably bitter at being "an exile in his own country." Renner died in 1956. In the last years of his life, until he suffered a heart attack, he was still designing books and typefaces, writing, painting, and attempting to traverse the boundaries between art and craft, form and function, tradition and innovation.


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Burke, Christopher  Paul Renner: The Art of Typography, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998

Burke, Christopher  "The Authorship of Futura, " Baseline, n. 23, 1997, pp. 33-40

Day, Kenneth  Book Typography in Europe & the United States, London: Ernest Benn, 1966

Gill, Eric  An Essay on Typography, London: Dent, 1936

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Pevsner, Nicholas  Pioneers of Modern Design, London: Penguin Books, 1960

Sharp, Dennis  The Rationalists: Theory & Design in the Modern Movement, London: Architectural Press, 1978

Wilkes, Walter  "20th Century Fine Printing in Germany," Fine Print, vol.12, no. 2, April, 1986, pp. 87-99