VEB Typoart in Dresden was East Germany’s state-run type foundry. The result of a merging of several nationalised foundries, it operated from the late 1940s to the very end of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1990. The GDR may be long gone and many of its products, including these typefaces, were quick to disappear, but recognition is slowly returning – driven not only by nostalgia but a desire to honour these numerous extraordinary fonts and their designers. The Typoart Friends, a group of students from the Bauhaus-University Weimar, have produced a book called Typoart Freunde to document VEB Typoart’s unique history. PingMag not only talked to the young Typoart Friends – we tracked down veteran VEB Typoart designer Karl-Heinz Lange to tell us about his experiences working in the GDR.
Written by Leslie Kuo
In 2006, the Typoart Friends published a manifesto demanding recognition for the designers of VEB Typoart, the only type foundry of socialist East Germany. After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the GDR dissolved. Typoart soon followed, having been privatised into a GmbH (A European version of an Incorporated company). The reasons for its demise in 1995 remain unclear, as does the copyright status of many of its fonts. Now, more than a decade later, young designers are revisiting the work of this extinct type studio, trying to re-introduce its designs to a reunified Germany.
Karl-Heinz Lange was on the scene at Typoart from his student days in the 1950s until the collapse of the GDR. In fact, he’s still designing type today in a book- and art-filled apartment in East Berlin where he told us about designing type through the tumultuous changes in Germany as well as in typographic technology – from metal type to photosetting up to digitisation.
Lange applied to art school in 1949, the year that cooling relations between the USSR and the other Allied countries occupying post-war Germany led to the country’s division. Under Soviet supervision, East Germany was founded as a socialist workers’ and peasants’ state with a single-party government and an economic plan, dictating everything from politics to production to education: I wasn’t supposed to be allowed to study, Lange recalls. I was a teacher’s son and I belonged to neither the working class nor the peasant class. So, I was considered a petty bourgeois… an enemy of the working class. But he slipped in under a proviso for ‘exceptional artistic talent’ – just in time: As Lange began his doctoral research in 1963, the government slashed advertising jobs and closed most design schools.
The new socialist government also consolidated private companies into state-run Volkseigene Betriebe (VEB), ‘people’s own enterprises’. Lange explains, Typoart came out of three foundries: in Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden. This remaining consolidated foundry in Dresden was first named Typoart in the GDR. Typoart answered to the “Zentrag” [Zentrale Druckerei-, Einkaufs- und Revisionsgesellschaft mbH], which coordinated all printing and publication enterprises, and was responsible for developing exactly the typefaces that the publishers needed. Planning had to be this exact because finances and material resources were tight since the GDR was obliged to export much of its output to the USSR. For example, says Lange, The paper scarcity and the thin profit margins meant that the printers had to plan exactly which books were to be printed on exactly which days. One had to pay fines for not conforming to these deadlines.
At Typoart, the principle ‘frugality and effectiveness’ lead us to work with representatives from the printing enterprises to develop a type program that met all the important requirements: a Renaissance roman for literature, like Garamond, a classical, like Bodoni or Didot, then a slab-serif, for example Clarendon. There had to be something from each major style. Naturally also sans-serif, in different styles, like Helvetica and Futura. The “Zentrag” would even request imitations of specific western-made typefaces they couldn’t afford to license.
“Fotosatzschriften” [photosetting typefaces] by Albert Kapr and Detlef Schäfer, published in 1989 – the year the GDR collapsed. It includes specimens of Typoart’s many typefaces for photosetting. Courtesy of Typowiki.
How could interesting type be designed under such tight conditions? First of all, Lange explains, the Typoart designers were passionate about creating original, beautiful type. Sure, it was hard to be creative under pressure: Typoart’s talented creative director Albert Kapr [after predecessor Herbert Thannhaeuser] once buckled under demands for a Times New Roman substitute, churning out an embarrassing lookalike, Timeless. But mostly, Typoart’s designers gave their own flair to the standard styles they were assigned to produce.
In the 1950s, when Lange saw how similar West German designer Hermann Zapf’s new Palatino was to his own work-in-progress, Akademie Antiqua, he went back to the drawing board, giving his letters an upward swing inspired by the pen. Later, when Typoart was asked to imitate Zapf’s Optima, Lange vowed to create a tapered sans-serif unique enough to show Zapf himself. Indeed, Lange managed to go to West Germany as soon as his design was finished, on the excuse of an ancient West German aunt’s birthday party. There, he met with Zapf and gained his approval of “Publica,” which later won an international design medal.
East German type designers also benefited from respect, Lange remembers, from the government and from each other. While the GDR had cut design jobs in advertising, it still strongly supported book design – a long tradition in eastern Germany cities such as Leipzig and Dresden. The annual Leipziger Buchmesse [Leipzig Book Fair], which dates back to the 1600s, continued in the GDR era. A “Most Beautiful Books” award was presented there and the GDR also sponsored regular type design competitions, whose winners then worked with Typoart to produce their designs.
Most importantly, explains Lange, the designers worked together instead of against each other. Through the Verband Bildender Künstler [Association of Visual Artists], all freelance artists and designers voted upon a set of standard fees, so everyone was paid fairly. We were all artists. There was no ‘underbidding’. We were colleagues and supported each other. That was the good thing about socialism, the cultivation of solidarity, says Lange. And while creative workers from filmmakers to architects had to deal with government censorship, the type designers enjoyed a certain artistic freedom. According to Lange, Type is a means of production and is thus independent from ideology. Type has content, is readable, and when it is read, the contact has the meaning. I wasn’t held responsible for what the type was used for.
On November 9th, 1989, everything changed: the Berlin Wall fell and with it, the power of the GDR government. Within the next year, East and West Germany reunited, under West Germany’s laws – a social market economy with no place for socialist concepts. The state-run VEB’s of East Germany were converted into private companies and sold off. VEB Typoart became Typoart GmbH and was purchased by a man named Karl Holzer.
Holzer came from the advertising business. The production of type didn’t interest him, recalls Lange, who by this time was reaching Germany’s official retirement age of 65 and no longer worked at Typoart. By 1995, Holzer had run the company into the ground. In 1997, Lange made one last effort to rescue the typefaces from disappearing – he convinced the Linotype company to approach Holzer about licensing – but Holzer let the negotiations taper off, and that was the last time they spoke.
The problem with Holzer’s apparent indifference to the Typoart typefaces was that legally, by buying the company, he had bought the copyrights. Though Holzer showed little interest in marketing the designs himself, he could theoretically sue anyone else who tried to do so, even the designers. So to be on the safe side, anyone interested in the typefaces would have to talk to him first. But nobody had managed to meet with him for years. That is, until a funny thing happened to design professor Jay Rutherford of the Bauhaus-University Weimar:
He leased a room to a music teacher – whose boyfriend turned out to be the mysterious Karl Holzer! Jay Rutherford tried to enlighten him to the artistic importance of the typefaces he was sitting on, but it wasn’t easy: Karl told me he was a bit down on his luck and that he was thinking of burning the fonts onto CD and selling them at MediaMarkt, a cut-rate media chain! The professor couldn’t stand the idea of Mr. Holzer selling off Typoart’s treasures as bargain-bin junk. So, he recruited students to propose a more meaningful way to bring back the works. But it wasn’t only Mr. Holzer standing in the way of a relaunch. There was a whole swarm of individuals with conflicting claims…
PingMag talked to four of the Typoart Friends – Florian Wehking, Andreas Heintzel, Sebastian Herold, and Robert Müller – that got inspired by the historic type material and created an edition called Typoart Freunde:
What did you know about East German design before this ‘Typoart Relaunch’ course?
Florian: Before the project, I hadn’t dealt with East German design very much. I did already know some books from the GDR. Books that friends showed me they had had as kids. But I didn’t know that the GDR had its own type foundry, which developed and produced type for the entire Eastern Bloc. The old typefaces were considered “vanished” for over ten years…
How did you start your research and trace the fonts?
All of the Typoart Friends: Professor Rutherford gave us Albert Kapr’s book “Fotosatzschriften” [photosetting typefaces]. It contains almost all of the typefaces that Typoart produced for photosetting – also, in some cases, digitally – illustrated with complete character sets and sample texts. We found a book that contained the complete institutional history of VEB Typoart and also learned that only part of the types were converted to digital fonts in the ’80s: Typoart produced a great many more typefaces, but most of these exist only in the original metal type, without specimen sheets. The Museum für Druckkunst [Museum for Printing Arts] in Leipzig owns a majority of these metal fonts. Others are held by the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst Leipzig [HGB]. We spoke with HGB Professor of Typography Rayan Abdullah, but he couldn’t and wouldn’t help us any further.
What else stood in the way? The introduction to your book is pretty dramatic: greed, secrecy…
The story of our project is, as a matter of fact, suspenseful, dramatic, and mysterious! Of course, we weren’t the first to be interested in the legacy of Typoart. And although the whole thing was started as an attempt to revive the sale of Typoart typefaces, we soon realised that we were coming up against a brick wall: On one side there was Mr. Holzer, the owner of the typefaces. On the other side, there was the company Elsner + Flake, who wanted to sell the typefaces, and Rayan Abdullah from the HGB Leipzig, who believes the typefaces and rights belong to the HGB. And in the middle were the type designers themselves.
However, we didn’t want to commit ourselves to any one side or develop a sales strategy for someone else. Instead, our manifesto established the purpose of our work: to honour the work of the type designers and preserve their legacy. We call ourselves Typoart Friends because we had no desire to sell the typefaces or misuse them – we wanted to bring more attention to them. Actually, in the strict sense of socialist thought and GDR tradition, the typefaces belong to the people and shouldn’t belong to any individual person.
What was the most remarkable thing for you?
It’s the history of VEB Typoart, as an example of the fate that many GDR businesses met after the German reunification. Also, to the very end, their working methods were so modern and advanced. Unlike in West Germany, type design in the GDR wasn’t subject to the pressure of business competition. So, typefaces could be created with more care and craftmanship. You could truly call it Schriftkunst [typographic art]: No effort was spared in order to stay on the cutting edge.
Then, when did you decide to make the Typoart Freunde book?
That came pretty early. We also had other ideas, for example, to make advertising spots for the typefaces, to print them from metal type, or to design Letrasets. However, collaborating in a group of eight is often difficult. In the end, we divided the assignments and each person had three to five spreads to design. Each of us used his style to illustrate the typeface and its history in the context of GDR style.
Is that why the style of your book is brown paper with black and red ink?
We oriented our design on the simple, plain design of GDR print material. There, the typesetting was always very exact, simple but superbly made. Much of the GDR look stems from the very rough and natural paper. The colour application also plays an important role: Since inks were often in short supply, they would be severely diluted – resulting in a very pale, almost washed out colour. Moreover, inks were often simply overprinted, resulting in interesting transparency effects. Our design was influenced by many everyday objects. For example, the package inserts that accompanied every GDR product, stating where the product was produced, served as the model for flyers that we distributed with our book.
Though the colours are of course oriented on socialist red, the colour of the old Typoart logo was also red, so we based our logo on that. In addition, we wanted to design a variable logo, with the common unit of the red T and one Typoart Friend as its background. The original idea for this was to match a figure to each typeface. The Hero of Socialist Labour aesthetic of these figures has a lot do with brand recognition, of course. It especially refers to the idea of the worker and peasant nation of the GDR. But even someone who has no prior knowledge of Typoart and the GDR should be be able to recognise the socialist symbol.
Which is your favourite VEB Typoart font?
Florian: My personal favourite is Quadro [see bird icon pictured earlier]. It’s only usable as a display type, but it has ’70s charm and an elegant modernity. As a text face, I like Magna a lot. It’s simple but highly legible in longer texts.
Finally, what can we learn from East German design?
Florian: Again, I like the idea that type design in the GDR was recognised as art, and the designers had the time to make truly good typefaces. These days, the design scene thrives on trends and constant changes, yet we always return to old, classic design. There’s a lot to learn and appreciate here. Clearly Typoart and GDR design is surrounded by nostalgia and old charm, but it’s surely nothing to sneeze at. I think it has much more to it than a lot of design from today.
Thanks to all the Typoart Friends and especially a big thanks to Karl-Heinz Lange for telling us such interesting details about the GDR history and its legacy!
Now, are these magnificent VEB Typoart types still available? Some are, despite the uncertain copyright issues, while others were reinterpreted:
Currently, Karl-Heinz Lange is working on new versions of five of his designs: Publicala, Suprala, and Minimala will be based on his Typoart designs Publica, Supra, and Minima and will be released by PrimeType, while Rotola and Diplom Antiqua will be released by Elsner + Flake.
FF Super Grotesk by eBoy’s Svend Smital is based on Typoart Super Grotesk by Arno Drescher, which had been the GDR’s version of Futura. The Rosalia by Ingo Preuss is based on Typoart Stentor by Heinz Schumann. And finally, Lapture by Tim Ahrens is based on Typoart Leipziger Antiqua by Albert Kapr.