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Erik Spiekermann (center) reviews the Bauhaus font project with the designers and Ferdinand Ulrich. [Photos courtesy Adobe]

New type

Erik Spiekermann is back with a set of Bauhaus typefaces

When you think of Bauhaus type you might think of Futura and its designer, Paul Renner, who was never at the school. But now, thanks to Adobe, the Bauhaus Foundation, a group of type students, and Erik Spiekermann, the school’s modern “typographic exercises” become completed fonts.

Known more for great architects like Walter Gropius and Mies Van der Rohe than for graphic design, the Bauhaus was the home of modern design. “They really weren’t type designers or typographers,” says Spiekermann, the Berlin typographer and type designer. “There was graphic design—and advertising. It was run for the architects. That said, there were some bold and influential posters designed by Bauhaus designers, and a number of interesting lettering projects.

Erik’s idea was to apply the modernist principle of simplicity as an aid to manufacturing, so that designs can become widely available. “They said, why don’t we streamline type so that everyone will be able to do it. They struggled to make actual fonts because they didn’t have the tools. Alfred Arndt for one, painted characters as geometric shapes—to be modern, and because it was easier,” according to Spiekermann.

Adobe’s Simon Morris, who led a “Hidden Treasures” project about Edvard Munch last year, and Sabina Strosser, branding group manager, worked with scholars at the current Bauhaus in Dessau to assemble typography from the school’s archive. Dan Rhatigan, senior manager of the Adobe type team, joined in to select the letterforms most likely to make a good typeface.

Rhatigan suggested they call in Erik Spiekermann and his collaborator, Ferdinand Ulrich, as advisers. The first five original Bauhaus designs are by Arndt, Carl Marx, Joost Schmidt, Reinhold Rossig, and Xanti Schawinsky.

“Since it was a school, why don’t we get some great type design students to digitize the best of these?” Spiekermann asked.

For suggesstions, they went to type design gurus in Germany, Switzerland, France, Britain and the U.S.—calling on Gerry Leonidas (University of Reading), Erik van Blokland and Paul van der Lan (KABK, The Hague), Alexander Tochilovsky (Cooper Union, New York) and Stephan Müller (HGB, Leipzig). Adobe was already in touch with ECAL at University of Lausanne.

These scholars nominated five students. “By some miracle,” says Ulrich, “each student chose a different face.”

And so, 85 years after the Nazis came to power and the Bauhaus closed, these projects are coming to life as digital fonts.

The students who made the digital fonts are Céline Hurka (The Hague), Luca Pelligrini (Lausanne), Elia Preuss (Leipzig), Hidetaka Yamasaki (Reading), and Flavia Zimbardi (New York).

Spiekermann, known as a digital trailblazer, has recently been spending a lot of time in his letterpress shop. He explained that it was his love of type (read: good type) motivated him to join the initiative.

“The written word is to culture what air is to living beings. Air only ever becomes a topic of conversation when it is bad. It’s the same with typography! In the Bauhaus, they wanted to pass on taste to the masses,” says Spiekermann.

Where the Bauhaus designers strayed, he says, was trying to apply architectural ideas about standardization and geometry to typography. “They asked, ‘How can we get away from these handmade types? Why don’t we streamline the look of typefaces? Then everyone will be able to make type!’”

The results were sometimes stunning . . . but awkward. Geometry in type design can go too far. “A circle needs to be bigger than a square to look the same size. If you look at the proportions, they were struggling to make type simple. But some of it was just ugly.”

And while the posters and signage of the Bauhaus had wide influence, no actual typefaces were produced in the school’s history. Spiekermann asks, “If those people in 1925 had a computer and FontLab or Glyphs—might they have created usable types?” He added, “We just did what they would have done if they had the tools.”

With the first two typefaces completed, Adobe is making them available through TypeKit, “bringing the typography of the Bauhaus into the public eye,” according to Dr. Helga Huskamp, head of communications for Bauhaus Dessau.

If you ask Spiekermann, this attention and appreciation goes a long way: “There’s still this democratization movement today, but for it to work we need systems. When designing a typeface, you don’t just draw an A and a B; you draw 400 characters. If that isn’t system work, I don’t know what is.”

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