Though his connection to the GDR doesn’t go beyond an East Berlin building (Landhaus Lemke, for the curious) from 1933, German-born architect Mies van der Rohe’s aphorism, “God is in the details,” is well suited to a small cube of movable type I encountered on my first day at the Wende Museum. The green box I saw was so inconspicuous that it immediately caught my attention. Inside, a leaflet quoted the poet Emmanuel Geibel in what translates to “The greatest of all, most important of all is the alphabet because it contains all wisdom, but only he who knows how to assemble it will understand the message.” The quote is a clue to the box’s contents, a small metal cube unlike anything I’ve previously seen. Surrounded by a piece of yellow tape, the cube opens to reveal individual pieces of utterly miniscule metal type in all the letters of the alphabet, and four pieces of equally small type embossed with a floral motif. The cube then opens yet again to reveal more pieces of type, even smaller than the previous alphabetical set. This time, the pieces of type seem to be various grammatical characters. The cube opens up for a third time, revealing a tiny square plate imprinted with Geibel’s quote functioning as a piece of type. Yelena explained that the cube was made of movable type, but I was curious about the function that such a strange and small item could have in the GDR.
My curiosity led me to Google, and so it goes: VEB (Volkseigener Betreib, people-owned enterprise) Typoart was the official type foundry of East Germany, created by the GDR government in 1948. A conglomerate of several smaller foundries, its mission was to create typefaces for all the Eastern Bloc countries. VEB Typoart operated until the fall of the Berlin Wall, when it was privatised and soon forgotten.
Recently, a group of students at Bauhaus-University Weimar created the group Typoart Freunde to recognize the artistic achievements of Typoart’s designers. They’ve issued a book that celebrates the fonts created in the GDR, a place where Typoart’s designers enjoyed respect from their government and colleagues.
The Wende’s small cube of type was produced to commemorate Typoart’s thirtieth anniversary, but I’m left curious as to its ultimate purpose. It seems unlikely that this cube was produced for mass consumption, so who used it and what did they make with it?
For more information, PingMag’s great article on Typoart and Typoart Freunde is definitely worth a read.