Another Type of Art



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.

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3 Responses to Another Type of Art

  1. paloma says:

    The fate of Typoart after reunification, described in the linked article above, points up an all-too-familiar aspect of the Wende. East German commercial entities were quickly dissolved for their assets, which were often technically obsolescent, by the West German “Treuhand” (trusteeship). The employees were out of a job, patents and goodwill (existing contracts) were canceled, and administration of the firm fell into uncaring hands. In this case, Typoart essentially ceased to exist a year or so after the Wende.

  2. Anna says:

    It’s very sad, but thanks for the information.

  3. joanne says:

    an alternate title for this post (should the present one grow tiresome) could be “Not a Typo!”I know, it’s corny :)On another more relevant note, John’s post reminded me of the rather tense relationship that East and West Berlin/Germany had and still have… I would say that in the context of an aggressive “Westernized” global context, not only were the assets technically obsolescent, but culturally obsolescent… which is why the Wende M. is needed to preserve such artifacts! a culture of western mores and norms were superimposed upon east berlin and the rest of the former soviet bloc in general — but there’s always something left underneath…

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