Ellen Lupton
Willi Kunz: Architectural Typography

Marshall McLuhan’s famous slogan “The medium is the massage” serves as an unintentionally ironic background for Willi Kunz’s book 12 Typographical Interpretations, whose medium is an old-fashioned craft technology and whose style was once invested with hope for a universal visual culture. Kunz’s meticulously produced letterpress book (1973-4), featuring McLuhan quotations about printing as a mass media, was part of an exhibition at Reinhold-Brown Gallery in New York in spring 1988. Each page attempts to express the meaning of a passage through the size, placement, and spacing of type – McLuhan’s expository prose becomes a series of concrete poems. As a popular media prophet in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, McLuhan euphorically proclaimed the end of the “Gutenberg Galaxy” and the ascendance of the electronic age, which would transform the Globe into one vast village.

Willi Kunz’s formal vocabulary comes from the European avant-garde movements of the 1920’s and 1930’s, which promoted abstract form as the basis of a perceptual language capable of resolving cultural differences by appealing directly to the eye. The technological optimism of many avant-gardists resembles McLuhan’s faith a few decades later in a global culture of televisions, telephones, and computers. When used today, the stylistic principles of movements such as Constructivism no longer communicate these utopian ideals, serving to ally design with high art rather than mass media.

Architectural Typography, the title of the exhibition at Reinhold-Brown Gallery, refers to a series of posters made for the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia University. The title sounds like the name of a style or philosophy of design. It comes from a brief essay by architectural historian Kenneth Frampton (director of the program at Columbia) in the lavishly produced typographic journal Octavo, on sale at the gallery. According to Frampton and Kunz, the posters are not merely images about architecture, illustrated with architectural motifs, but are typographic analogues for architectural method itself.

Kunz explains in the Octavo essay, “Through the translation of architectural elements into typography, the posters present a visual summary of the quality and spirit of the events they announce.” In a group of calendars for architectural lectures and exhibitions at the GSAPP, this act of “translation” takes form through grid-like geometric frameworks, partially filled in with color or expressed with rules, which serve both to create abstract compositions and to organize information. Kunz uses typographic bars and the play of positive and negative space to suggest metaphoric floors and foundations, openings in a wall surface, and symbolic staircases.

The “translation” of architecture into graphic design occurs somewhat differently in another series of GSAPP posters, where Kunz arranges flat pastel shapes around architectural photographs, making a personal graphic commentary on the image. Kunz uses a similar technique in some posters for exhibitions of Fredrich Cantor photographs. In one, a soft, sprayed form emulates the curving pathway in a park, and in another, a row of vertical bars parallels a set of columns in a photograph of Roman ruins. In these posters Kunz presents photography as an intrinsically flat, graphic medium rather than as an illusionistic record of reality – abstract painting is a model for photography.

Kunz also treats typography as a painterly medium. He explained in a conversation, “Someone recently referred to my work as ‘functional decoration.’ But if you took away the ‘decorative’ elements, the design would ‘collapse.’ ” Kunz’s sans serif type, black-and-white photos, and crisp typographic rules yields, at first glance, a sense of spare, neutral rationality. Upon closer reading, however, this rationalist facade begins to break down. Kunz’s organizational structures appear to have been designed not for their communication value but for their sensual effect. His geometric frameworks are personalized by pale, handmade fields of color, and by the sometimes expressive, intuitive placement of letters, boxes, and rules.

Kunz’s limited palette of elements belongs to a design tradition variously referred to as “modernism,” “rationalism”, “functionalism,” “Swiss design,” or “the International Style” – which developed out of Constructivism, de Stijl, and the Bauhaus. Initially these modes of design were fueled by the belief that cultural differences and historical change could be transcended by a supposedly “universal” language of geometric grids, systematic typography, simplified drawings, and objective photographs. As modernism became an official corporate and institutional style in the 1950’s and 1960’s, many architects and graphic designers questioned its aesthetic and philosophical principles. What had begun as a radically democratic methodology came to be seen as elitist, anti-individualistic, and overly abstract.

Designers have responded to this crisis of modernism in several ways. Milton Glaser, for example, paralleling the movement of “postmodernism” in architecture, has used art history as a warehouse of available styles, which he personalizes by recreating them in his own hand. The work of Wolfgang Weingart and other designers working at the School of Design in Basel in the 1960’s and 1970’s maintained their materials and procedures of modernism – grids, typographic rules, sans serif type – but used them to produce images which challenged the orderliness and “invisibility” of international style typography. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Kunz was associated with other young Swiss-trained designers, including Dan Friedman and April Greiman, who employed a supposedly neutral and “universal” vocabulary of modernism to produce distinctive personal styles. Kunz’s work remains more committed than Friedman’s or Greiman’s to the minimalist, systematic simplicity of the earlier Swiss tradition.

Although classic “Swiss design” has been associated with anti-individualism, intuition is a key element in such rationalist equations as this statement from Karl Gerstner’s Designing Programmes (1963) demonstrates, “The more exact and complete the criteria are, the more creative the work becomes. The creative act is to be reduced to an act of selection.” Thus for Gerstner, a grid or a set of typographic parameters is a decision-making machine that submits a series of choices to the designer’s final act of judgment.

Kunz’s work expands on this idea: within a limited range of permissible formal moves, he arrives at stylistically distinctive images. For example, the act of juxtaposing a photograph with an “interpretive” abstract shape or pattern reveals Kunz’s need to leave a personal mark, to add something uniquely his own to a potentially anonymous image. His use of “decorative” rules works similarly. Although such marks are austerely mechanical in themselves, they function as personal gestures, products of intuitive acts of judgment, determined not by an implacable grid or the demands of some clearly stated “problem,” but by the designer’s taste.

The inadequacy of such methodological slogans as “form follows function” or “design is problem-solving” has long been evident. Most designers know from experience that a stated “problem” or given “function” quickly ceases to provide enough cues to create a visually or intellectually engaging object. The “problem” makes too few demands. Even the archetypal modernist, Walter Gropius, rejected the level “functionalism,” stating that where the requirements of function leave off, the unique intuition of the designer takes over. Insofar as Kunz focuses on the expressionistic flip side of “functionalism,” his approach to modernism is not entirely dissimilar from Milton Glaser’s. They both transform established formal vocabularies into personalized, self-expressive images. The theoretical difference, of course, that Glaser sees all historical styles as equally valid, while Kunz has preserved his roots in the modernist design elements. Kunz can be seen as conserving the modernist tradition by opening up the space it always left for self-expression, while at the same time locking into its rigorous formal limitations – even though these limits were established within a different social and political context.

The exhibition “Architectural Typography” offered the rare opportunity to seriously examine the methodology of a graphic designer. The Gallery setting, unlike a magazine or a design annual, invited one to consider these objects as a unified statement of believe rather than as examples of fashionable or commercially successful design. Kunz’s Typographical Interpretations and his posters for the Columbia GSAPP constitute a rigorous manifesto, laying out the boundaries of one possible mode of production for graphic design today.