Kenneth Frampton
Willi Kunz, Typography:
Formation + Transformation

Switzerland is a mental landscape wherein the modern project still prevails, despite the kaleidoscopic iterations of our spectacular late modernity. For all his thirty years as a successful practitioner in the United States, Willi Kunz still remains committed to that all but mythic Mecca of modern design. Hence notwithstanding the daring flexibility of his topological typography, Kunz is still a didactic graphic designer whose disciplined roots go back to such luminaries as Max Bill, Richard Paul Lohse, Josef Müller-Brockmann, Karl Gerstner, and Emil Ruder.

Kunz’s new book Typography: Formation and Transformation indeed reminds us that the principles of Swiss-German modernism are essential to typographic design today, whatever variegated form it may take.

In this second well tempered excursus into the cultural potential of the printed word, Kunz leads us through a series of didactic exercises, whereby the word as such and above all the letter may be formed and transformed ad infinitum in the service of visual communication regarded as a cogent material practice. He insists that the five hundred year old legacy of occidental typography is already a given of such broad expressiveness that there is no urgent need for the willful creation of yet another typeface. After a series of explorations in which letterforms are analyzed and deconstructed, passed through figure-ground inversions and enlarged as partial, abstracted fragments, Kunz surely persuades the reader that all things considered the extant typographic repertoire is still valid and virtually infinite. As Adolf Loos once put it, as a virtual extension of the Wiggenstein quote that adorns the flyleaf of this volume: “There is no point in inventing anything unless it is an improvement.”

Touching on the logotype as the ultimate late modern challenge, Kunz passes from the letter to the word and its arrangement on the page, demonstrating in so doing the possibilities for concrete poetry through the break-up of a twenty word sentence in a single column of one word per line. From this conceit one passes to the infinite pluralities of columnar organization on the page and thus on to the forgotten art of harmonic proportion and above all the rhythm of the entire printed sequence, in a musical or cinematographic sense as one passes from one page to another throughout an entire book. Viewed from a distance all these precepts still seem to have as much pertinence for filmmakers and architects as they do for graphic designers.

It is somewhat inexplicable that these typographic principles do not even now make up an integral part of the standard first year design curriculum anywhere in any creative field. It is fitting that this book should reveal the resilience of a graphic mode that seems as relevant now as it ever was to the arts of representation and communication.