German type designer, calligrapher, and artist, 1876-1934.
Designed both Blackletter and Roman alphabets. Strongly Christian (and Lutheran Protestant) as well as an exponent of German nationalism in the arts, Koch had an affinity for the Arts & Crafts movement spearheaded by William Morris. Some of his art, as well as his typefaces, have a strongly Art Nouveau flavor. Koch’s great passion was infusing the stately opulence of Baroque forms with the raw energy of the Romantic, and his most well-known typefaces, The Deutsche Schrift family (also kown as Koch Schrift), Maximillian, Wilhelm Klingspor Schrift, neuland, Jessen, Wallau, Koch Antiqua, Frühling, Holla, Zepelin, Prisma, Offenbach, Marathon, Koch Kursiv and Kabel all have this balance between elegance and raw energy.
Koch was an in-house designer at the Gebr. Klingspor foundry from 1906 until his death in 1934 (with a short gap for service in the first World War). All of his typefaces were released by Klingspor. After the Klingspor foundry closed in the late 1950s, the foundry D. Stempel AG in Frankfurt, who had owned the Klingspor foundry for over a decade, assumed the rights to the designs and continued the distribution of the commercial successful ones.
Koch was also concerned that with the development of industrial typography in the form of hot metal typesetting much of typefounding’s history might be lost. He was a gifted historian, and many of the most well-known illustrations of traditional punchcutting were drawn by him. He also produced a large volume of elaborately detailed, traditional German Calligraphy, some of it exceedingly beautiful. His book on calligraphic instruction Das Schreiben als Kunstfertigkeit is still one of the best works on the subject ever printed in the German language, and is worth a look for non-German readers as well, even though it is almost entirely focused on Blackletter hands. The book was one of the catalysts that began the career of Hermann Zapf, as well as that of his wife, Gudrun Zapf-von Hesse.
It would be a mistake, however, to peg Koch as a strict traditionalist. He was a relentless experimenter, seeking in particular to reconcile the traditionally popular German fraktur / broken-letter types with the Antiqua or Roman types used in the Western parts of Europe and the United Kingdom. Some of these experiments were unsuccessful, like the intriguing but ungainly Offenbach, but others, such as Wallau, were both in keeping with the spirit of the times and successful in their own right. Probably his most significant achievement during this time, and the most widely-known of his experiments, is the rough-hewn neuland, a deceptively sophisticated, very black lino-cut sans serif that pointed to some of the more expressionistic types coming from further east, such as Vojtech Preissig in Czechoslovakia, while still being very much his own work.
Late in life, he followed developments in the Bauhaus scene, developing his own groundbreaking Kabel typeface alongside Jakob Erbar’s Erbar and Paul Renner’s Futura, as well as designing the lesser-known but equally significant calligraphic sans Stahl, which was finished after his death by Hans Kühne.
Koch was also a prolific teacher. In 1908, he began teaching calligraphy at the Technische Lehranstalten der Stadt Offenbach a.M, which became the HfG Offenbach in 1970 . His courses developed into a type of special studio, called the Offenbach Workshop. In addition to calligraphy, students at the workshop produced everything that could conceivably have lettering on it, including tapestries, metal work, and church bells. Like the Bauhaus, the workshop developed an international reputation during the 1920s, attracting students from foreign countries. Warren Chappel studied under Koch during the 1930s there.
A word should be said to Koch’s nationalism (one should remember that nationalist feelings were common throughout the western world in the pre-WWII-era). Koch fought as an infantryman on both the western and the eastern fronts during the first World War. Reading his recollections, one might get the feeling that he loved every minute of it. It was also during these war years that Koch became increasingly devout. Rudolf Koch died in 1934. This for him was fortunate. Many of his students emphatically embraced Nazism, lending their calligraphic skills to the movement.
It is possible that Koch would have avoided this. He had strong ties to the Jewish community in Offenbach, and on at least one occasion (in 1927), produced a complete Haggadah (Offenbacher Haggadah). The book is part of the Klingspor Museum’s collection today.