The myth of Kramer-Grotesk

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Joep Pohlen's picture
Joined: 19 Apr 2011 - 4:58am
The myth of Kramer-Grotesk

You often read a book and register the information as being true, especially when it is less or more the same you have read before about the subject. It gets a bit odd when you find out that in different publications things are mixed up and each publication seems to add more and more fuzz around the subject. I recently bought a used book about Paul Renner, published in 1978 by Philipp Luidl for the Typographical Society in Munich, Germany. In that book the well-known typedesigner Günter Gerhard Lange wrote an article about Renner. Lange was at that time the art director of H. Berthold type foundry and was seen as one of the most influential people in the type design community in Germany. In his article he writes that the architect Ferdinand Kramer in 1925 made a drawing of a geometrical sans serif for the building department of the city of Frankfurt on which Renner based his Futura. On the next page in the same article Lange writes that Renner in 1924 began working on the design of Futura. This strange discrepancy in time was the reason that I wanted to know more about the widely known Kramer-Grotesk.

I began reading books about Renner and Kramer to straigthen my mind about who really made the first design of Futura. Especially because Futura is even today one of the most used typefaces.

Of course the biography by Christopher Burke about Paul Renner (Hyphen Press, 1998) was the first to read. The second was an article by Burke about the authorship of Futura in Baseline 23 (1997). In this article Burke widens the authorship to the design staff of Bauer Type Foundry. Not strange when you look at the complex technical production process of a typeface in that period of time but sadly it makes the discussion about the authorship not easier. But he also introduces some publications he also researched. One is an article (Tiessen, 1969). from the well-known author Hans Peter Willberg. Willberg writes that Kramer was a student at the Städel-Schule in Frankfurt in 1925 and that it was Kramer who made at that school the first drawings that later became Futura. But Kramer was in 1925 already a well-known architect and product designer and he was working at the building department of the city of Frankfurt. He never attended the Städel-Schule. Renner began with his first drawings for Futura in 1924 and at the beginning of 1925 first cuts of the typeface were already done by Bauer Type Foundry. So both assertions of Willberg are wrong.

But the most used peace of evidence in several publications about Kramer-Grotesk is a sheet of paper that shows capitals of Futura with some of the characters only as outline sketches that are crossed out. Elsewhere on the sheet alternative characters are enclosed. [picture 1]

So I had to figure out when this sheet of paper with sketches was first published and why it was attributed to Kramer. Since most of the material of Bauer Type Foundry is supposed to be destroyed during World War II I first had to research publications from before this war. One important publication is an article by Denis Megaw in Typography 7, published in 1938. On page 34 a couple of drawings are shown that are presented as the first designs of Futura by Renner (1924). These are the lower case characters and capitals that are placed on the top of the page [picture 2]. Below this two character sets a complete set is shown from Futura as published by Bauer in its final form (without the extra alternative characters). But the set below was not published by Bauer earlier than 1927 (the publication year according to Paul Renner in the Georg-Müller-Book article). The sheet of paper with sketches [picture 1] show in black more or less the definitive forms of the capitals of Futura while the outline forms are showing his first designs from 1924 for the A and K. There is also an invitation card for a lecture dated 3. July (1925) [picture 3] made with trial cuts of Futura by Bauer. These characters and mainly the capitals are in a state between the first designs in the article from Megaw and the final ones beneath that. Look for example at the M, N and R. The same story is told by a trial setting that was made for the publication Schrift by F.H. Ehmke that was published on July 9th 1925 [picture 4]. You have to keep in mind that at that time the publication of a book would have taken several months from concept to producing, gathering illustations, setting, proofing and printing. As described by Paul Renner in the interview ‘From Georg-Müller book to Futura and the Meisterschule; recollections by Paul Renner’ (translated) he mentioned even that he showed trials of Futura by Bauer already in february 1925 during lectures at large printing firms in Cologne and Mönchengladbach. In May 1925 (around Easter) Renner moves from München to Frankfurt to teach at Fritz Wicherts Frankfurt Art School. At that time he also meets Wicherts friend Ernst May who is the head of the building department of the city of Frankfurt. The architect Ferdinand Kramer was also working at this department and met Paul Renner around that time. Together with Ernst May Renner and Kramer became part of the group that worked on the ambitious plans for rebuilding parts of the city of Frankfurt. A lot of inspiration for the plans came from the Bauhaus and buildings of the Stijl in Holland. One of the examples that was also pubished in the magazine Das Neue Frankfurt was De Unie in Rotterdam by Architect Oud. On that building typography is clearly part of the architecture. One of the first things May asked from Renner was to deliver an architectural typeface that could be used in architecture and for signing on shops and small structures like bus stops. I think that the sheet that was delivered by Renner to the building department is also the sheet that can be found in the Werkkatalog Ferdinand Kramer 1923-1974 by Jochem Jourdan that was published in the ‘Schriftenreihe 3 der Architektenkammer Hessen’ in 1974. [picture 5] In this Werkkatalog the design sheet of letterforms is dated 1925 according to Jourdan. I think that on this sheet the myth of the Kramer-Grotesk is based and not on the sheet that was published later in Baseline (The authorship of Futura by Chistopher Burke) and several other publications [picture 1]. This second sheet with drawings of capital Futura letters was credited to Kramer simply because it was found in his archive. Of course it could also be there because he had taken it from his work at the building department. It could be a copy or even the original that Renner had delivered at the building department for copying and distributing to letter sign firms and architects that worked in Frankfurt. There are some slight differences between the characters (for example the J and S) of the trial settings of Bauer Type Foundry and the capitals on the Kramer-sheet but that could be a design decision by Renner for the architectural purpose of this set of capitals. A publication in Das Neue Frankfurt [picture 6] in january 1927 shows the typography of the fassade of the hat shop of Ferdinand Kramers parents in Frankfurt using the capitals of Futura. This design as well as the design of a second shop fassade on the same page is credited to Renner as well as that the name of the typeface (Futura) is also mentioned in the caption of the other picture. Some slight alternations to the characters can also be caused by sign makers who had to take over the letterforms from the drawings of Renner. At that time there were no computers, scanners or even laser equipment that could do that. That is also the reason why the model drawings from Renner were made on so-called mm-paper with lines that could easely be translated to enlargements of the letterforms.

I think that looking at the timeline of the publications and the consistence of the development of the design of Futura by Renner there can be no doubt that Kramer-Grotesk is a myth. The only thing that remains and is hard to understand is why Ferdinand Kramer did not protest against this so-called Kramer-Grotesk that was published in several works like the Bauhaus-Archiv publication Ferdinand Kramer Architektur & Design in 1982 when he was alive and kicking (although he was at that time 84 years old). Kramer was an architect who had a very good reputation in furniture design and architecture and one could say that he did not need this credit for Kramer-Grotesk. The capitals of Futura were developped in the definitive form in 1925 but the lower case characters still had to go a long way to meet the final design. Maybe the development of this lower case letters were part of the discussions Renner had with Kramer and it could be that the huge transformations of these designs strengthened Kramers idea that he actually had been part of the birth of Futura. According to Neumann in his article in Ferdinand Kramer from 1991 Kramer did say (gesprächsweise) that he considered himself as one of the ‘fathers’ of Futura. This is all speculation but I can find no other reason why Kramer did not reject the publication of the so-called Kramer Grotesk and his role in the design of Futura like stated in the caption on page 33 in the Bauhaus-Archiv publication [picture 7].

One of the publications that helped me a lot in this research was the thesis of Charles C. Leonard ‘Paul Renner and Futura: The Effects of Culture, and Social Continuity on the Design of Type for Printing’ that he published in 2005/2006. Leonard thoroughly researched the drawings shown in Typography 7 as well as the disputed design sheet from ‘Wie eine Buchdruckschrift entsteht’ (How a new printing type is made) of Bauer Type Foundry in 1958 [picture 8]. One thing that he presumes falsely is that the design sheet (picture 1) from 1958 was a reprint of the publication of Bauer with the same name from 1931 [picture 9]. This publication was completely different from the one in 1958. Bauer Type Foundry used this first publication to promote the typeface Beton from Heinrich Jost that was new at that time. All the illustrations but also the text were based on this typeface. In 1958 the text and illustrations had as subject Futura that was a longrunner in sales at Bauer. So the design sheet of Futura that was published in the 1958 publication was first published in 1958 and never before as far as I know. So I think that this sheet was never near Kramer as presumed by Christopher Burke in the caption of Baseline and has always been in the archive of Bauer Type Foundry being one of the first designs of Renner that he delivered to them. In the caption of the 1958 publication of Bauer the design is dated 1925 but because Renner showed first cuttings during lectures in february 1925 (see above) and Burke also writes that first trial cuts by Bauer were done in the winter of 1924/25 I think that this has to be an earlier design and maybe has to be dated to 1924 because the setting trials as published in July 1925 in Ehmckes Schrift had already a similar design of the capitals on this sheet.

Despite the findings this story leaves an odd taste in my mouth about the role of Ferdinand Kramer. It is hard to believe that a respected architect and designer like him would claim something he has not made. But maybe others can look into that and could find an explanation for that.

Bauer, Konrad F., Wie eine Buchdruckschrift entsteht, 1931, Frankfurt (DE)
Bauer, Konrad F., Wie eine Buchdruckschrift entsteht, 1958, Frankfurt (DE)
Behne, Adolf, ‘Kultur, Kunst und Reklame’ in: Das Neue Frankfurt 3, 1927, Frankfurt (DE)
Burke, Christopher, ‘The authorship of Futura’ in: Baseline 23, 1997, East Malling (UK)
Burke, Christopher, Paul Renner, the Art of Typography, 1998, London (UK)
Ehmcke, F.H., Schrift, ihre Gestaltung & Entwicklung in neuerer Zeit, 1925, Hannover (DE)
Eisele, Petra, Ludwig, Annette and Naegele, Isabel, Futura. Die Schrift., 2016, Mainz (DE)
Hahn, Peter, Ferdinand Kramer Architektur & Design, 1982, Berlin (DE)
Hansert, Andreas, Georg Hartmann (1870-1954), Biografie eines Frankfurter Schriftgießers, Bibliophilen und Kunstmäzens, 2009, Vienna (AT)
Leonard, Charles C., Paul Renner and Futura: The Effects of Culture, and Social Continuity on the Design of Type for Printing’, 2006, Georgia State University (USA)
Lichtenstein, Claude, Ferdinand Kramer, der Charme des Systematischen, 1991, Gießen (DE): the article Frankfurter Typografie from Neumann, Eckhard, pp 32-34
Luidl, Philipp and Lange, Günter Gerhard, Paul Renner (Eine Jahresgabe der Typographischen Gesellschaft), 1978, München (DE)
Megaw, Denis, ‘20th Century Sans Serif Types’ in: Typography 7, 1938, London (UK)
Renner, Paul, ‘Vom Georg-Müller-Buch bis zur Futura und Meisterschule; Erinnerungen von Paul Renner’ in: Imprimatur 9, Ein Jahrbuch für Bücherfreunde, 1940
Willberg, Hans Peter, ‘Schrift im Bauhaus/Die Futura von Paul Renner’ in: Monographien und Materialien zur Buchkunst Band 2, 1969, Neu-Isenburg (DE)

Pictures partly taken from publications in my small library (except the digital file from uni-heidelberg):
1 Bauer, Konrad F., Wie eine Buchdruckschrift entsteht, 1958
2 Megaw, Denis, Typography 7, 1938
3 Luidl, Philipp and Lange, Günter Gerhard, Paul Renner (Eine Jahresgabe der Typographischen Gesellschaft), 1978
4 Ehmcke, F.H., Schrift, ihre Gestaltung & Entwicklung in neuerer Zeit, 1925
5 Lichtenstein, Claude, Ferdinand Kramer, der Charme des Systematischen, 1991
6 Behne, Adolf, ‘Kultur, Kunst und Reklame’ in: Das Neue Frankfurt 3, 1927 (digital file uni-heidelberg)
7 Hahn, Peter, Ferdinand Kramer Architektur & Design, 1982
8 Bauer, Konrad F., Wie eine Buchdruckschrift entsteht, 1958
9 Bauer, Konrad F., Wie eine Buchdruckschrift entsteht, 1931

Joep Pohlen, April 2017