The New Typography

Posted on 9th September 2020 by simonbeattie

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Notgeld. Everyone knows, or thinks they know, the catastrophic German hyperinflation of the early 1920s, thanks to photographs of people pushing wheelbarrows full of money, or burning bundles of worthless banknotes as fuel.  But there was another pecuniary phenomenon to come out of those years: Notgeld, or ‘emergency money’, which was issued locally right across the country in place of the low-value coins which had vanished due to a shortage of metal during the War.  Neil MacGregor explains: ‘as there was no longer an effective national currency for the lower denominations, every town and city had to make its own.  High-value notes from the Reichsbank continued to circulate.  Notgeld is the small change of daily life: that is what makes it so interesting …

‘Some of the most distinguished Notgeld came from Weimar, the birthplace of the Bauhaus art and design movement, where in the early 1920s the aesthetic and functional world was being entirely reimagined.  The Weimar notes were designed by Herbert Bayer of the Bauhaus.  There are no historical or touristic themes on these notes [as was common on other towns’ Notgeld].  Just pure function, clear communication, bold design.  Bayer used strong colours and then simply words and numbers in characteristic typography.  Form uncompromisingly follows function.  This Notgeld is an aesthetic manifesto for modernism.  Bayer had only two days to design these notes in 1923, but he realized this was a rare chance to present Bauhaus typography and design to a mass public who would have no option but to use them.  Advanced modernist design would reach every household within hours.  Notgeld gave Bauhaus a previously unimaginable degree of public exposure’ (Germany: Memories of a Nation, 2014, pp. 419–21, 425–7).

Nele Heise describes it as ‘a unique commission in the history of the Bauhaus and one whose impact continues to be underestimated.  Here an extremely modern design by a Bauhaus student found broad regional distribution with a large print run; what is more, Bayer’s emergency banknotes are among the earliest examples of the New Typography, which is sometimes referred to “Bauhaus typography”’ (‘The Money: New Typography in Everybody’s Pockets’, The Bauhaus and Public Relations: Communication in a Permanent State of Crisis, Routledge, 2014, p. 120).  Other Notgeld of the period, ‘especially those meant for collectors, had extremely elaborate designs, or conveyed critiques of contemporary developments.  This “efflorescence” as a “special German path” is significant due to the fact that Bayer’s design markedly departed from the contemporary German design tradition of inflation money.  Bayer’s design is rather to be seen in the course of which European graphic design underwent a fundamental shift in appearance, with playful, decorative ornamentation giving way to functional, sober designs’ (op. cit., p. 124). 

Interestingly, Bayer (1900–1985), though still a student, had some past experience in designing Notgeld, when he produced the money for the Austrian town of Lembach in 1920:

For more information, please see the recent catalogue CTRL+P.

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One response to “The New Typography”

  1. Nele Heise says:

    Hey Simon,

    thanks for referencing my article! I did the archival research ages ago, still being a student at the University of Erfurt – since I grew up in Weimar, that was a very exciting project to do, so it is nice to see some nods to the work we did back then 🙂

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