Berlin today is often described as being what New York was in the eighties: a hothouse of activities in a multitude of media, with disciplines overlapping and boundaries evaporating, attracting first-rate artists from across the globe. The comparison is an interesting one. Like Berlin, New York back then had areas that had yet to be discovered by developers, and provided affordable housing and studio spaces to artists of all disciplines. In Manhattan, the East Village in 1985 resembled Prenzlauer Berg in the late nineties, and across the river, Brooklyn was a bit like Friedrichshain: a half-forgotten area full of available spaces, where the younger generation went.

There are also huge differences. Although a bigger city population-wise, New York’s innovative arts scene was surprisingly compact and easy to navigate. It was the rule rather than the exception to have contacts across disciplines, to be able to quickly establish a social network including artists, designers, musicians, dancers and filmmakers. Berlin’s cultural life today is much more segregated. And while professionals in New York, and the States in general, have always taken turns at energetically organizing continuous get-togethers, Berlin is much more individualistic. Certain fractions, such as graphic design, largely lack a social structure beyond studio-based contacts or noncommittal events such as Typostammtisch or Talk About The Weather. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the people united in this booklet are unaware of each other’s work and/or have never met.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is rather peculiar. And it’s not just the fault of the internet. Regardless of any gratuitous comparisons (Paris in the twenties, anyone? London in the sixties?) Berlin is pretty special, and what makes it even more interesting is precisely what makes it almost impenetrable: its complexity and endless fragmentation, and the continuous change. People who are now forty, and have been part of the changes of the nineties and the 2000s, will invariably tell you that the “real” Berlin has gone and that all those foreigners that still come flocking to the promised land of abandoned GDR structures, unused riverside plots and improvised clubs and galleries, have come too late. This, of course, is nonsense and a bit snobbish. New artists’ spaces are opening up by the dozen in Neukölln and Wedding, but much of that simply remains outside the field of vision of the first generation of post-Wende¹ pioneers. The city is a bit segregated age-group-wise as well. But for those Berlin veterans who subscribe to the right mailing lists and don’t mind being the oldest in the room on certain nights, the stream of new projects and new connections is simply continuing in ever new venues.

Amidst the feverish activity, type design is probably the smallest and least conspicuous niche imaginable. But Berlin’s role in this field is quite astounding, and possibly as significant, comparatively, as the techno or art scene. To make one brief reference to my own job: more than half the turnover on MyFonts’ list of 2010’s most popular new fonts came from independent foundries based in Berlin. Arguably the most influential type library and type distribution network, FontShop/FSI, is based here. The standard fonts of Microsoft’s system and office software, used the world over, were made at LuacsFonts in Berlin. The best graphic design conference in the world (says Austrian New Yorker Stefan Sagmeister) is TypoBerlin. While twenty years ago Erik Spiekermann famously quipped that the Netherlands is the place with the highest density of type designers per square kilometer, this position had now long been taken over by his own home town. And of course, this is in large part due to Spiekermann himself, and the companies he set up. (The reason why Spiekermann came to Berlin in the sixties is the same reason why so many other open-minded, progressive people flocked here for decades: he arrived here at 17 to escape military service – as West Berlin was an island in the Soviet-dominated GDR, no West-Berlin resident could be drafted.)
Many of the type designers active in Berlin today passed through Spiekermann’s (pre-2000) design company MetaDesign at some point; many published their first typefaces at the type library he co-founded, FontShop’s FontFont. A revealing diagram in the 2009 special Berlin issue of Eye magazine showed the vastness of the Spiekermannian network – it was republished on the occasion of his exhibition at the Bauhaus archive in early 2011, inevitably corrected and expanded under his personal scrutiny.
In addition, there is now a growing number of indirect links to the MetaDesign/FontShop network. The teachings (at both Postdam and Weißensee) of former MetaDesigner Luc(as) de Groot, who trained under Gerrit Noordzij in The Hague, have helped build a well-prepared new generation of Berlin-based type and typographic designers and typographically inclined illustrators, including Jan Fromm, Ulrike [Rausch] Wilhelm and Melle Diete. Italian Elena Albertoni is among the people who came to Berlin to work at Lucasfonts, and stayed. Ole Schäfer, another former Spiekermann collaborator, has founded Primetype, where Verena Gerlach, Andrea Tinnes and Ralph du Carrois have published typefaces. Schäfer was also successful in reconnecting to a half-forgotten part of the Berlin typographic past: the contributions made to East-German typefounding by KarlHeinz Lange, a Berlin-based designer who worked for Typoart Dresden during GDR times and teamed up with Schäfer to re-create some of his modern classics. Lange became a regular participant at the Berlin Typostammtisch until he passed away in 2010, 80 years old.

Although the type scene is not nearly as international as other Berlin scenes, the typographically favorable climate has attracted people from many places within and outside Germany. Their presence is beginning to feed back into the local scene. The event that this book documents is a case in point. Rob and Sonja Keller – a Berlinese/American couple² – have opened up their gallery/studio to host a project involving most of Berlin’s type designers and, perhaps more importantly, celebrating the work of some of the finest illustrators and graphic designers in the capital. That was an excellent decision, for although these groups have a mutual interest in each other’s work, the actual connections are limited. Hopefully this exhibition will help change that, and hopefully Mota Italic will become a place of exchange that will be about more, much more than A–Z.

Berlin, April 2011

  1. Wende = “turn” = reunification
  2. Rob has left Berlin and now lives in Mumbai, India, with his second wife Kimya Gandhi, with whom he has continued the Mota Italic typefoundry.

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Some spreads from the booklet are here.
My overview of the Mota Italic gallerie’s brief but intense career is here (in German).

Cover design by Rob Keller

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Installation shots by Rob Keller of the Capital exhibition, the first event in the Mota Italic gallery and bookshop.