A typographer and graphic designer, Helmut Schmid has gained a reputation for an important body of work which he created in Japan predominantly. Having trained with Swiss typographer Emil Ruder at the Schule für Gestaltung Basel, the influence of Ruder and the school has been evident in Schmid’s work, including acknowledgement in many of his publications.
Schmid attended the Schule für Gestaltung Basel on two separate occasions. During his second period of study, between 1964 and 65, he was admitted to an exclusive, small class lead by Emil Ruder and Robert Büchler, where he developed a unique personal approach. Following his studies, he became a successful exponent of Swiss typography, sharing his expertise readily with an international audience.
Having worked extensively around the world, predominantly in Germany, Sweden, Canada, and Japan, Schmid established himself in Osaka in 1977, where he worked with and collaborated with numerous local designers and companies. His European design approach combined with the influence of Japanese culture lead to the creation of artworks of a harmonious cultural exchange—perhaps due to similar inclinations within the two cultures towards the use of space. However, it was during an earlier visit to Japan that Schmid created one of his most well known works: Katakana Eru, a syllabary face crafted in honor of Ruder between 1967 and 70.
Throughout his career, Schmid has made numerous contributions to Typografische Monatsblätter and has authored many internationally acclaimed books. He is admired for his continued adherence to a very personal style, a style that, over many decades, has remained strongly informed by Swiss typography.
Helmut Schmid You are looking at the years 1965 to 85—why?
Louise Paradis I had to have a certain framework, because I realized there was so much material relating to Typografische Monatsblätter to go through. There were a lot of changes taking place during that period, which I find interesting.
HS Well, it depends on how you look at it. Things happened before this period. The information in America is always Wolfgang Weingart-based, and this to me is always a little bit disappointing, because they just stop there. Typography started way before that, with Emil Ruder. No doubt about that. And of course the real period of TM was in the 1950s and 60s. That was really fantastic. The first time I saw TM was really something for me. Because it is a living magazine, you know? The Neue Grafik—sorry about this, but I will often talk badly about it—was a promotional magazine for Zurich designers, in my opinion.
LP So how would you position TM magazine in the world of typography and graphic design between 1965 and 85?
HS It was the magazine, of course. I think Neue Grafik had already disappeared at that time, because it only had 18 issues. They ran out of money and ideas. It was edited by four designers. One of them was Josef Müller-Brockmann, who changed from illustrator to graphic designer. They found a publisher in Olten, which is half an hour from Basel. TM was published in St. Gallen. Of course, Neue Grafik came to Japan, and the Japanese copied it, but I think they still don’t get it. TM was basically an educational magazine for young typesetters, printers, and apprentices. It was not only about typography, it was also about printing techniques, book binding … The style was dominated by the Schule für Gestaltung Basel, by Emil Ruder.
LP The issues I am looking at are just a bit after the Ruder period though.
HS When I saw your email, I thought that you were another fan of Wolfgang Weingart.
LP I picked that period because it had a bit of both attitudes—Ruder and Weingart—I would say.
HS We were lucky, we had great teachers at the Schule für Gestaltung Basel: Emil Ruder and Robert Büchler. Kurt Hauert and Armin Hofmann. Büchler was less known, even at the Schule für Gestaltung Basel. I went there a little while ago, and nobody knew of Büchler. I don’t get their mentality there anymore. They just want to be modern or fashionable.
LP Did you also have Armin Hofmann as a teacher?
HS No, I had Kurt Hauert. He gave a graphic-design class. We worked on typefaces in his class. Not like they do it today, in five minutes. We worked on one letter for days until it “sounded.” That’s how Hauert described it: it needed to sound. There are not too many letters that sound these days. Yes, we had fantastic teachers. Büchler was doing the introduction to typography, and Ruder the next part, which was more experimental. So the changes which Weingart claims … He said that there was dust on Akzidenz Grotesk. I don’t know if you’ve heard that saying—it is complete bullshit. All the posters printed in the school were typeset in Akzidenz Grotesk. Univers was only available up to 48 point. There was no dust on Akzidenz Grotesk.
LP When did you study there?
HS I studied at Basel twice. I was a private student of Ruder’s from 1960 to 62. While working as a typesetter at Burger-Druck in Weil am Rhein, Germany. I took two days off a week so I could attend Ruder’s class. I used to bicycle. It was still in the old school, where we had only one type case, with 12-point Univers, and everybody was crazy about using it. Because it was so new, everybody felt there was something special about it.
LP Was the class you had with Ruder a private one?
HS Ruder was giving typography classes to the graphic designers in the composing room, and I joined them. He gave theory classes on book design, for the fourth-year typesetters, and I joined them. And he gave a class on typeface drawing to the Tagesfachklasse für Buchdruck [letterpress printing class], and I joined them …
LP Fritz Gottschalk told me that before the International Advanced Program for Graphic Design began at Basel in 1968 there was a class that accepted only two or three students a year.
HS Yes, yes. As I told you, I went to Basel twice. First from 1960 to 62. Then I asked Ruder if I could take this class. I was still very young, and he said, “You can come in two years.” Today I am so grateful that he made that decision, because I was so young. So I decided to go to Berlin, and also spent one year in Stockholm. From 1964 to 65 I came back to Basel, to be in this special class, Gestaltungsklasse für Typografie [class for typographic design]. Gottschalk was two years before me, I think. Did you see my book The Road to Basel? In this book I let the students talk about their time in the class. I think it started in 1958 with Yves Zimmermann, André Gürtler, and Marcel Nebel …
LP And Hans-Rudolf Lutz too, right?
HS Yes, he was one year before me. There was also Roy Cole, who is in England, Hans Jürg Hunziker, who is in Paris, and Yves Zimmermann, who is in Barcelona …
LP So this class was before the Americans came?
HS There was only one American, but he wasn’t on the typography course. Some of the students had to wait for seven years. When I made The Road to Basel, it was good timing. Lutz was still alive. He wrote a very interesting text. At that time, we had a kind of identity problem between graphic designers and typographers.
LP I am glad you brought that to the table, because it is actually one of the things I wanted to ask you about.
HS Graphic designers who were students of Armin Hofmann really felt they were something special. The students of the typography course are not even mentioned in the history books of the Basel school. Nobody got a diploma, nobody asked for it. But I asked Ruder and he sent me his comment to Japan on school letterhead. He wrote it one year before he died.
LP So there were two separate worlds—graphic design and typography—which at the same time were very connected.
HS Of course. But Ruder wanted to make typesetters, the typographers as they were called by then, equal to graphic designers. We three were basically working in the composing room. Depending on the subject, we joined the classes. For example, we joined the graphic-design class or the photography class. I didn’t have Hofmann, because he was preparing to go to India. Ruder suggested I take the class of Kurt Hauert and I am happy that I did. It was an experience that still lasts.
LP You took classes in Basel as a typographer, but do you consider yourself a graphic designer today?
HS I would say my main work is based on letters. English, German, Japanese, Korean. Have you seen my book Typography Today? Ahn Sang-Soo recently finished the Korean translation. I taught for three semesters at Hongik University in Seoul, and I later invited a student to help me with the flush left of the text setting in Hangul.
LP It is very interesting that you taught in Korea. I think there is nice stuff coming out of Korea at this time.
HS Yes, Koreans are very eager. The Japanese are a bit sleepy right now.
LP You mentioned Neue Grafik, but were there other graphic-design magazines? What about Graphis?
HS We had no interest in what people did outside. We were so eager to follow Ruder that there was no need to look at any other things. Of course, after taking his class I looked around, when I went to Canada. The first time I saw Idea magazine was in Canada.
LP I know that at some point TM was pretty international, but it is really difficult to measure how much, because there is no record of subscribers. Did you come across TM in Canada, or in other places?
HS Yes, it was known among the active designers. Hiromu Hara, then the most established typographer in Japan, he of course had it. Maybe Kohei Sugiura too.
LP What about in Canada?
HS Ernst Roch had it. He was more Swiss than a Swiss. He was so stiff. I wrote something about it in NewWork magazine, which will come out soon. He was such a perfectionist about flush left. Do you have the Ruder book? If you don’t have it, I won’t talk to you anymore. For 20 years they published it in the wrong size with a red cover. I kept pushing Ruder’s wife to do something about it. In 2003 the publisher finally fixed it: they reset all the text on QuarkXPress, following the original artwork.
LP Did you first see Idea magazine in Vancouver?
HS No, in Montreal. Roch had it. He had quite a lot of magazines. He spent quite a lot of money on them. He also had Graphis.
LP I was looking at Idea, and it is quite an old magazine—I was surprised.
HS It is the oldest in Japan: 1953. I stayed with Roch for nine months, then went to Vancouver without a job and without connections. It was quite hard, but then I realized I really wanted to go to Japan. I wrote to many designers. The editor of Idea, Hiroshi Ohchi, replied. He wrote, “I have something for you in Osaka. You can give my name and write there, and at the same time I would like to show your work in Idea magazine.” I went to Japan in June 1966, and in September I already had 18 pages published in Idea magazine, plus the cover that I designed in Vancouver without knowing anything about it.
LP When did you move from Switzerland to Canada?
HS That was in April 1965. It was right after finishing the Basel school.
LP Why did you decided to go to Canada?
HS During the time I was in Basel, Roch visited our class. He told Ruder he would like to have an assistant. Ruder told me it was for me. So I applied and went there. Then I went to Vancouver and met Friedrich Peter—the designer of the beautiful typeface Vivaldi.
LP How was it in Canada at the time?
HS There was not that much happening, actually. There was Roch, Alan Flemming … In 1964, there was an exhibition and a booklet called T64. And I remember Roch brought it to show Ruder.
LP Did you meet Fritz Gottschalk there?
HS I actually worked for him for two weeks.
LP Wasn’t he in Ottawa?
HS Fritz Gottschalk designed nice work in Canada, but all the awards went to his boss, and he was not happy about it. He wanted to get the awards for himself. He paid me double the salary I received at Roch’s. Harry Boller was there to work for the Expo 67. And there was a German called Gerhard Doerrie. There is a story I have to tell you about Ernst Roch. He was so strict about flush left. He had a job where they asked him to make indents. He let the job go because he doesn’t like indents. Can you imagine? I think only Roch could do that.
LP You collaborated with TM several times. How did those collaborations come about? Did Rudolf Hostettler contact you or did you propose some work?
HS I had a column called “Japan Japanisch” [Japan Japanese], where I introduced the beauty of things Japanese. This was a suggestion of Hostettler’s. It was planned to appear in every TM issue. The series lasted until his death. I wanted to continue it, but the change from Rudolf Hostettler to Jean-Pierre Graber was a bit weird. He didn’t ask me to continue and I didn’t ask him, so there were about five years without TM communication. But when I developed a correspondence with Wolfgang Weingart, concerning the Typography Annual 1985, I contacted Graber saying that I might have some interesting things to show. And he answered, “You have been on my list for a long time …”
LP Hostettler had a special eye …
HS He gave chances to young people in the printing trade. There was a regular feature called “Profile junger Typographen” [Profiles of Young Typographers]. I think he started that section because many typographers wanted to show their work in TM. And in the Ruder period it was really hard to have anything published, because the standard was so high. So that page was interesting. It included Felix Berman, Marcel Nebel, Fritz Gottschalk, Harry Boller, Hans-Rudolf Lutz, Jean-Pierre Graber, me … Hostettler was a fantastic person. My first contact with him was through those pages. It happened exactly when he announced Ruder as the new director of the Basel school. On the right page you had Ruder and on the back side my work. Quite something.
LP Did you design the cover and inside pages of TM issue 8/9 of 1973?
HS I designed the cover, the inside pages and the contents page. At the time I still had the choice: he asked me if I wanted to have it printed with letterpress or offset, and I said letterpress.
LP Was Hostettler working at Zollikofer, the printing company?
HS Yes, so both methods were still available, and I thought maybe it was one of the last chances to have it printed in letterpress.
LP And how did your work on that issue come about? Did he ask you to do it?
HS I asked to do that issue. I needed his letter of introduction to invite contributors. I wish I hadn’t used my Katakana typeface on the cover. I should have used the calligraphy from the inside pages: Aki (autumn). The cover says, “The new typography starts with the new typeface.” Today I don’t believe in that saying anymore.
LP Why is that?
HS Because we can’t change the shape of our alphabet. It is wishful thinking. All these experiments are necessary and good. Wim Crouwel’s typeface is interesting, but we can only use it for a cover design or an invitation card. The shape of our alphabet is fixed. An A can only look like an A.
LP Are there any new typefaces that you like?
HS I am really not interested. I am sorry, I am still using Univers.
LP That typeface was such a big event when it came out.
HS You cannot imagine it because you are far too young. But for us it was really special. We had Akzidenz Grotesk, and suddenly we got a typeface that had elegance. When it came out, British designer Anthony Froshaug wrote that Univers is the most ugly thing. Well, Univers needs sense to be used.
LP What was your motivation for collaborating with TM?
HS It was writing home. Switzerland was, Basel was, home for me. I was born, typographically, in Basel. So it was to keep that link somehow. And Hostettler really answered letters. If you wrote him a letter of some length, he would answer with the same length, or even longer. Once I wanted to publish the new alphabet by Wim Crouwel in TM. I had it already published in [Swedish Graphics magazine] Grafisk Revy, and I thought I should show it in TM. Hostettler wrote me a long letter: “If you are sure to fulfill all your statements, I will print it.” There was nothing wrong with showing something that was a bit different. I really liked the alphabet at the time, and I used it for the first time in Montreal for my New Year card, and a bit later for a Grafisk Revy cover.
LP You say in one of your texts that TM attracted students to the Schule für Gestaltung Basel. But do you think Basel was, in turn, using TM as publicity?
HS No, never, never. Basel didn’t need publicity. They make a lot of ugly publicity and crappy books today. Ruder used TM to spread his typography, his message.
LP Publicity might not have been the main purpose, but TM was a way of transporting his ideas.
HS I think Ruder hated advertising. Once I published his posters on four pages in Grafisk Revy. When I showed him the magazine, he said to Robert Büchler, who was standing nearby, “Herr Schmid thinks we need advertising.”
LP I also talked with Armin Hofmann, and he really disliked publicity or trying to push his ideas in a publication.
HS Karl Gerstner was the advertising man. He felt that the Basel school was a little bit too narrow. Gerstner was successful with his design agency GGK, which was influenced by American typography. Look at George Lois’s advertising for Coldene, included in the 2007 edition of Typography Today. It is all in the text. There is no product photo and no logo in the ad. George Lois wrote to me that at the time (in 1960) people around him thought he was crazy.
LP Do you have a favorite issue of TM?
HS Ruder wrote an article in TM in 1952, called “On Drinking Tea, Typography, Historicism, Symmetry, and Asymmetry,” which you have to read. That was maybe the real beginning of TM, the February issue of 1952, which is now called the Basel issue, and before that it was called the Bauhaus issue. Ruder wrote three articles, and Hofmann one. For Ruder, typography was everything. Hofmann was always so relaxed. Sometimes he would come to the composing room, sit on a type drawer and talk to us. Something Ruder could never do. There was always distance, and I think it was good. Distance is good. Ruder said you should never address a student as Du [the familiar form of “you” in German]. By the way, how is Hofmann?
LP He is still very well, for a 92-year-old guy!
HS I saw him three years ago, and I had a good time. Hofmann is a poster designer. Ruder didn’t make such outstanding posters, but some posters he made are above standard. For example, Die Zeitung, this is really an idea. What is a newspaper? It is photo, it is letter, that’s it. You cannot show it better. For me, the Hofmann posters are always pretty—maybe that is the word.
LP Were there other important graphic designers? Because when I think about it, it seems that they were all typographers.
HS There was Karl Gerstner, Siegfried Odermatt, Rosmarie Tissi, and there was and still is Hans Rudolf Bosshard. Did you meet him? You have to. He is the Picasso of typography. Not because of his typography but because of the way he lives. He is kind of an extrovert, but a nice one.
LP I understand that Ruder was the person who had the most influence on you.
HS Of course. When I was an apprentice I saw the magazine Druckspiegel at my workplace in Weil am Rhein. When I saw the birth announcement that Ruder did for his son, I knew I had to meet this person. It was typeset in a new and fresh typography.
LP You said that the schools in Basel and Zurich were very different, type-wise. Can you talk more about it?
HS It was like yin and yang, like water and oil. Well, our thing was more based on intuition. And at Zurich, they really liked the grid.
LP So, it was too rigid and not intuitive enough in Zurich?
HS Ruder always tried to go beyond the standard. I think that was the difference. I argue often with the Zurich-based Bosshard about the Basel—Zurich relation. Ruder had an aura.
LP Would you say the big companies that were hiring typographers and graphic designers were in Basel or Zurich?
HS Well, Basel was lucky to have the pharmaceutical company Geigy. Max Schmidt was director of Geigy, and he said that 23 students from the Basel school worked there during his time.
LP I know that you had a very interesting correspondence with Weingart, and when I read it I had the impression that you respect him but you don’t agree with him at all.
HS Actually, the problem is not about our work, but about Ruder. My attitude to Ruder is completely different than his. Weingart came to Basel when I was there for the second time. He was not in that class, and actually doesn’t belong in The Road to Basel book. But I thought he had a nice story. Ruder let him use the press until nine in the evening. Swiss typography is a problematic term, but we have to use a word to describe it. Discussing typography is always difficult. When Jan Tschichold talked about typography he talked about book typography. Weingart talked about a typography that becomes graphic. But I say typography should stay typography.
LP You wrote that design which serves a purpose is better than an ego trip. But do you think it is important to have a level of personality in our work?
HS My design comes from the content. If the content is nothing then there is nothing to design. The content decides the thing.
LP When Weingart started to do those experiments, did you agree with it? What was your reaction?
HS In the beginning it looked very very poor. I made those Swedish Grafisk Revy covers. They are hand-set and printed in the letterpress by moving a text block. Weingart said, “It is a little bit of playing around.” His comments were always sarcastic. One day he came with a prepared woodblock with nails sticking out of it. He bent some nails and printed from it, which is totally crazy.
LP It wasn’t typography anymore but art?
HS It was just to be different. That was a bit strange to me, but the strangest thing about it was that he didn’t damage the printing press. Everything was perfectly tip-top. In 1978 I had an exhibition in Amsterdam. At the time, I introduced his 1972‒73 TM covers in Idea magazine . When I gave him the magazine he said: “Even I never thought of such a layout.” He thought of himself as the center of the typographic world at that time. My work in the exhibition in Amsterdam used quotations by personalities from the Social Democratic Party, such as Willy Bandt, Kurt Schumcher … I used a typewriter and experimented with the text. Spacing, overexposing, underexposing … And then Wolfgang Weingart wrote to me: “Since when are you doing Basel typography using spacing and such things, you, as a former enemy of Weingart?” I kept the card, and I wanted to use it for a cover of Idea.
LP Other than Weingart, were there other people who were experimenting?
HS Weingart went to Basel and got all the freedom. If he would have gone to another school maybe the Weingart would never have existed. The Schule für Gestaltung Basel was so open, and Ruder let him do what he wanted. Basically, he was always against us, against the school. I wonder why Ruder accepted this. But maybe Ruder wanted somebody to break everything, because maybe you need to break things to create something new. But Ruder’s typography is still alive now, and Weingart’s typography is history.
LP Yes, I think Ruder’s typography has a timeless quality, whereas what Weingart did is a bit more affected by time. But I truly respect what he did, because he made even the people who were against him look at what they did from a new perspective.
HS He inspired some of us to look again at what we were doing. Maybe otherwise we would have ended up doing Zurich typography.
LP Did changes in technology affect your work?
HS No, I think it underlined that we were on the right track, in fact.
LP So have you not been affected at all by technology?
HS Yes, but it took me a long time to start using a computer, because I thought I was faster than a computer. In 1989, I went to an ATypI [Association Typographique International] seminar in Oxford, and after that I decided to buy a computer.
LP Other than technological changes, did you feel there were changes in the idea or philosophy of graphic design? Perhaps in your case you’ve stuck with the Ruder philosophy.
HS I also made some junk. I was working for a short period for Suntory. It was really terrible to see businessmen making the decisions.
LP What is your favorite piece of work, and why?
HS Ruder’s book, and The Road to Basel. I really spent a lot of time on it, and even if it looks like it is gridded it is not. It is really free; it is designed by spread. Each page is a new composition.
LP Why did you move to Japan?
HS For me it was a continuation of Ruder. Japanese design to me is the proper use of space. It is all beautifully explained by Tenjin Okakura in The Book of Tea. I lived in Japan for four-and-a-half years, then I returned to Europe. First to Stockholm to work for Grafisk Revy. Then to Düsseldorf to work for SPD and BPA. Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt were chancellors during my stay. I spent three-and-a-half years in Düsseldorf, and then returned to Japan. I decided that Japan is my country. I am often asked, “Why Osaka?,” and my answer is, “I didn’t select Osaka, Osaka selected me.”
This conversation took place in Osaka, Japan, in February 2011. It was copy-edited by Ariella Yedgar.