Helmut Schmid Obituary
In a typo-rhythmic statement published in 1998, the graphic designer Helmut Schmid once wrote: “i am dreaming of a typography where the univers is univers”. He was, of course, referring to the Univers typeface and in many ways exhorting us to be aware of different realities and to take them seriously.
And naturally, as evident in the title of his 2007 monograph called “design is attitude”, Schmid also expected attitudes that had nothing to do with dogma. And now Schmid, one of the most influential typographers in the world, has died on 2 July 2018.
Schmid was born in 1942 in Ferlach, Austria, which at the time was part of Germany under international law. Despite his talent as a musically gifted pop singer he chose an apprenticeship as a typesetter, followed closely by further education at what was to become the Basel School of Design. His teachers there were Robert Büchler, Kurt Hauert and significantly, Emil Ruder. From them he not only learned the art of precision in craftsmanship but also personal qualities such as respect and modesty. Posts in Canada (with Ernst Roch) followed, and among many other things, work for the German political party SPD and Chancellor Helmut Schmidt whose name he almost shares. His work for the SPD included materials for the 1976 election campaign. It was not until 1981 however, that Schmid found his true calling, far away from Europe, when he settled permanently in Osaka, Japan. He had worked for Japanese clients long before then. From 1968 his work on traditional Japanese everyday culture was published in the monthly typographic journal called Typographische Monatsblätter.
Japanese attention to detail, be it in working out the use of space with Tatami mats, care with mortise joints or packaging, or indeed in knowing what to leave out, mirrored Schmid’s own creative inclinations and he became more than merely a conveyer of this culture, he became part of it. The following example may illustrate what I mean more clearly. For the special issue “Typography Today” for the magazine IDEA 1980, Schmid typeset the magazine name in Univers using different weights from Extra Bold to Light. This may be reminiscent of Christof Gassner and his work on the Canton brand, and especially of Otl Aicher and his logo for ERCO, yet for Schmid his choice was not about tone or light, but about the spatial effects described by the Japanese writer Tanizaki Jun'ichirō in “In Praise of Shadows”. In this way, as far Schmid is concerned, it was also about a connection between European and Asian cultures. “Typography Today” had even more to offer, not least its Japanese title designed by Schmid using the Katakana syllable “eru”, an acronym and a tribute to Emil Ruder, and also content from designers such as Otl Aicher and Piet Zwart. Schmid did not promote himself here, however, and we must also remember the contribution of his wife Sumi, who was involved in the translations. For IDEA, this issue was a new impulse, and was followed by further monographs on Wim Crouwel, Jan Tschichold, and once again Emil Ruder. The last of these, again motivated by Schmid and quite unusual for magazines, was republished in 2017 by Lars Müller as a reprint with an accompanying text by the publisher.
Essence, concentration, precision, white space, silence, and of course the use of Univers as an objective typeface – these are the characteristics that come to mind when you see Helmut Schmid’s work. And so, to rephrase his attitude from the very beginning, only one thing comes to mind: restraint. Schmid helped shape and narrate the history of Basel typography, not to forget his decades-long friendship with Wolfgang Weingart. Unlike another younger Austrian-born designer, his disinclination for effects meant he was never going to be a superstar – and in the Western world, there was no run on taking selfies with him. In Japan, on the other hand, he was not only regarded as belonging but also actually revered, and this author also bows before Schmid’s work and person.