A new book entitled Jde o to aby o něco šlo [What’s important is that it be important] summarises the extensive and somewhat undervalued work of Czech designer Oldřich Hlavsa (1909-95).
This monumental, nearly 600-page five-colour publication in a cardboard slipcase pays tribute to Hlavsa, a typographer in the purest sense of the term: a man with great understanding for composition and space, combining letters and illustrations; an innovator who experimented with print – and a typical victim of the Iron Curtain.
Czech curators have avoided charting Hlavsa’s oeuvre due to its immense size and the ungraspable scope of his life and work. Hlavsa’s enthusiasm and passion for work enabled him to exist beyond the confines of his Communist homeland, and he delved into almost every branch of typography.
Hlavsa continued the tradition of the avant-garde and Constructivism, achieving world-class results under abysmal conditions with inadequate tools. He corresponded with designers Ladislav Sutnar, Adrian Frutiger, Kurt Weidemann and Hermann Zapf, and was a member of international trade associations and competition juries. He was a perfectionist and reformer who fought against the dearth of typefaces in Czechoslovak printing houses, censorship, and the general sense of apathy towards the fruits of one’s labour at a time when detail and flawless execution were of no concern.
This monograph is a heroic feat. The editor and book designer Barbora Toman Tylová worked with a vast amount of Hlavsa’s materials, and the design combines generous formats with tasteful layouts in a nod to Hlavsa’s graphic (dynamic colour, overprinting, photographs, duotones, negatives) and editorial work.
Hlavsa was not only a typographer, but also a teacher and writer. In 1960, three years after his magnum opus Typografická písma latinková was published in Czech, it was translated and published in English as A Book of Type and Design by Tudor Publishing Company, New York. From today’s perspective this may seem quite normal, but in Czechoslovakia in the late 1950s, an oppressive period marked by show trials, executions and anti-American propaganda, it was a miracle!
With hindsight it would be almost impossible and unfair to judge Hlavsa’s motivations for serving the idea of Communism. It is hard to say whether his individual choices came from an inner conviction, or were a game for the approval committees. The intellectual dilemmas one faces living in an oppressive regime also affect work. What if you refuse to design a volume of Lenin’s writings? Or say no to placing the slogan ‘To Stalin and Gottwald,* Fighters for Peace and Socialism’ on the cover of Typografia, a trade journal? Will they let your children finish school?
Oldřich Hlavsa’s voluntary departure from the Communist Party in 1972 (four years after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia) had a marginal impact on how much work he got. His reputation was never questioned; he set a standard that is beyond question. The generation of young designers emerging in the 1980s felt no inclination to revolt against his work. They continued it, developing his legacy while he was still alive.
During his long career, Hlavsa designed about 2000 books, did commercial work and created logotypes and layouts for influential magazines. The books he designed had print runs in the tens of thousands, enormous by current Czech standards, yet still could not sate the intellectually starved Czechoslovak book market. He continued the wonderful tradition of Czech typography and shaped the typographic taste and aesthetic view of the period for most educated people, becoming a symbol of the aesthetics of 1960-80s era for generations of Czecho-slovaks imprisoned behind the wall of a divided Europe.
*Klement Gottwald, Communist politician, President of Czechoslovakia from 1948–53