In 1900, the Grand Duke of Hessen, who sought to "fuse art and life together," established a new artists' colony in Darmstadt, hoping to encourage both cultural development and economic growth in light manufacturing such as furniture and ceramics. The seven participating artists, including Peter Behrens and Vienna Secession architect Joseph Maria Olbrich, all had experience in the applied arts. Each artist was granted land to build a house, and Behrens designed his own house and all its furnishings, from furniture to cutlery and china.
A sense of urgency existed in the German art and design community. A new century was at hand, and the need to create new forms for a new era weighed heavily upon artists. Typographic reform was one of Behrens's major interests and he struggled successfully for a time to develop a new typeface with a conservative type founder. Then he came into contact with 32-year-old Dr. Karl Klingspor, of the Klingspor Foundry, who agreed to manufacture and release Behrens's first typeface, Behrensschrift, in 1901. The Klingspor Foundry was the first German typefoundry to commission new fonts from artists, and it achieved international prominence when it released Otto Eckmann's 1900 Eckmannschrift, which created a sensation. Drawn with a brush instead of a pen, Eckmannschrift was a conscious attempt to revitalize typography by combining medieval and Roman attributes with those of Japanese prints.
In contrast to Eckmann's gestural vitality, Behrensschrift was an attempt to reduce any "poetic flourish~ which would mark the forms as the work of an individual hand and thereby reduce their universal character. Bchrensschrift looks very calligraphic to the late twentieth-century eye viewing this typeface more than sixty years after Paul Renner designed his geometrically constructed Futura. However, ornate Art Nouveau forms dominated new typeface design in the early 1900s, and Behrens's typeface looks very standardized relative to the typographic fashion of the time. Behrensschrift was an attempt not only to innovate a new typographic image for the new century but to create a uniquely German type. Behrens combined the heavy, dense feeling of black letter with the letter proportions of Roman inscriptions, while standardizing letterforms construction. Horizontals and verticals are emphasized and diagonals are completely eliminated and replaced by curved strokes in letters such as Wand V. Some typographic authorities were outraged by Behrensschrift, but with its feather-stroke serifs and clarity—compared to the dense black-letter typefaces then in use in Germany—Bchrensschrift was a resounding success for both book and job-printing typography.
In the promotional booklet for Behrensschrift, Behrens compared reading text type to "watching a bird's flight or the gallop of a horse. Both seem graceful and pleasing, but the viewer does not observe details of their form or movement. Only the rhythm of the lines is seen by the viewer, and the same is true of a typeface.
German art critics of the period were interested in the relationship of forms in art and design to social, technological, and cultural conditions. Behrens was deeply concerned about these issues and believed that, after architecture, typography provided "the most characteristic picture of a period, and the strongest testimonial of the spiritual progress [and] development of a people. Another attempt to express the spirit of the new era occurred in 1900 when Behrens set his twenty-five-page booklet, "Celebrations of Life and Art ... "in sans-serif type. German typographic historian Hans Loubier suggested in the 1920s that this document might contain the first use of sans-serif type as running book text. All-capital sans-serif type is used in an unprecedented way on the tide and dedication pages. The popularity of sans-serif types in the twentieth century vindicated Behrens's experiment.
Text from Graphic Design History edited by Steven Heller, Georgette Ballance