The Daily Heller: Imre Reiner and Ornamental Modernism

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It is both funny and inevitable that aesthetic tastes are always changing. Graphic design and typography are fashion-conscious fields. Like bumper cars, classic and contemporary styles collide; like stew, they mash up; like life, they regenerate on a frequent basis. Replacement is a tenet of change. Often just being good is not enough; design must be relevant, expressive and desirous—all attributes that are sometimes determined by whim rather than reason.

I raise this because for decades I had felt that the Hungarian-born Imre Reiner (1900–1987) had enjoyed his moment of relevance and popularity in a time that had passed. In addition to his exemplary role as a handlettering designer and calligrapher, he was a significant chronicler of typographic history, with a handful of artifact(ual) compilation books to his credit. But his method of expression—scratchy yet ornamented linework used for both lettering and illustration—and his emphasis on illustrated letters, seemed to have lost a certain currency.

I have collected a few of his volumes and covers for PRINT, Graphis, Typography and other design magazines, but have mistakenly relegated them to the “curious-but-nonessential” pile. Yet recently, during a spring cleaning, I found Winterhouse Institute’s short-lived design history archival tabloid publication from Winter 2006, Below the Fold, edited by William Drenttel and Jessica Helfand, featuring Reiner. I was reminded of Reiner’s virtuosity; I was smitten by his timeliness in today's digital type culture. What goes around comes around. What I believed was a relic has more staying power for its aesthetic eccentricity and electricity. Reiner’s work stands out in a sea of sans serif type and collage imagery. There is something magnetic about his line at a time when so many designers were manipulating photographs.

Below the Fold called him the “ultimate Modernist graphic designer.” He was certainly touched by the various Modernisms in pre–World War II Yugoslavia and Romania, then later was influenced and, in turn, influenced, by artist/designers in Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Paris, London, New York and Chicago—“his cultural identity was always deeply connected to his Eastern European roots: He was, first and foremost, a Hungarian of the Jewish faith.”

Reiner was skilled in calligraphy and typography, engraving and illustration, painting and graphic design. He makes me recall how much I adored Saul Steinberg (which is not to diminish Reiner in the least). He produced a body of work including over a dozen typefaces, and more than 100 different hand-drawn alphabets (many still extant). “His calligraphic style was distinctively his own, enthusiastically invoking the abstract without renouncing the classic,” wrote Drenttel (whose collection of Reiner’s work is archived at Yale) and Helfand. He was a book illustrator of the likes of Cervantes, Goethe and Voltaire, and more modern authors, Frisch, Gorky and Rilke. I see his work as a strand of DNA that includes particles of expressionism and traditionalism that fuse into a refreshing absence of -ism.

It is worth reevaluating one's aesthetic prejudices on a regular basis. You never know what you'll find that will alter your vision.