„Contrast is the source of form” – Władysław Strzemiński once said. I say: “Contrast creates the sense”. Sounds like a perfect conversation starter if we ever had a chance to grab a cup of coffee.
In reality, I have a better shot of having a coffee with Sophia The Humanoid Robot, than I have with Strzemiński. Perhaps, it is for the best: complicated minds are better appreciated from afar. But with the Year of Avant-Garde coming to an end in December, I could not help myself but have a closer look at some of Strzemiński’s works, a project of his alphabet in particular. With a freshly realised book on Polish fonts in hand, entitled “Paneuropa. Kometa. Hel” by Agata Szydłowska and Marian Misiak (Karakter Publishings), I stared at signs drawn by the artist in 1932. It consists only of straight lines and simple curves which are hard to understand taken separately – it is almost as if they can exist only as a group to make sense. They were supposed to be the new alphabet for the new human – the human of the XXth century.
In the essay dedicated to Władysław Strzemiński’s universal alphabet, Szydłowska and Misiak explain the process behind these abstract letters. The sentence about the contrast being the source of form, quoted above is in truth a part of “Komunikat a.r.” (“a.r. Statement”), a manifesto of Polish avant-garde group from 1932. As any modernist group of that time, also a.r. members believed that design and architecture are tools for social change. They were witnesses to the poverty and unfairness of the industrial era as much as brutal issues of nationalist background. Simultaneously, modernists believed in the power of technology and science. To accomplish new order, it was necessary to cut the past and tradition. “New” equalled “better” and was expressed by geometry. In typography it meant getting rid of all the serifs – the residue of the individual handwriting thus “the agents of the past” – as Szydłowska and Misiak put it. But the final shape of Władysław Strzemiński’s font was a result of a wider artistic attitude. He wrote: “Modern economy of letter forms should consist of standardised geometric elements such as lines and arcs”. The idea of standardisation was driven from other areas of design (for ex.: furniture, architecture) and guaranteed equality, so important for modernists.
Strzemiński’s alphabet was the most radical among all font designs during that time. The main issue standing in the way of its popularity is its illegibility. Even with all the internal order, it remains illegible. To me, that is only one layer of the problem and does not explain what is going on here. It is illegible because it is “incomplete”. To say more: this font is like an embodiment of incompleteness. Perhaps (and I say it is knowing how risky it sounds), Strzemiński wasn’t the right man for the job of creating the new alphabet for the new men. Strzemiński’s alphabet is intelligent, fresh, unique but too inhuman for the real world.
Speaking of inhuman, I had the weirdest 1 November (All Saint’s Day) ever. This year I was sick and staying at home, free from work and any sentimental luggage. That was until I stumbled upon a video someone posted on Facebook presenting a ceremony of granting Saudi Arabia’s citizenship to a robot, mentioned at the beginning of this essay – Sophia. The sight of a hairless robot with a face of Audrey Hepburn speaking thoughtfully in front of a crowd was quite disturbing. I googled for some more information and learned that Sophia is a social robot with artificial intelligence software which can process visual, emotional and conversational data. In the end, she can use all of it to create relationships with people. Her vital facial expressions help a lot in accomplishing that goal. She is also in a constant process of learning and developing her own “character”. The only missing part is an emotional independence. Today she is the avant-garde of humanity. Perhaps she would have some thoughts on what alphabets we need today and for the future. I will be sure to ask her that over a cup of coffee if we ever have one.