Responses by Kris Sowersby, director and lead type designer, Klim Type Foundry.
Background: Epicene Text & Display are Baroque typefaces inspired by the work of two 18th-century maestros: Jacques-François Rosart and Joan Michaël Fleischmann. Typographically, Epicene’s exaggerated details add rigor at small sizes and vigor at large sizes. Culturally, Epicene says one thing: typefaces have no gender.
The release campaign for Epicene is a Baroque-infused nightmare, punctuated by the distortion of its most known signifiers. Inspired by paintings and sculptures of the period, the dynamic depiction of fabrics is brought to life with movement and materiality. They obscure and reveal the presence of ambiguously humanlike figures, letterforms and objects—all staged within a sparse, theatrical world. The campaign visually and aurally brings to life the ideas explored in the development of this new work. It creates intrigue for fellow designers and others who follow our work into the story behind the typeface.
Design thinking: Building out from 18th-century typographic traditions, Epicene is both a proposition and a counter-proposition, a reconciliation of Rosart and Fleischmann’s work, who were rival typographers. It is an expressive, functional type family that features text and display variants with a generous range of weights.
Taking its name from Susan Sontag’s famous essay “Notes On ‘Camp,’” to be epicene means to lack gender distinction and have aspects of both extremes on the binary—or neither. In applying this notion to a typographic context, Klim calls out the tendency that codes modern, functional or “neutral” visual forms as “masculine” while equating anything ornate or decorative with “feminine” traits.
Challenges: The entire Epicene Collection project took about a decade. It was anything but a linear process. The formal font design and drawing happened in fits and spurts. Baroque art and type-history research were sporadic during this period, as was my reading of articles and essays about gender and sexuality in society. All of this was underpinned by our longstanding but unarticulated sense that gendering fonts—and other things—is wrong.
Favorite details: The scalloped serifs. I needed something that would adapt to small and large sizes and work across all the capitals, numerals and—if possible—lowercase. The solution takes the smooth inner curve from Rosart and the sharp outer scallop from Fleischmann. It works well to preserve Rosart’s fierce dynamics and Fleischmann’s florid charm. Happily, it adapted beautifully to the deeper character set, including accents and numerals. Even though it’s quite an obvious detail, it disappears somewhat in small sizes in Epicene Text, adding to the general texture and atmosphere in a paragraph.
New lessons: Around the time architect Adolf Loos declared ornament criminal, colors started to be gendered for children. Before it settled into the girl-pink/boy-blue binary, the opposite held true; as a 1918 article in Ladies’ Home Journal magazine states: “The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” It wasn’t until the 1940s when American retailers settled on the current arrangement. The baby boomers were the first generation raised in “gender-specific” clothing. The marketing industry figured out that arbitrary color gendering and personalization shifted more units.
Visual influences: Epicene Text is inspired by Fleischmann’s types. They are deliberate and focused but energized through cheekiness and a sly wink that manifests in the small details. In the spirit of Rosart, Epicene Display is instead given license to perform with a smaller obligation to function. Taut, refined curves terminate in exaggerated, overhanging serifs while fluid italics are suddenly interrupted by bombastic swoops and curls. The echo chamber within Baroque visual culture that celebrates sculpted, flowing and exaggerated forms of expression is reflected in its typographic voice. These letterforms are designed to be seen as much as they are to be read.