I’m typographically obsessed. I don’t see typefaces merely as tools for carrying words. I see them as exciting creations imagined into being by a rare breed of artiste—passionate geniuses who sacrifice a little piece of their heart to every letterform they draw.
I don’t remember how or when this mania first came over me, but I remember working for the in-house art department of a small West Coast fashion retailer when I was in college. We used a lot of Helvetica, which I found a tad limiting. I lived for the special projects where I could use more eclectic faces, and I still recall the thrill of working with my favorite typographic guilty pleasure, Mistral. Roger Excoffon’s frenetic script was a force to be reckoned with, its forms moving relentlessly forward while remaining utterly in control, like a jungle cat poised to pounce. Pure muscle, energy and grace.
There’s a special place in my heart for display script hybrids like Mistral, though I can’t explain why I fall in love with any particular faces. They just call to me, wrapping their shiny little stems and tails around my heart, their interior spaces burning white-hot into my brain. They urge me to find out all about them, to plumb the depths of their creators’ inspirations and life stories. I’m eternally in discovery mode to find these typefaces, hungrily devouring new releases by my friends and colleagues and scouring the net for fresh work by talented souls I have yet to meet.
Recently, six such typefaces have been on my mind: two serifs and two sans, plus two display faces that are capable of being subbed in for scripts. Some of these typefaces revive historic forms. Others were only lightly influenced by retro designs. Still others were driven by quirky client requests and technological challenges. But all are decidedly modern and embody the dynamic personalities of their makers. I’d like to introduce you to these faces, which were all designed to enliven any type lover’s collection. Let’s discover the stories behind this versatile typographic sextet, shall we? ca
In March 2016, a newsletter arrived in my inbox, announcing a new typeface by Sibylle Hagmann. I’ve long been a fan of the Swiss-born graphic designer and educator, who runs her independent foundry, Kontour, from her adopted home in Houston, Texas. I immediately clicked to see more.
Kopius is a striking design informed by Hagmann’s research into how isolation and a dearth of resources influenced type development in the German Democratic Republic after World War II. Hagmann was inspired by Herbert Thannhaeuser’s Liberta, an Antiqua type family designed in the 1950s for Dresden’s VEB Typoart, East Germany’s only type foundry. In contrast with the oppressiveness of the times, Liberta evoked a jaunty, open air. While not a strict revival, Kopius expresses the spirit of the saucy Liberta, featuring open, rounded counters and gently curved stems, with a hint of the flat brush playfully warming the Antiqua model.
Charming yet robust, Kopius has been optimized for continuous reading on paper and screen. Hagmann added pictorial elements, such as labels, weight-adjusted arrows and word logos, which act as typographic building blocks. While she envisions Kopius on editorial and packaging, Hagmann is pragmatic about how it will be used.
“Type designers are suppliers of form to shape content, and a typeface is used in any capacity the end user sees fit,” Hagmann says. I can see Kopius a century from now, decorating the weathered brick exterior of a long-shuttered organic grocery store—a ghost sign, faded but resilient, still turning the heads of all who pass by. kontour.com/kopius
When I was treated to a sneak preview of Ramiro Espinoza’s sumptuous Guyot in the fall of 2016, I couldn’t wait to see what this beauty would become. The result of research that Espinoza completed at the Plantin Instituut voor Typografie (Plantin Institute of Typography) in Antwerp, Belgium, Guyot was inspired by the work of French punch cutter François Guyot, who worked in Antwerp during the sixteenth century.
Espinoza also studied the work of seventeenth-century designers like Nicholas Kis and incorporated features like the higher-contrast forms and larger terminals popularized in the later period of the century. Guyot boasts a wealth of typographic features, such as swashes, ligatures and small capitals. The result is a modern twist on a classical serif family, with text and headline cuts refined for legibility.
Espinoza published Guyot in 2017 through Retype, the foundry he runs with Paula Mastrangelo from their studio near The Hague. Before emigrating to the Netherlands in 2003, Espinoza worked as a newspaper designer in his home country of Argentina. He drew on that experience
to fine-tune Guyot for editorial usage.
“I made Guyot sturdy and pointed on purpose, because these attributes are present in the kind of newspaper fonts I like,” Espinoza says. “They need to be strong, contrasted, angular and have a real presence on the page. At the moment, I am working on a more economical version specifically adjusted for the press.”
While Guyot would look right at home on the pages of a glossy magazine, I imagine it making theme parks incredibly classy. With its sturdy, finely cut forms, Guyot would make a capable wayfinding assistant, even as its dramatic swashes inform the shape of one hellacious rollercoaster ride.
Multi Multi Multi! I’d seen it around for awhile—Spanish designer Laura Meseguer developed this warm sans in 2011 on a custom commission for a Dutch newspaper publisher. After reworking and expanding the family, she published the series in 2016 through Type-Ø-Tones, the foundry she helms with José Manuel Urós.
Founded in 1990, Type-Ø-Tones is known for innovative display types driven by Spanish culture and by the art and lettering found in the designers’ surroundings. While Meseguer had released a number of display designs, Multi was her first foray into creating an expansive text family. Meseguer’s typefaces have always been as friendly and interesting as she is; with Multi, she took a position between the humanist and glyphic models, infusing her design with tempered vibrancy. She carefully balanced personality with features designed to enhance readability and economy, such as a generous x-height, shortened ascenders and descenders, and multiple optical sizes.
“It was my aim to find a gesture, a mood and a vitality to match the attributes of dynamism, optimism and originality, which were translated into special features that differentiate Multi from other sans serif typefaces,” Meseguer says. “It has a kind of handmade quality that is reflected in a number of details: the slight flare and asymmetry of the stems; the tilted base; and the relevance that acquires the notch, from almost imperceptible to remarkable, when increasing weight. This gives dynamism to the words and the text.”
Multi’s bountiful charms shine brightest in the heavier weights—we need to see it set big. Perhaps some progressive little city will rebrand and select Multi for its identity. Even the smallest town’s moniker would look majestic and welcoming emblazoned on the side of a water tower in Multi Poster.
I adore “tight but not touching” typography, a style popularized in 1960s and 1970s advertising. When big, open letterforms are lovingly nested together like a puzzle, a word becomes art. In the spring of 2016, I was introduced to an imaginative revival of a midcentury gem typifying
the genre: Forma DJR, by David Jonathan Ross.
Designed by Aldo Novarese with a team of Milanese creatives, Forma was originally published in 1968 by Italy’s Nebiolo foundry as its entry into a market dominated by Swiss neo-grotesques like Helvetica and Univers.
Long an admirer of Forma, publications designer Roger Black thought it would be perfect for his revamp of the Asia Tatler magazines. Ross, then a Font Bureau designer, began drawing the custom versions in 2013, releasing the retail collection under his DJR label in the fall of 2016. Ross and Black’s collaboration benefited from research assistance from Indra Kupferschmid, who unearthed metal Forma in Germany, printing proofs for Ross to study.
Rather than going for a by-the-book digitization of Forma’s metal casting or Novarese’s sketches, Ross integrated some of the artifacts that result from printing ink on paper—slightly rounded corners and gentle swelling at stem ends, for example. He developed Forma DJR in five optical sizes, adjusting spacing and design features to cover a range of applications, from micro text to banner heads.
“Working with our revival’s tight-but-not-touching approach to letterspacing turned out to be surprisingly tricky,” Ross says. “It has to be done more systematically—and with a lot of kerning exceptions. It took a lot of testing to figure how tight it should be in each of the sizes.”
While Forma wasn’t fully appreciated in its time, Ross’s rendition of this Italian import has enough star power to knock its more understated peers off the top of the charts. djr.com/forma
I first encountered OH no Type Co.’s Vulf Mono during the second half of 2016. I took one look at designer James Edmondson’s specimens and the stories behind his new typeface and felt a little overwhelmed—there was a lot to take in. It was a typewriter face, but it flaunted exaggerated serpentine curves. It was monospaced, yet did not appear constrained by that often restrictive zone. It was light, but it had a dark side.
Edmondson had built an impossibly harmonious hybrid typeface, with design details that should conflict, but didn’t. I played a quick word association game. That’s when it came to me—Vulf Mono is the typographic version of the Hydra (but the good kind), multiheaded and wearing many hats.
Vulf Mono was created at the behest of the funk band Vulfpeck, when bandleader Jack Stratton came to Edmondson seeking a bold monospaced font referencing the Light Italic typeface from IBM Selectric typewriters. Edmondson built a four-weight family with italics, a collective as soulful as the music that helped inform the design. At first glance, the enormous ball terminals that tip the strokes of Vulf Mono command all the attention. But a second look reveals intriguingly curved pathways and deftly carved notches making inroads into forms. Vulf Mono bears few straight lines, which is unusual for typewriter faces. The lowercase italic i comfortably straddles the gap between the h and the j. The contradictions work.
“Most people that buy it are fans of Vulfpeck, and they’re not always designers,” Edmondson says. “It’s often the first typeface they’ve ever purchased, so I love that it could be a gateway drug in some way.”
When I first saw Pilot in the summer of 2017, I was reminded of everything I had ever loved about Mistral: a typeface full of energy, movement and humor.
Aleksandra Samuļenkova, a Latvian-born graphic designer who came to the Netherlands by way of Berlin, commenced work on Pilot in 2012 while studying at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. It all began with a TypeCooker recipe. “TypeCooker is a tool by Erik van Blokland which generates a bunch of random parameters for your type sketch,” Samuļenkova says. “One of the parameters in my recipe required me to use only straight lines.”
For her Master Type and Media final project, Samuļenkova discovered that drawing “satisfying” letter shapes using only straight lines is much easier when forms are narrow, so she focused on condensed forms. She spent five years fleshing out Pilot, constantly reworking shapes for fit and appearance, and then released the family with the independent Dutch foundry Bold Monday.
While Pilot may look deceptively retro, Samuļenkova says she was not influenced by vintage type design. “But in the very early stages of my work, I found out that the letterforms I was working on reminded me of a certain genre from a certain time,” she says. That genre was midcentury sci-fi. Anachronistically organic hand lettering and sign painter–style typography were often seen on book covers, movie posters and other 1930s–1950s cultural ephemera depicting the brave new world of the future.
In the ’50s, Pilot would have capably carried the title of a Ray Bradbury novel. Tomorrow, it should be part of the livery dressing the first commuter rocketship shuttling people to coworking spaces in another galaxy. I’ll bet you anything that Samuļenkova would be first on board.