10 Display Faces that Digital Forgot
Because of your enthusiastic response to my last column, I’ve moved up its sequel. In this installment, I’ll be looking at display and decorative faces that were somehow left in the archives when the winds of digital technology swept through the dusty vaults of yesteryear’s metal type foundries.
Of all the thousands of typefaces that are created each year, the lion’s share are display and decorative faces. That’s because these are easier to create than text faces (almost anything goes), and changing fashion demands novel looks at dizzying speeds. What I’ve looked for in assembling the faces shown here, though, are those with the key attribute of versatility, faces that can adapt themselves to a host of environments and situations.
Once again, for lack of a better organizing principal, I’ll take these on in alphabetical order. Wherever possible, I’ve listed the name of the contemporary company that owns the rights to the design, in case you’d like to lobby them directly.
Atlantis Grotesque is an apt name for a face that sank beneath the waves when the Weber type foundry foundered in 1970. Most of the Weber designs (including some familiar ones by Georg Trump: Trump Mediaeval, Schadow, Delphin...) passed to Stempel and then to Linotype, which bought out Stempel’s type department in 1985. A handful of designs passed on to the Johannes Wagner Type foundry. But Atlantis is nowhere to be found.
I would like Atlantis as an alternative to the ubiquitous and rather cold Futura. Its capitals have the monoline austerity of Futura but with a touch of Gill Sans’ warmth, especially in their more generous widths. The lowercase has a taller x-height than Futura and is slightly more condensed, moving away from the rigidly circular modeling of the Renner classic.
In its day, the Atlantis family sported light, medium, and bold weights.
Figure 1: There are lots of typefaces available with the catchy name Atlantis, but none of them are the face shown here. This sample is Atlantis Light.
I admit to a weakness for the faces of Roger Excoffon (such as Antique Olive, Banco, and Mistral), so I can overlook the brouhaha provoked by his Chambord, when the Olive foundry released it in 1945. It borrows brazenly from Peignot, the face designed for Deberny & Peignot a few years earlier by Adolphe Mouron (working under his nom de guerre, A. M. Cassandre), but let’s face it: brazen “borrowing” has a long typographic tradition, and it’s seen a huge upswing with a new generation of “web fonts” that bear eerie resemblances to existing designs.
Anyway, I like Chambord because it has a practical, “normal” lowercase, which makes it more versatile than Peignot. It maintains a slightly nostalgic, slightly French look. In principal, the rights to the design rest with Linotype, who bought them from Olive, sold them to Haas, and then reacquired them when they bought Haas a few years later.
Figure 2: It’s easy to see the resemblance between Chambord and Peignot, but the latter’s purposefully odd use of capital forms among its lowercase gives it a quirkiness that can be a distraction.
Colonia is a fresh sans serif with pen-drawn qualities, and despite dating from 1938, it doesn’t look dated. Many pen-like faces are simply too calligraphic—in a decorative sense—to have the flexibility needed in a good display face. Lydian, made about the same time, is an example.
W. F. Kemper designed Colonia for Ludwig & Mayer, and when the company went under in 1984, its faces were inherited by Fundación Tipográfica Neufville, now part of Neufville Digital, who have not yet chosen to digitize it. Too bad.
Figure 3: Colonia is an attractive and versatile face with both calligraphic and lapidary elements. Its high degree of stress combined with its wide-open counters makes it both bright and fresh.
The only sample I can find for Condensa is the somewhat blurry one-line showing seen in Figure 4, but I want it nevertheless. The only clue my sample book offers to its provenance is that it was at one time manufactured by Monotype.
I like it because it doesn’t look like anything else, and it doesn’t seem to associated with any particular school or epoch. I wouldn’t mind seeing an upright version as well— having only an oblique limits its usefulness—although I suspect that as such it might lose some of its verve.
Figure 4: Condensa is a typeface on the go. It’s active, dynamic, and assertive. Its only problem is that it doesn’t exist anymore.
Ile de France was designed by Enric Crous-Vidal and released by the Fonderie Typographique Française in 1960. It has an incised quality that gives it a sharpness that’s eye-catching but not distracting. In the heavier weights, its thins get only slightly thicker, and the intense contrasts among stroke weights gives it an almost stencil effect. I think the regular weight is the most successful; its lowercase has a playful quality that tempers the more formal capitals.
Figure 5: Typefaces with strong personalities tend to become dated, expressing too firmly the style of their epoch. In a 1960s context, you’d spot Ile de France as an exemplar of its age, but lifted into contemporary use, it doesn’t belie its age.
Is it silly to want a face that looks pretty much like Helvetica simply because it’s not Helvetica? I don’t think so.
Swiss-style faces have become so popular, such a typographic staple, that even substitutes for the overexposed favorites such as Helvetica, Ariel, and Univers have themselves become tired. I love Syntax, but a fresh face would be welcome. A face such as Linea, designed by a Umberto Fenocchio for the Fonderia Tipografica Cooperativa in Milan during the great Swiss-typeface boom of the mid-‘60s.
Linea’s character forms are reminiscent of Helvetica but somewhat more active. It has a hint of informality, ma non troppo, as Umberto might say. In the original, it had several complementary alternative characters, such as an unbarbed G, a one-story a, and a straight-legged R, which are shown in Figure 6. All are nice alternatives to Helvetica’s standards.
Figure 6: Linea is slightly heavier than Helvetica, and close inspection shows a host of differences, from the narrower J to the arms of the K and the generally chubbier-feeling lowercase.
Marso Grotesque is one of those faces that makes you do a double-take. Or triple-take. It looks familiar, but is that Futura? No. Gill Sans? No. It’s, it’s...what the heck is that? It’s Marso, and that familiar/unfamiliar tension is why I like it. It’s the classic sans serif face you’ve never seen before.
Created by Stanislav Marso for the Czech foundry Grafotechna in 1960, it disappeared from sight when this state-supported company had its plug pulled after The Wall came down. The face has also been called Marsova and Marsuv. It’s currently unavailable by any name.
Figure 7: Marso is a lovely face that has great warmth. Simple touches such as the pointed top of the a and g, the bracketed crossbar of the t, and the slight bend to the j give it a humanist touch. The slightly condensed caps add fluidity and take some edge off its geometric forms.
Certain jobs call out for certain kinds of faces, and it’s hard to answer the call for a versatile brush face without brushing up against Dom Casual. Which is why I pine for Pssitt, a perky alternative designed by René Ponot for the Fonderie Typographique Française in the early 1950s. It has that loose, informal sign painter’s style without looking too “grocery store,” if you know what I mean. Pssitt is an animated face that plays fast and loose with the baseline in the lowercase to create great movement.
Figure 8: Pssitt is not a face you can’t live without, but life with it would be more fun. There’s a touch of the Excoffon in the caps, which might be why I have such a soft spot for it.
Tempo is another Futura alternative, with that firm Bauhaus geometry in the uppercase, but with a lightness of spirit in its obliques, especially in the lighter weights. In fact, you might not even recognize Light and Light Oblique as relatives if you weren’t clued in beforehand.
The Tempo family was a workhorse in the days of metal composition, so it’s a mystery why of the whole, extensive family, only Tempo Heavy Condensed is available in digital format these days. Tempo was deigned by R. Hunter Middleton, Ludlow Typograph’s prolific mainstay between the wars.
Figure 9: Tempo was a newspaper and ad standard for decades, largely on the back of Ludlow’s popular composing machines. The lighter weights especially have a generosity of space that Futura lacks.
O.K., so they’re not all in alphabetical order, but I wanted to finish with a sentimental favorite: Oscar.
Aldo Novarese had a reputation for going his own way, and his faces always have a special quality, a Novareseness. Many of his types have been digitized, but not Oscar, which he created for Nebiolo, where he was art director, in Turin in 1966.
Oscar is cozy and familiar without being evocative, nostalgic, or artsy-fartsy. The lowercase letters appear to hover about the baseline despite being rigidly aligned there. The face feels cursive but is resolutely upright. Even the numerals are gorgeous. The lowercase is quite wide, almost as wide as the capitals.
Figure 10: When Fiat bought Nebiolo (they wanted its printing press business), they flogged off the typeface library hither and yon. I’ve been unable to track down the fate of Oscar.
A dedicated typographic Sherlock may be able to track down the rights holders for the designs of these “missing” fonts. But having done so, Sherlock would have to put on an entrepreneur’s hat to convince the current owners to allow any of these faces to be revived in digital format. My hat would be off to anyone with the energy and gumption to do the job, and I don’t think I’d be alone in that.
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