["Philosophies of Form in Seriffed Typefaces of Adrian Frutiger" originally appeared in Fine Print: The Review For The Arts of The Book, October 1988. I still admire the seriffed types and still feel they are under-appreciated, so I'm posting the essay here for readers who may have missed the first go-round.]
by Charles Bigelow
IN COMPARISON to modern fine arts, typeface design seems at first glance to be lacking in self-expression. The canons of acceptable alphabet shape and proportion have been so established through centuries of precedence that deviations from the norm can vitiate the utility of a typeface. Hence, the contemporary text type designer cannot break with tradition as readily as a painter or sculptor.
Yet, deeper study of the art of type design reveals, beneath a superficially arid canopy, a world lush with diversity. Within the traditional confines of typography - abstraction, achromaticity, and utility - the interplay of created forms can reveal the personal style of an original designer, if not as an unvarying theme, then as a pattern of family resemblances.
Such a pattern is readily evident in the work of Adrian Frutiger. Over the past thirty years he has produced a series of text typefaces which, despite their external differences, appear to be related when examined closely. Just as individual members of the human species may differ in musculature, proportion, clothing, and complexion, but are alike in possessing a similarly articulated skeleton, so the type designs of Frutiger often share a similar internal architecture.
The textural quality of a typeface is like the timbre of a musical instrument, and the individual letters are like musical notes. A text composed in one typeface can look very different when composed in another because a complex visual sensation emerges from the repetition and interaction of nearly subliminal design features of the type. Frutiger's exploration of manifold type forms delights the eye with textural variations and deepens the understanding with abstract forms that express their distinctive meanings.
A typeface design is a system of variations. The particular features and combination of form elements in a given face create an effect that has meaning - not phonic or verbal, like that signified by the letter shapes themselves - but graphic. Most readers understand at least a small set of graphic meanings based on variations within a typeface family or between families: italic versus roman; bold versus normal weight; seriffed versus sans serif; but Frutiger leads us further into a realm of varied halftones, delicate patterns, and subtle textures, all built up from simple form elements. His work is an exploration of a realm where one thinks not about forms but with forms, and his typeface designs are philosophies expressed not in a language of words but in a language of images. The look of a type in text is a complex graphic expression that is not the content of the text; rather it is an ephemeral yet necessary accompaniment, a visual sensation that is forgotten once the text has been read, as a wrapping is discarded after the gift has been opened, or a glass set aside after the wine has been drunk.
Though Frutiger's most popular designs have been the sans serifs Univers and Frutiger, his seriffed faces constitute an equally significant and useful body of work. Here we review three seriffed families, Iridium, !cone, and Breughel, designed by Frutiger for photographic and digital composition. But to begin, a brief look at his recent sans serif may help to introduce Frutiger's approach to type design.
BY THE 1970s, the grotesque style sans serifs of the 1950s Univers, Helvetica, and Folio began to look dated, and typographers searching for a fresh look in the post-modern period were presented with a new sans by Frutiger. Originally designed for the signage of the Charles de Gaulle airport at Roissy, the new family was adopted for photocomposition in 1976 by Linotype, and eponymously christened Frutiger. The Roissy-Frutiger face shows Frutiger's second thoughts about the nature of sans serif. It is not a grotesque, but a humanist style of sans, like Edward Johnston's London Underground lettering, Eric Gill's Sans, or Hans Meier's Syntax. In its inner lines, Frutiger echoes the old-style forms of the renaissance more than the constructive symmetries of nineteenth century industrialism. The counters of a, c, e, g ands are more open than in the grotesque style, differentiating the letters for easier discrimination. The shapes of the counters, though different from those of Univers, also show sensitive sculpting and refined simplicity. The capitals are old style in form and proportion, closer to roman inscriptional majuscules than to nineteenth-century upper case. Compared to grotesque faces, the pattern of Frutiger in text is more lively because the letter forms are not subordinated to the strict grotesque principle that calls for equalization of widths, especially in capitals, and assimilation of lower case forms in which round letters like c and e tend to be closed, resembling o, and slightly condensed, thus resembling straight letters like n. Frutiger produces more distinctive word images because the widths of letters are more variable; it is less linear in emphasis because the terminals of curved strokes end with vertical rather than horizontal cuts, and more liberated in feeling, because the letter shapes are more varied.
IRIDIUM is a seriffed design in the modern or neoclassical style, produced by Linotype in 1972 for photographic typesetting technology. Frutiger used the photocomposition medium to experiment not only with the shapes of the letters, but with the basic features of the design style. A style comprises many characteristics, some essential, some not. An essential characteristic of the neoclassical style is its chiaroscuro, strong dark stems contrast with thin, delicate hairlines and serifs. Other important features are an emphasis on bilateral symmetry, a vertical axis in shading or stress (orientation of thick and thin), and a sculptural rather than calligraphic treatment of joins, terminals, and similar details. A less important characteristic, but one emphasized in most revivals of modern faces, like ATF Bodoni, is rigid rectangularity of unbracketed stems and serifs, aligned in strictly vertical and horizontal directions.
In Iridium, Frutiger separates the essential from the nonessential. He retains the thick-thin contrast of the modern style, its symmetric structure, and sculpted treatment, including bulbous terminals of curves in such letters as a, c, f, g, j, and r. Frutiger repudiates the monotonous rectangularity by fashioning stems and serifs that flare'" gently toward their extremes, and he softens their intersections with slight bracketings. In the lower case, the ascender and x-line serifs are not strictly horizontal, but angled slightly, a feature associated more with transitional than modern faces. The resulting face has the expected glittery brilliance of a modern, but also exhibits an unusual liveliness. Where a pedestrian modern like ATF Bodoni is stiff, static, and predictable, Iridium is supple, dynamic, and refreshing.
Iridium Italic is a true cursive, rather than a slanted roman. Like the italics of Bodoni or Didot, the lower case has near horizontal entrance serifs at the ascender and x-lines, and curved exit serifs at the base line. Bulb terminals appear on s, k, v, w, x, y, and z, in addition to those also found in the roman. Rounded vertices on the v and w, familiar in roundhand script, soften a potentially pointy appearance. In all typefaces, it is not just the contrast between thick and thin, but the distribution of weight, the arrangement of dark and light, that determines the pattern presented to the eye of the reader. In traditional moderns like Didot, as well as most revivals of the style, the vertical stems and curved bowls are often assimilated into an excessively vertical, monotonous pattern. In Iridium, a reverse entasis is created by thickening the stems at their terminals and arches and thinning them in the middle ; this differentiates the straight stems from the curved bowls where weight accumulates in the middle of the stroke. Iridium thus replaces the picket-fence pattern of traditional moderns with a softer, more complex texture, in which weight is distributed along the base line, x-line, ascender line, and capital line.Bodoni, like all type designers before the end of the nineteenth century, cut his own punches in steel by hand. Frutiger, who throughout his lettering career has shown himself to be handy with a knife and graver, cut the final, master designs for Iridium by hand in a photo-mask film. Although it is difficult to say how much the small personal touches of Frutiger's hand-cutting would affect the printed image of a letter passed through several photographic processes on its way to a page of paper, his technique shows that even in an industrial era far from the days of William Morris, the artist can involve himself in the craft.
Although Iridium is a radical departure from most plodding revivals of the modern style, an examination of Bodoni's faces shows that the maestro himself was not as rigid and doctrinaire as his imitators. Many of Bodoni's own cuttings exhibit slightly flared serifs, subtle bracketing, and delicate deviations from a strictly constructive technique. Bodoni himself had his eye on the total effect more than a particular technique when he wrote that the modern style should show "regularity, neatness and polish, good taste, and grace." Certainly these qualities are also evident in Iridium.
*The slight flaring of serifs noticeable in the photocomposition original of this face are not apparent in the digital rendering of Iridium in this article.
ON ALL SIDES in the modern world, we are confronted by the tyranny of the rectangle. The wall, the ceiling, the floor, the window, the newspaper, the book, the magazine, the photograph, the painting, the sidewalk, the street, the building, the cabinet, the box, the crate, etc. The opposition between the rectangle, a conceptual, cultural artifact, and the freely complex curves of nature is more than a pythagorean abstraction.
The economic and political battle between environmentalists and lumber companies, for example, is in part a struggle between the geometry of the free form and that of the rectangle. When a tree is "saved," it remains a living organism with an intricately complex geometry. When it is lost, it becomes a bunch of rectangles - boards, panelling, shingles, and even sheets of paper. In the aesthetic politics of contemporary graphic design, the sans serif face, whose rectangular, constructed forms suggest modernism, technocracy, and commerce, is often opposed to the old style seriffed face, whose cursive, curving forms derived from handwritten origins, suggest classicism, calligraphy, and humanism.The rise of digital typographic technology initially appeared to be a victory for the side of the rectangles. The beautiful, freeform curves of classical faces were mutilated on the procrustean grid of digital rasters, chopped into rectangular bits like french-fried potatoes in a fast-food franchise. In opposition to this trend, Frutiger designed a face almost wholly comprised of complex curves, Icone, released by Linotype in 1980 for photographic and digital typesetters.
The stems of Icone flare emphatically toward their terminals, and the flares are asymmetric, stronger at the upper left entrances and lower right exits of strokes, echoing the ductus of a carolingian or humanist hand. The only straight lines in the lower case are brief horizontal terminations of strokes at the base line, ascender line, cap line, and x-line, occasional crossbars, and brief vertical terminations of curves in letters like c and s. In the capitals, straights appear only in the horizontal arms and crossbars of letters like E and H, and in the middle sections of vertical stems. Icone remains a challenge to digital technology, but today (1988) there are high resolution digital typesetters that can render it crisply and faithfully. The style of Icone is difficult to classify. Its name comes from the Greek word for a likeness or image, though like all alphabets descended from the Greek, its letters are abstract and symbolic. If Icone is an image, its representation can only be at a rarefied level of abstraction, an evocation of patterns seen in the leaves of a tree against the sky, in the trails of insects skittering across the surface of a pond, or in seeds sprouting in a spring garden. Linotype lumps Icone together with Decorative and Display faces in its recent type catalog, but the face clearly does not belong together with such aberrations as Souvenir and Korinna, those bizarre products of fevered pre-World War I delusions, which have lately come back from oblivion to trouble our reading lives.*Icone more obviously derives from a classical lettering tradition - its pen-written ductus is clear - but the puzzle is to identify the kind of pen writing, for the face is just as obviously not a direct interpretation of any actual historical hand. Accumulation of weight at terminals and asymmetric flarings are reminiscent both of rustic and gothic scripts with their variable but usually steep pen angles, but the horizontal terminals with flat base line and x-line recall the uncial, with its flat pen angle. Both the capitals and lower case of Icone are generously wide, and the pattern of the alphabet in text is, despite its unfamiliarity, charmingly legible. A quality that contributes to legibility at small sizes, but which is discernible only at larger sizes, is the distinctive sculpting of internal counters, a technique found in all of Frutiger's faces. The light and normal weights (45 and 55) are appropriate for text composition, and the bold and extra black weights (65 and 85) for display. Each weight has a companion italic that is an oblique rendering of the roman. Lining figures are provided for use with capitals, and old-style figures for lower case.
Icone has been used with taste and sensitivity in publications and posters for French national museums by Bruno Pfaeffli, a Swiss-trained typographer who has been Frutiger's studio partner for many years. The Icone family would find greater acceptance among American typographers if Linotype and Frutiger provided in addition to the chancery-style lower case g, an alternative, humanist (two-looped) g for the romans, thus neutralizing the objection that Icone is not a serious text face because its g is like that of most sans serifs.
LIKE ICONE, Breughel is a challenge to typographic taxonomy and technology, and an invitation to the innovative typographer to explore new textures on the printed page. Linotype, which produced the family in 1982, classes it with the renaissance faces, Venetians and old-styles like Centaur, Bembo, and Garamond. But where Centaur is erratic in its asymmetry, Breughel is purposeful. Where Bembo is polished, Breughel is rough-hewn. Where Garamond is delicate, Breughel is strong.
The incunabular punchcutters Jenson and Griffo diverted the cutting of roman types away from the pen-written ductus, and their techniques were refined by Garamond. Base-line serifs of lower case - asymmetric in humanist script - were assimilated to those of capitals, made more symmetrical, and refined. In contrast, the base-line serifs of Breughel are asymmetrical. Strong parallelograms, heavier than the hairlines, are short and bracketed on the left, long and unbracketed on the right. Serifs at the x-line and ascender line are similar horizontal parallelograms, long, bracketed, and extending to the left, rather than the triangular shapes common to renaissance types.The pen angle used to write the humanist minuscule was approximately 30 degrees, which gives a backward tilt to the elliptical counters of curved letters like o, as well as an oblique distribution of weight that is also found, to a lesser extent, in arched letters like n. As the roman typeface evolved, this virtual angle was flattened and the weights made more balanced. But in Breughel, the tilted counters and obliquely weighted curves and arches indicate letterforms written with a broad-edged pen.The stems of renaissance types, cut rather than written, were straighter and more regular than scribal pen strokes, but the stems of Breughel are emphatically curved and bracketed on their left. Thus, while the old-style faces evolved toward equilibrium, the forms of Breughel have been set in motion along the line of the scribe's hurrying hand. The capitals are classical and well formed in their structure, but share the asymmetrical flared stems and parallelogram serifs of the lower case, emphasizing the dynamic pattern of the face.
Breughel Italic is a true cursive, but does not follow renaissance models. It is neither the humanist cursive that Griffo cut for Aldus in Venice, nor the formal chancery developed by Arrighi and used by Blado in Rome, nor the Basle italic perfected and standardized by Granjon in Lyon, Paris, and Antwerp. Its most striking feature is that its base-line serifs are not curved upward but flat. They are the same parallelogram shapes as the roman serifs, but extend only toward the right, with a pronounced bracket. Like Icone, Breughel has lining figures that align with the capitals as well as old-style figures that ascend and descend, for composition with the lower case.
Culminating in the work of Garamond, the renaissance punchcutters progressively sought lightness and refinement. But Frutiger has given Breughel a strong color, even in the lightest of its three weights, decimal 55. The bolder weights, 65 and 75, are primarily for display.
In its strength, its oblique distribution of weight, its asymmetry, and its rough-hewn forms, Breughel is closer to a humanist writing hand than a renaissance typeface. Yet, though the ductus and features of Breughel seem to have bypassed the renaissance punchcutters and come to us directly from a pen-written past, it cannot have been our own scribal past. Though Breughel en masse has textural affinities with manuscripts written by humanist scribes like Antonio di Mario or Gherardo del Ciriagio, neither its roman letters nor its italic could have been written by those humanist hands. The precision of the shapes is closer to engraving than to writing. The repeated features are more rational and regular than in humanist hands derived from an arbitrary combination of inscriptional capital and carolingian minuscule. The complex stem shapes would require a wearying twisting of the pen instead of the quick rhythmic strokes favored by the professional scribe. It would seem that the forms of Breughel stem from some alternate humanist past, a probability world that did not quite exist until Frutiger discovered it.And indeed, our world today, the world of laser printers and typesetters, bitmap CRT display screens, and digital type, is not the world of the humanist scribes, and the letterforms of one may not live in the other. Like the head of Janus, Breughel faces in both directions. The leading edge of its stems is straight and clear, adapted to the digital grid, but the trailing edge is strongly curved, remembering the articulation of the scribe's hand. Its serifs are thick and flat, aligned with the low-resolution raster, but their shapes are elongate parallelograms, miming the movement and angle of the pen that might have made them. The contours of its counters are composed of almost natural curves, but interrupted by straight, mechanical cuts, like a flower petal sliced by a knife edge.
As with Icone, Frutiger's studio partner, Bruno Pfaeffli, has used Breughel to advantage in publications and posters for French museums, but in America the face still awaits designers of perception and skill to exploit it fully. Perhaps they will arrive with the new generation entering typography armed with personal computers, laser printers, and enthusiasm. Newcomers with wide open eyes could find in the faces of Frutiger a deep well of inspiration, and use the manifold forms of his designs in ways that we who were raised in a sterner school might never imagine, blinkered as we are by the glint of type metal and distracted by reflections off the crystal goblet.
* Each section in this article discusses a different Frutiger typeface and is set in that face. The introduction, however, is set in Méridien, originally a hot metal face produced by Deberny & Peignot in 1957. [This blog version includes the illustrations of the types, but the text is not composed in the typefaces under discussion.]
** Today's popular ITC Souvenir is a 1970 reworking of Morris Fuller Benton's ATF Souvenir of 1914, which itself was an American semi-plagiarism (a reworking with some design changes) of Schelter Antiqua and Kursiv produced c. 1912 by the Leipzig foundry of Schelter and Giesecke. In Asymmetric Typography (Reinhold, 1967 [the English translation of Typographische Gestaltung, 1935]), Jan Tschichold, chief proponent of the modern movement in typography, shows a page from the German printing magazine Deutscher Buch- und Steindrucker, and writes, "Example of German typography (1922) before the advent of Jan Tschichold's New Typography. Disgust with such degenerate type faces and arrangements led the author to attempt to eradicate them entirely." The majority of faces on that page are Schelter Antiqua and Kursiv.
Frutiger, Adrian. Type Sign Symbol, with contributions by Maurice Besset, Emil Ruder, and Hans Rudolf Schneebeli. Zurich: ABC Editions, 1980.
Frutiger, Adrian. Der Mensch und seine Zeichen. Edited by Horst Heiderhoff. Echzell, West Germany: Horst Heiderhoff Verlag; 3 vols., 1978-81. French edition, Des signes et des hommes. Denges (Lausanne): Editions Delta & Spes, 1983.
LinoType Collection; Mergenthaler Type Library, Typeface Handbook. Eschborn, West Germany (Postfach 5660, D-6236), 1988.
Heiderhoff, Horst. "Formen und Gegenformen: Gestatungseinheiten im Leben des Schriftkünstlers Adrian Frutiger." In Gutenberg-Jahrbuch 1985. Mainz: Gutenberg Gesselschaft, 1985. [This reference was not in the original Fine Print article.]
[The seriffed faces can be seen on the Linotype web site: