Reviewing e-a-t

To the chagrin of typographers the world over, museums have historically avoided mounting exhibitions devoted to type design. In recent years, however, this situation has begun to change, and the traveling e-a-t exhibition (Experiment and Typography) is a step in the right direction. e-a-t, which I viewed at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague during the 2004 ATypI conference, is a retrospective of Czech and Slovak type design from roughly 1984 through 2004.


In order to better understand the significance of e-a-t, it is prudent to compare it with Europe’s last major type design exhibition, which closed this past July. Fresh Fonts, mounted at the Museum of Design in Zurich, Switzerland, recapped trends in Swiss type design from the last ten years. In comparison to Eastern European typographers, Swiss designers have long enjoyed a fabled reputation the world over, mostly for their championing of the International Style during the 1950s and 60s, and for the Basel rebellion against it during the 70s and 80s. As an exhibition, however, Fresh Fonts came up short. Creating what was probably an honest overview of work from mid-90s onward, curators grouped together two disparate styles within one hall. These two groups seemed to represent the two largest trends within Swiss type design: first, the small group of older designers who develop corporate type families for large international corporations (such as Siemens or BMW), and secondly, the “new new wave” of Swiss graphics, who are chiefly represented by the Lineto collective. Stylistically different, the only thing in common between these two groups of designers on display at the Museum for Design seemed to be their passports. Perhaps this is a metaphor for the entire Switzerland as a whole.

The later group on display at the Fresh Fonts exhibition, the young Swiss designers, champions a distinct new direction within contemporary graphic design—and a disturbing one at that. Retreating back into pure formalism, these designers view type design as little more than a funny game. Creating obscure rules that are as simple as possible and often known only to themselves, these designers work in a narrow graphic language, speaking only to their inner group. Although technologically very proficient, and often groundbreaking, this work addresses few of the problems that occupy the minds of most type designers throughout the world.

Between 1984 and the present, Czech and Slovak designers have experienced turmoil that would be wholly unimaginable in Switzerland. Their work from this period remains virtually unknown—both within their two respective countries as well as abroad. As an American, I must confess that until recently—like my infamous President—I would have had a hard time differentiating Slovakia from Slovenia on a map, and my knowledge of the whole region remains inadequate. In fact, I often miss the simplicity of the word »Czechoslovakia«. In conversation, I often still speak that name out when I really mean the Czech Republic or Slovakia, only to curse myself for the oversight immediately afterwards.

Thankfully, I seem not to be the only designer who thinks that these two countries must have something in common; the e-a-t exhibition was born out of a desire to culturally reunite the designers of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, who often wonder why they were split apart from each other in the first place. This reuniting, in my opinion, is a good thing; there is power in numbers. It also seems to be in concert with the ideas behind the European Union, which both of these countries officially joined in May 2004.

As unknown as Czech and Slovak type design may be, any type nerd will tell you that the former Czechoslovakia’s tradition of quality and experimentation in the realms type design and typography ranked among the best in the world, but its key players have never received the international recognition that they deserved. This history, which included such luminaries as Vojtech Preissig, Oldrich Menhart, and Josef Tyfa, did not end with their retirements. Over the past 20 years, a new crest of talent has risen in the east. Some of its best examples have gained footholds in western discussion circles thanks in large part to the Internet. Peter Bilak, now living in the Netherlands, and Frantisek Storm, living in Prague, have both become figureheads of the new, privately-run electronic foundry scene. This small, private foundry movement was in fact pioneered by an other Slovakian designer, Zuzana Licko. Although Emigre isoften seen as an American, or even Californian phenomenon, Licko was born in Slovakia, and her participation in this exhibition added a wonderful degree of gravitas that should not be overlooked.

But e-a-t contained work from more than just these better-or-lesser-known designers. In all, over 35 designers participated. Their work was displayed mainly via a series of posters, white paper printed over with black and blue type. These large-scale type specimens depicted the name of their respective designers and typefaces at the top, followed by a descriptive showing of the typeface in Czech, Slovak, or English. This composition was rounded out at the bottom with character set listings, more detailed information, and necessary translations. Not all of the designs on display have been commercially released. Perhaps as word of this exhibition spreads, more Czech and Slovak designers will begin to form stronger relationships with commercial type foundries. Or, they might follow the leads of many of their companions in the exhibition, and start foundries of their own.

Six of the typefaces presented in the large poster format described above deserve special notice here. The first of these typefaces is Rebekah, which is based off of 13th Century Italian bastarda scripts. Instead of simply quoting the past, Czech designer Jana Horackova engaged in a dialogue with it: In order to adapt these old scripts to contemporary typographic needs, she made several changes to them. First, she designed a new set of capitals; although these are not medieval in their origins, they complement the lowercase quite well in vision and spirit. Additionally, Horackova devised a system to make the typeface work optically well in a multitude of sizes by creating four different optically sized fonts for the typeface.

RePublic is a revival of the type family Public, which was designed by Stanislav Marso in 1955. At that time, the Public typefaces were used to set the text of a Czechoslovak Communist party newspaper, Rudé Právo, ensuring that its design would be hated forever. In order to challenge perceptions of the past Tomas Brousil and Radek Sidun resurrected Public’s design 48 years later in a remake for the Suitcase Type Foundry. The new RePublic contains significantly more weights than the original Public had at its disposal. Public had always been considered a legible text face, reason enough to consider reworking it—despite its past associations (as any German type designer would tell you, you cannot blame a typeface for the connotations thrown on top of it by past politicians). Design alone can be judged on its own merit, too. By knowingly engaging this despised party-organ typeface, Brousil and Sidun mirror their greater societies as a whole, as they sift through their shared experience to try hold on to the parts of Communist lif that may have actually been useful.

Adriq, the first PostScript typeface produced in Czechoslovakia, was designed at the Prague Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design by Andrej Krátky in 1988. Drawing severe, narrow calligraphic letterforms that all sport an almost wedge-shaped serif style, Krátky developed this dynamic, constructed type family. In addition to the Roman, Adriq has both a Kursive style (an upright italic), as well as a true Italic.

The pixilated Emigre is a typeface that, due to its renowned status in the history of graphic design, requires no great elaboration. Yet still, despite its familiarity, I was thrilled to see a place reserved for it in the e-a-t exhibition. Emigre was most condensed of the coarse-resolution (bitmap) typefaces that Zuzana Licko designed in 1985. This typeface series not only helped launch the new age of graphic design on the Macintosh, but also influenced later works by a multitude of new typeface designers, including Licko herself.

Fedra was one of the few better-known typefaces that was part of the e-a-t exhibition. Designed by Peter Bilak from 2001 to 2004 in the Netherlands, Fedra is an extensive family whose forms are not only unabashedly inspired by contemporary graphic communication styles, but also by the new font technologies that back them up. Perhaps more than any of the other recently designed typefaces on display, Fedra has attracted attention by designers around the world. As Bilak continues to expand this family, it is likely that its various styles will appear more often in a variety of design applications and countries.

The last design that caught my attention was not a typeface per se, but a collection of symbols. Via Dolorosa, not yet a working font, is a »pictographic library« that contains nine different variations for each of 14 Stations of the Cross. Each variation abstracts its Station further. While the first iteration of a Station is depicted in quite a literal graphic style, the last is only identifiable as a specific Station when it is seen in conjunction with the other symbols (either the other Stations in its style, or the previous stylistic variations). Via Dolorosa was designed by Martin Bajanik.

Within the rooms’ interior spaces, additional items and sketches were displayed under glass. Sketches are always a treat to look at, as they form a window into a designer’s minds and working styles. My favorite sketch was one made for Hrana, a typeface on display from Daniel Markovic. Hrana is a design along similar lines to one of Preissig’s types from earlier in the 20th Century, and in Markovic’s sketch, one can get a glimpse of the handwork and craft necessary to draw a face with such a style. Another prominent work on display in the gallery was Radana Lencová’s Dancing Ornament, a piece which can be described as part collage, part wall hanging, and part mosaic. It seems to take the form of an Islamic tiled floor that has been lifted off of the ground and hung vertically, so that one coul walk around it and view it from both side. While its size was very impressive, and Islamic tile motifs can often appear very typographic, I’m still not sure exactly how this piece fit into the exhibition’s overall theme and intent.

A fair amount of student work was also on display, mostly scattered in between font catalogues, magazine mock-ups, and other real-life examples of typefaces in use. This scattering and intermixing was a bit confusing; in some cases, it was difficult to tell which pieces were made by students, and which were from their teachers. However, it shows what sort of experimental crucible the Czech and Slovak design landscape is: professionals, as well as students, remain engaged in their search to create something new.

The work displayed in e-a-t dealt with many themes: identity, relationships with past, legibility, experimentation, technology, art, self-expression and learning. Sadly, many of these themes were lacking in the Swiss Fresh Fonts exhibition. When viewing a showing of type design work from Switzerland, one still feels like one is entering a church, so strong is the impression that formal experimentation is the only necessary element within their design process. On the other hand, walking into e-a-t at the Museum of Decorative Arts felt like a breath of fresh air—the experience of viewing the work felt more like attending a party, as if one were thoroughly in the secular sphere instead of in a quasi-theological one. Perhaps part of this distinction can be traced to the sponsors of the individual exhibitions themselves. Although e-a-t has traveled through various Czech and Slovak museums, it was not funded by any of them. In contrast to the Fresh Fonts exhibition, which was created and financed by the Zurich Museum of Design, e-a-t was organized and paid for entirely by two individuals. Yet despite this handicap, they were still able to create an experience that offered a more dramatic effect.

Church-book theology, or creative enlightenment: which sort of exhibition would you rather attend?


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