Not Only Helvetica: A History of Polish Fonts
small, A History of Polish Fonts, Cover of 'Paneuropa, Kometa, Hel' by Agata Szydłowska and Marian Misiak, paneuropa_kometa_hel-szydlowska_misiak.jpg
Words portray ideas, while fonts – the spirit of the times. In their book 'Paneuropa, Kometa, Hel' (Pan-Europa, Comet, Helium), Agata Szydłowska and Marian Misiak covered the incredible stories of Polish typography from the 15th century to now. Let’s see what kinds of histories hide behind the letters.
From Polish land to foreign land
The first wave of enthusiasm over moving type hadn’t even settled before work began on creating a new typeface in Poland. Forty years after Gutenberg’s invention, around 1490, Ludolf Borsdorff created the first typeface, Cyrillic. The momentous event took place in Kraków, in Schweipolt Fiol’s print shop, with the tacit financial support of King Kazimierz IV Jagiellończyk. Despite the fact that neither Fiol nor Borsdorff spoke or wrote Old Church Slavonic, the typeface was used as the basis for many Russian typographers.
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The first book using ‘Cyrillic’ from Schweipolt Fiol’s workshop, 1491, photo: courtesy of Karakter
The rights for the project belonged to Borsdorff, the engraver and caster, who was completely loyal to Fiol – a Renaissance man and successful entrepreneur, who gave up his embroidery business for the new venture. Cyrillic was based on manuscripts written before Peter the Great’s death, with influences from the Italian Antiqua (based on the Latin alphabet).
Only four liturgical Bibles were printed in this font. The owner of the printing press was accused of heresy and barred from working with moving type. It’s strange to think that a typeface created for the sole purpose of it came about in a land where the Cyrillic script wasn’t used.
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‘Handbook of Jewish Fonts’, printed in Chaim from Jan Idźkowski’s foundry in Warsaw, ca. 1936; photo courtesy of Karakter
Meanwhile, in Interwar Warsaw – or, to be exact, in Mokotów, by Rejtan Street – the new typeface Chaim was poured into existence. It has since become a pillar of visual culture in Israel.
The self-taught Jan Levitt (also known as Le Witt or Lewitt) was born in Częstochowa in 1907, and towards the end of the 1920s, he lived in Palestine. As a 20-year-old, he returned to Poland and designed a typeface without rounded shapes or lines, choosing Chaim after his Hebrew name. The foundry of Jan Idźkowski, a powerful business magnate, patented Chaim and began exporting it on a global scale to Paris, London, Jerusalem, New York, Johannesburg, Algiers, Tunis and other cities.
As a symbol of modernity, the typeface became a tool in building Israel. To this day, it is used to convey a variety of information: from magazine mastheads to taxi numbers, and even labels conveying warnings on public transport.
From A(ntiqua) to Z(elka)
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Centrefold from ‘Poland’s New Type’; photo: courtesy of Karakter
To gift your homeland an object both necessary and ornamental
– this was the idea driving Jan Januszowski, who, a hundred years after the creation of Cyrillic, undertook the creation of a typeface meant for his own language (trans. AZ). This was a difficult task, which involved ascribing Polish sounds to Latin letters.
In 1594, the result of the experiment was published as a collection of theoretical essays about the new orthography, all published in the font Nowy Karakter Polski (Poland’s New Type). The revolutionary use of slanted typeface and the merging of digraphs into single blocks gave him – rather than the expected fortune – nobility, with the title ‘Kłośnik’. His office, in the style of other European print shops, integrated multiple environments: drawing in poets, politicians, clerics and artisans.
From the end of the 16th century until the Interwar period, there are few reference points in Poland’s history of typography. There were no large-scale printers, and popular devotionals were printed cheaply. Not much use was derived from the typographical project titled Alfabet Bierpfaffa i Falcka (Bierpfaff and Falck’s Alphabet) by a Toruń-Gdańsk duo. The typeface, created in an auricular style, was seen as ‘flirting with the suggestion of every hole in the body’.
Poland’s disappearance from the map at first slowed any desire to create a national typeface. Yet in the 20th century, intellectuals, writers and artists in ‘a distant country once more had the burning desire to create their own sense of self, politically as well as culturally’. This fantasy lured in Joachim Lelewel and Stanisław Wyspiański, but it was Adam Półtawski who finally realized it in 1928.
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Antykwa Półtawskiego (Półtawski’s Antiqua) was cutting-edge without trending into the avant-garde, visually distinctive, made up of gentler shapes than Latin – and inspired by ancient Polish writing. The creator, trained in Kraków, Munich, Paris, Lipsk and Berlin, was heralded as a national hero, and the typeface as:
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[being] an individual piece with a deep national feeling, adjusting its individuality for the good of the whole: resigning of the ease and independence of its neighbour in the West, [it] reaches out its arms for an embrace, with which it wishes to encompass all similar people.
The British firm Monotype became interested in Półtawski’s font – but they uncharitably claim that only one print shop in Wales, also run by two Poles, ever used it.
Władysław Strzemiński’s universal typeface, which debuted toward the end of 1932, was indubitably avant-garde. Stripping the alphabet down to geometric shapes, the painter brought it to the very edge of readability. The name itself, a.r., points to its extreme minimalism. With his radical typeface, Strzemiński beat Western Europe to the punch, where a similar style took root only after World War II, with the advent of computers. In Poland, the suggestion of a new type made room for the more global (judging by the name) Paneuropa, although it was less original, resembling the German Renner’s Futura. It – like many other typefaces – died along with the end of metal type.
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Paneuropa – samplebook from printshop Dom Słowa Polskiego; photo: courtesy of Karakter
In the post-war history of Polish typefaces, it’s worth mentioning Zygryd Gardzielewski’s Antykwa Toruńska (Toruń Antiqua), which debuted in 1958. Decorative and based on the style of historical writing, it contains traces of Toruń gothic. Although it did not reach the popularity of its predecessor by Półtawski, it also stood as an attempt at creating a national font. Antiqua, being a synonym for modernity, placed Poland in the sphere of Latin culture.
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Brochures from Mecanorm displaying samples of Bronisław Zelek’s fonts, photo: courtesy of Karakter
I had a cold. My girlfriend came to visit me, and she filled in a couple of shapes that I had previously drawn. I sent them off to a contest in Paris and won first place,
reminisces Bronisław Zelek, on the beginning of his career with Mecanorm in the 1970s (trans. AZ).
For this poster designer, font was something more important than words or shapes. He claimed that letters ‘haunted’ him; he played with geometry and altered photos. The typeface New Zelek was originally stamped with the number 45, referencing the 45-degree angle of the corners of the letters. The creator’s most commonly disseminated typeface in the pre-digital era was a multiscript typeface – in addition to the Latin letters, it contained those of other alphabets (in the early 1980s, for example, Cyrillic was included).
Modern day has resulted in some successful concepts, and others not so much. Between 1998 to 2006, Artur Frankowski created Grotesk Polski (Polish Grotesque) – a sans-serif version of Antykwa Półtawskiego. Tomasz Wełny’s Apolonia, completed in 2010, received both widespread recognition and criticism from other typographers. Only the delicate and elegant project of Łukasz Dziedzic, ‘with masterful detail and a humanist construction’, received international success in the same vein as New Zelek.
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The font Lato (Summer) was meant to be a visual identifier for banks, but instead, it became a cherished export. When answering the question as to Lato’s appeal, as proven by its billions of uses and downloads, Dziedzic answered:
Due to the lack of unnecessary tinkering with its design and its many fonts. And, of course, because it’s free.
Poland’s Social Insurance Institution has been using the font for its IDs since 2015.
‘Letters speak to us before we can read them’ (M. Misiak)
‘The Money Painter’, ‘Dr Money’, ‘The Big Man of Little Images’ – these are some of the nicknames Andzrej Heidrich has earned. His most notable achievement is the 1971 typeface Bona, but Poles and many foreigners connote his last name with Polish currency, which he has been designing for 50 years.
Heidrich refers to his collaboration with the National Bank of Poland as the ‘adventure of a lifetime’. His work includes passports, the modern national emblem, eagles on military caps, police badges, military badges for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and postage stamps, as well as innumerable book covers (among them, Ryszard Kapuściński).
The first national copywriter was Stefan Żeromski. He penned the title Społem (Together) – in 1906, the author suggested this should be the title for the first biweekly magazine dedicated to propagating the idea of cooperation. The shape of the characters, which smoothly link together, is meant to reflect the meaning of the word. It remains unknown who designed the logo or its 1973 update.
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Logo of LOT Polish Airlines, created by Roman Duszek and Andrzej Zbrożek using Tadeusz Gronowski’s crane logo from 1929, photo: LOT Polish Airlines
During an informal meetup in 1976, Roman Duszek and Andrzej Zbrożek sketched three letters on a napkin – which became a calling card among international ports. After analysing airplanes during takeoff and landing for hours, the result came to fruition as a simple, yet distinctive typography. The logo of LOT Polish Airlines was painted on the plane’s body so large that it could be seen from two kilometres away.
Much earlier, in 1929, Tadeusz Gronowski created the famous crane design that was later adopted by LOT. The symbol became so deeply embedded in people’s consciousness that a plan to remove it from the logo resulted in an online protest titled ‘Hands Off the Crane’. In 2012, the logo was updated, but the pre-war crane remained in its nest (nestled in the letter ‘O’).
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Hand-painted red letters joined together as closely as a crowd – the symbol of Solidarnośc (Solidarity) became a symbol of the fight for freedom. At first, it was only a poster inspired by graffiti. The creator, Jerzy Janiszewski, probably only discovered the fact that it became the logotype of a movement from magazines. The symbol took on a life of its own: it was painted onto banners, leaflets, cigarettes, underwear, all of which Janiszewski received not a penny from.
After Janiszewski added the rest of the alphabet in the style of the slogan, the typeface Solidaryca was born. On the 25th anniversary of free elections, Coca-Cola released a limited-edition bottle with the slogan ‘Taste of Freedom’ – written out, of course, in Solidaryca. The populace took it as a rather ironic commentary on Poland’s transformation, with the ideals of Solidarity being used to promote consumption.
Anti-Orbán protesters in Hungary, a labour union in Great Britain and LGBT shelters all use the typeface. It turns out that Solidaryca is identifiable even when the letters aren’t red or crowded together. It’s not so much the typeface as the style of writing.
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Originally written in Polish by Agnieszka Warnke, translated by AZ, Aug 2019.