Polish (Type)faces – Fonts from the Land of Vistula
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From dusty old prints to homey pork knuckle – Polish font makers seem to know no limits when it comes to their sources of inspiration. Here’s a glance at some of the more significant events in Polish typography, past and present.
PÓŁTAWSKI: 'In one’s own slim students’ apartment'*
The apartment in question was the place in Leipzig where young Adam Półtawski (1881-1952) conducted his very first serious experiments in the art of printing. Thoroughly educated in the natural sciences, as well as the history of art and painting, he had studied at universities in Poland and in Germany. He polished up his printing skills under the watchful eye of Zenon Przesmycki, as they collaborated on editing the acknowledged Chimera magazine. The 1920s brought him a golden medal at the Exposition of Decorative Arts in Paris, which was presented to Półtawski for his work on Unija Horodelska (The Union of Horodlo).
From 1924, Półtawski worked on creating the Polish Antiqua – a typeface which was meant to render the particular character of Polish letter design, while also considering the special characters and the frequency of use of particular letters in the so-called Polish column. Comparing it with the Latin column, Półtawski noted that the Polish one was dominated by diagonal lines. Thus the point of departure for his project were the four most frequently used letters: w, k, y, z. Półtawski developed a more delicate appearance for these, as he transformed the sharp diagonals into flounce-like arches. This also allowed for a more condensed line of text. The resultant typeface, named the Półtawski Antiqua was widely in use in Poland through to the 1980s.
STRZEMIŃSKI: 'Those who think may guess'
'B?, that’s a line, where are the two bellies?', the astonished Cześnik asks Dyndalski in a famous letter-writing scene from Aleksander Fredro Zemsta (The Revenge). 'One’s at the bottom and the other on top', the servant replies , in response to which Cześnik comments 'Those who think may guess'. The same scene could serve as an illustration of Komunikat (Message), an avant-garde artistic experiment with type conducted by Władysław Strzemiński in 1930. The new lettering he proposed was so radical that at first glance it was completely unreadable. Deciphering the scrip was only possible through a special system proposed by Strzemiński - after getting oneself acquainted with the system, the shapes slowly began to gain meaning. Komunikat was not so much a proposition of a new typeface but rather a somewhat authoritarian system of communicating only through this code. The letters, based on the priority of standardised elements – lines and arches – were reduced to signs that barely resembled their original references.
By postulating a 'functional type', the artist declared a renunciation of any ornament in printing, and postulated an extremely minimalist aesthetic. But in spite of Strzemiński’s visionary postulates, his type was not commonly used. In 2004, a somewhat modified version of the original was digitalized by Artur Frankowski. And in 2012, Przemek Dębowski also reminded readers of the font by putting it on the cover of Piotr Rypson’s book about Polish graphic design, Nie gęsi. The title was featured on the cover in the Komunikat type, with a somewhat more readable version underneath.
ZELEK: Craving letters
In the 1970s and 80s, public space was "conquered" by Zelek, a typeface created by Bronisław Zelek for Mecanorm. An artist renowned for his posters, Zelek always showed great skill in the pairing of images with lettering. In his works, letters bite into the image, building dramatic tension such as the one in his famous piece Głód (Hunger). Zelek created a few versions of his flag font – there is the basic Zelek MN, Zelek Black, a three-dimensional Zelek Shadline and a contoured Zelek Boldline. All of these variations were distinguished with their own meaty, rounded silhouettes. In the New Zelek MN, a later edition of the original project created by the author some years later, the artist also introduced a square and diagonal rhythm, adding a dynamic character to the font.
FRANKOWSKI: From the grotesque through to pork knuckle
Artur Frankowski returns to many elements of historic typography in his Polish Grotesque project. Frankowski has been designing the one-element sans-serif typeface from 1998 through to 2006. It was based on the idea of the Polish antiqua with its typical arches, while attempting to give it a more modern look.
The Silesiana type, created in 2006, is another example of a font made for the specific needs of a given place, region and language. Created in collaboration with Henryk Sakwerda, Silesiana was meant to be used on special occasions and for diplomas, certificates and documents, but above all, it was meant to be a typically Silesian type. And in order to establish what this desired "Silesian" character was meant to be, students examined old regional prints. The resultant typeface was meant of be evocative of calligraphy:
'Silesiana is based on cancellaresca - a Latin chancellor cursive lettering, but it also has a distinct form of its own' - Frankowski explains
Silesiana strikes the viewer with the hearty finish of the letters’ shapes, making it an expressive type. Indeed, it was this historic and ornate character of Silesian writing that Frankowski and Sakwerda sought to capture in their project. In 2006, Silesiana brought them the grand prix of the Śląska Rzecz (Silesian Thing) competition in the graphic design category.
Together with Magdalena Frankowska, since 2004 Artur Frankowski makes up the Fontarte duo. The couple draw inspiration from earlier Polish typographic achievements, as well as the surrounding urban world. Basing their projects on the works of Berlewi, Strzemiński and Stażewski, Frankowski reinterprets their endeavours. The couple’s fascination with Warsaw’s public space and its very chaotic lettering has resulted in projects such as FA Golonka, which playfully alludes to the lettering present in inexpensive self-service diners (the so-called bary mleczne, literally meaning milk bars) in the 1980s.. Another fun project is the FA Saturator font, which toys with the convention of DIY urban advertising signs.
young polish designers
DZIEDZIC: A good summer
At some point between playing in a band, designing the layout of the Gazeta Wyborcza daily, being an assistant to a carpenter, and occasional performances with theatre troupes, Łukasz Dziedzic discovered his own passion for designing fonts. He has created types both as recognisable as the one used for EMPIK’s logo and visual identification, and as large as the Good project – one of the largest font families in the world, which took him several years to complete. Commenting on the universal character of his FF Good, Łukasz Dziedzic explains:
You can put together an entire newspaper with it – from headings through basic text, schemes, infographics, TV programmes, and horoscopes, to minor ads. And you could even use it for the layout of a couple of newspapers, and still have them differ from each other.
His 2010 font, Lato (meaning 'summer' in Polish), is an elegant yet undoubtedly modern project, and, according to the author, one based on classic harmony. While taking up work on Lato once again in 2013 and in 2014, together with Andrzej Twardoch, Dziedzic expanded the family even further. As a result, it can now be used for more than 100 languages based on the Latin alphabet, and for more than 50 languages which use the Cyrillic script. The font has been made available through the creative commons open licence, allowing for its free use. The idea behind Lato is based on a game of opposites – the coexistence of a disciplined structure with rounded detail, compared by Dziedzic to masculine and feminine elements, as he describes Lato as
(…)Serious, but friendly(…)
*Jan Muszkowski, Antykwa polska Adama Półtawskiego, Towarzystwo Bibljofilów Polskich, (Polish Bibliophiles Society), 1932.
Author: Agata Morka, July 2014, translated with edits by Paulina Schlosser, 3/08/2014