I am often asked the question “what is your favourite typeface?” – the truth is that it depends on the mood I’m in. Sometimes I prefer something refined, like a Bembo, Dante, or Centaur. On other days I would like nothing better than a nice fat Rockwell or Clarendon, and occasionally it has to be a plain sans serif – no fuss, no schmuss. But if I were told that I could only take one typeface to a desert island, and that I’d have to live with it for the rest of my life, there is only one choice: Univers.
Ever since I first started learning about type during my apprenticeship as a typesetter, I appreciated the clarity of Univers. It is a truly modern typeface, modernistic even, that has prevailed in the nearly fifty years since its release. Every stroke and curve is drawn with purpose and confidence; in my opinion, Univers is about as perfect as it gets.
It was during my studies at Basel School of Design that I really learned to understand typeface design, and the discipline that it takes to create letters that effortlessly work with each other. It was also during my time at Basel School that I had the opportunity to meet Adrian Frutiger, in his Paris office where he was working at the time. I received a warm welcome and after some minutes chatting about my background we soon fell into an easy discussion. The memory which sticks with me from that afternoon is that throughout our entire conversation we did not speak about type, but we did speak about art.
I learnt that in order to balance the discipline and restraint required to make great typefaces, Adrian Frutiger enjoyed creating abstract artworks. He would draw and paint shapes, or create lino prints, usually one- or two-colour. The only concession to type that I could see in his artwork was the precision with which the shapes were drawn. Despite being amorphous, not one part of a shape was out-of-place or without purpose.
By the time I left the studio it was already starting to get dark. An encounter that was meant to last minutes had turned into hours. That afternoon at Adrian Frutiger’s studio I gained a sense that it was art that inspired him to design typefaces the way he did. Where his art was amorphous and generous, his type was tight, weights and proportions clearly defined and harmonized; where his art was about inspiration and the sheer joy of beauty, his type was about function and aesthetic. I believe him when he says “a typeface is to be read, not seen”. Only when the reader no longer sees the typeface have we, as designers, accomplished our work. It is art which always wants to be seen.
Adrian Frutiger passed away on 12 September 2015, aged 87. Earlier this year the type community also mourned the loss of Hans Eduard Meyer, and Hermann Zapf, both of whom need no introduction. I’d like to thank them all for their generosity, time, and advice. It is now up to our generation who have benefitted from their experience, to pass on our knowledge and guidance to the next generation just as generously as they did.