Czech typography

Over the past two decades, the Czech Republic has witnessed an incredible boom in type design. While increased interest in typography can also be seen in other European countries, Czech typographers’ successes at international competitions and the respect their work has earned among users testifies to a certain level of prodigy. To find the reasons behind this success you must look back in history to the early 20th century.

 

The roots of Czech type design

In 1904, Typografia (with only a few short hiatuses, the Czech type magazine has been in continuous publication since 1888) hired a new editor, type designer Karel Dyrynk (1876–1949). Through his work, the first issue published in 1905 featured an important essay by Czech literary critic František Xaver Šalda (1867–1937) titled Kniha jako umělecké dílo1Šalda’s article is available online at www.ucl.cas.cz/edicee/data/soubory/FXS/KP6/1.pdf – “The Book as a Work of Art”. Following the British arts and crafts movement, Šalda called on a change in attitudes towards book production: “Let books be works of art here and now, just as they once were in more auspicious cultured periods and they are now in more auspicious cultured nations.” Šalda believed that Czech book design would be inspired by the approach taken by William Morris (1834–1896), adding, “But the precondition will be that we first overcome and then expel from our companies all crude and poor taste that is strewn throughout our book art, or rather our non-art, which is called ‘beauty’ or ‘luxury’ here. What sad beauty, sad luxury! Dishonest, fake, fraudulent luxury that is not an expression of excess, wealth and exuberant power, but rather tricks and deception, fraud…” (Šalda, 1905, pp. 5 and 7). Several pages on, this remarkable issue of Typografia features a translation of William Morris’ On the Printing of Books, approximately half of which is devoted to book typefaces.

Interest about reviving book production led thirty intellectuals to establish an association of Czech bibliophiles, Spolek českých bibliofilů, in 1908. The founders included Karel Dyrynk, whose grandson, Martin Dyrynk (*1941), leads the association today. When Martin Dyrynk recently looked back at the history of the association, he did not neglect to mention the significance of Šalda’s article. “His essay, Kniha jako umělecké dílo, broke the barrier of accumulated clichés and for the entire century that followed, it became a strong basis for the codification of book culture and resisted the vicissitudes of time and taste.”(Dyrynk, M., 2008)

Czechoslovakia gained independence in 1918 and for many artists, the need to have a national typeface became a primary task. Seven years after the republic was established and twenty years after F. X. Šalda’s article was published, Karel Dyrynk returned to this topic in his book České původní typografické písmo (“Czech Original Typeface”), published by Typografia with a print run of just 196 copies. Already in the first paragraph he laments, “Numerous complaints can be heard that we still don’t have our own typeface designed by a Czech artist and completed at a Czech type foundry…. There is definitely also a certain national ambition in the effort to have at least one typeface of our own that we could use to prove not only our own professional skill in this discipline, but also our cultural advancement.” (Dyrynk K., 1925, p. 6)

 

Vojtěch Preissig and other pioneers

České původní typografické písmo was published mainly to celebrate Preissig Antikva, a typeface created by graphic designer, painter and illustrator Vojtěch Preissig (1873–1944). The casting was completed at the State Printing Office in Prague on 26 February 1925. As Dyrynk himself admits, it is a “festive” typeface and was not adopted much in practice. Vojtěch Preissig, one of the founding members of Spolek českých bibliofilů, worked intensively on the typeface from the beginning of the century, especially after arriving in the United States in 1910. While in the New World, he designed a number of impressive and original letterforms, but these were designed to be cut into linoleum, wood or metal. Preissig Antikva represented his first attempt to design a universal book typeface. In a letter to Karel Dyrynk, though, he could not determine whether it would be a success: “A success is a success if it has created some sort of permanent value. And the question of whether it has determined this value can only be answered by the future” (Dyrynk K., 1925, p. 67). Although many of Preissig’s typefaces have been more or less carefully digitalised, they posses such distinctive manuscript-like features and are tied so strongly to the period in which they were created, they are only rarely used.

Preissig antikva

Preissig antikva

After 1925, a number of typefaces were created and several were cast. In addition to typographers and printers (Karel Dyrynk), artists got involved in typeface design (Slavoboj Tusar 1885–1950, František Kysela 1881–1941). However, the typeface sets they created always reflected the artists’ lack of experience. Though today one can appreciate the charm of these typefaces, their importance for typography lies more in the trails they blazed and the rising interest in type design they sparked. The first Czech type designer of truly international stature was Oldřich Menhart (1897–1962). He was very well aware of the difficulty of the type design process: “Primarily it is the responsible and painstakingly premeditated work of the artist, the creator of the type design. To no lesser extent, though, it also depends on the understanding, care and precision of all the other colleagues in the engraving studio, matrix punching studio and at the foundry. That this delicate work requires professionally skilled, sensitive and highly diligent workers is clear from the fact that the system of typography measurements is remarkably precise, even calculating to the hundredths of millimetres. Every mistake that the draughtsman or letter engraver overlooks is multiplied in hundreds of thousands of type casts and millions of prints of poor typefaces, spiralling into an incredible number of defects that make the printer’s work more difficult and irritate readers’ eyes,” (Menhart, 1956, p. 5) Menhart wrote in 1956 in the foreword to his book Tvorba typografického písma (“Type Design”).

Menhart Tvorba typografickeho pisma

Menhart’s Tvorba typografického písma (“Type Design”)

It is remarkable that a book like this was published at all. In communist Czechoslovakia it was practically impossible to have a new type cast; just handful of type designers managed to do so in the years from 1948 till 1989. As the publication contained a practical and experience-based introduction to book typeface design as well as a brief and well-written history of the text typeface, it became a standard addition to every artist’s library. It is not the only book about typefaces that was published during that time. František Muzika (1900–1974) wrote a monumental, two-volume history of letterform development titled Krásné písmo ve vývoji latinky (“Beautiful Letters in the Development of Latin Script, pub. 1958, 1963 and 2005); in 1958 Oldřich Hlavsa (1909–1995) published a volume titled Typografická písma latinková (“Latin Typefaces”) and prepared a trilogy about typeface design that also presented international type design trends from the period (Typographia I – 1976, Typographia II – 1981 and Typographia III – 1986). But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves now – let’s go back a few years again.

 

Oldřich Menhart and communism

Oldřich Menhart was without a doubt the country’s most talented type designer in the post-war era and if it had not been for the communist putsch of 1948, he would have likely become an internationally important figure in typography. But Menhart entered into the service of the new communist regime and significantly contributed to creating the typographic “face” of the state. The communists, who liked to attend international fairs and boast of the high quality of socialist book production, found Menhart’s style came in handy. The character of his work fit in with the socialist cultural framework which drew on national art traditions. As Hermann Zapf (*1918) explained to me in an interview in 2007, it was very difficult for Menhart to bear collaborating with the communists, but he was not heroic enough to oppose them; if he had, he would have lost his ability to work in the field – or worse. Menhart’s post-war typefaces designed after 1948 no longer gained acceptance and Menhart focused more and more on book design. The latest issue of Codex2The journal can be purchased at http://codexmag.com as a PDF; the print version is already sold out. No. 2, which is devoted to this Czech type designer, testifies to the importance of Oldřich Menhart.

Although communism did not bring much fortune to type design, in the end the need to save money on imported typefaces led the state to call several typeface competitions. In 1955 Stanislav Maršo (1910–1976) won with his newspaper typeface Public; four years later, Josef Týfa (1913–2007) was selected for Týfa’s Antikva, a typeface that is considered the best and most original Czech typeface created at that time. Both typefaces have been digitalised. František Štorm (*1966) digitalised Týfa’s Antikva together with Týfa in 1995 (released in 1997 as ITC Tyfa by what was still an important U.S. type foundry at the time); Public was released as RePublic by Suitcase Type Foundry’s Tomáš Brousil (*1975) in 2003. Some designers initially viewed RePublic with some scepticism as the original typeface, Public, was used to print the Czechoslovak communist party’s daily newspaper and they logically associated Public with lies and propaganda. Over time, though the indisputable quality of RePublic gradually led to its acceptance and today it is a highly popular book and periodical typeface used by designers of all generations.

 

Czech diacritic marks

Accents are an integral part of the Czech writing system. Philosopher and priest John Huss (Jan Hus, 1370–1415) established the basis of Czech orthography and his reform simplified and unified standard Czech. He introduced diacritic marks, using them to denote soft or lengthened consonants and vowels. As a result, in the 15th century Czech became one of the few countries in Europe with almost completely phonetic spelling. In the early part of the 19th century, Czech books were regularly printed in blackletter, but through the efforts of enlightened revivalists such as linguist František Jan Tomsa (1753–1814), more readable Latin script gradually gained ground. An official directive declaring that accented Latin script be exclusively used in Czech textbooks put a final end to the blackletter era. (However, popular printed materials for the broader public continued to be printed in broken script all the way up to the end of the 19th century.)

Czech diacritics

Czech diacritics

“Technically and aesthetically, the right measurements, colour, location and shapes of accents are a serious component of Czech typography,” (Menhart, 1956, p. 66) Menhart explained in response to the poor quality of diacritic marks used for types available at Czech printing companies. Vojtěch Preissig became a pioneer in correcting poor accent marks, helping to cement the “realisation that well-designed accents are important for various types of letterforms” in Czech typography (Menhart, 1956, p. 65). Menhart says accents are “just a hushed accompaniment to the letter – they may not disturb the fluency of the basic letterforms or bring much agitation or chaos to the printed texts. Like punctuation, accents are also there to help the reader with easy readability, naturally and discreetly indicating the changed pronunciation and the correct phonetic values of the letters.” (Menhart, 1956, p. 66)

 

The digital age

In 1992, when I was a student and started to earn a little extra money at graphic design studios, there were desperately few Czech fonts. Besides system fonts, there was Futura, Garamond, Univers and a few others; this typographic shortage was clearly visible in printed matter produced at the time. Given this, it seemed like an apparition when Střešovická písmolijna – the original name of František Štorm’s type foundry3Some of Štorm’s fonts can be seen on this website – appeared on the scene in 1994. The range of fonts featuring high-quality diacritics and even ligatures skyrocketed4The first versions of fonts from Střešovická písmolijna utilised highly non-standard encoding, they probably would not work on applications in use today.. Štorm inspired many people who started to become interested in typefaces and began to experiment with their own font designs; even I digitalised two typefaces in 1996. Even though a number of unique typefaces were created in the latter half of the 1990s, especially at Czech universities, they have never been published – perhaps the students did not have enough willpower, need or desire to complete the typefaces and offer a type foundry distribute them. Yet some typefaces became relatively well known because the designers used them in their own design projects; one of many examples is Merkur by Marek Pistora (*1973).

Štorm’s monopoly on Czech typefaces fell when his student, Tomáš Brousil, established Suitcase Type Foundry in 2003. Since then there have been increasing, though still sporadic efforts to distribute custom typefaces. These include David Březina (*1980; Rosetta Type Foundry, specialised in multilingual typefaces) and Radim Peško (*1976; RP Digital Foundry). And then there is type designer / globetrotter Veronika Burian (*1973) who was born in Czechoslovakia, but grew up in Germany and later lived in the United States, Italy, the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic. In 2013, Burian left Prague after several years and moved to a Catalan village near Barcelona, from where she and Argentinean type designer José Scaglione co-manage TypeTogether established in 2006.

At the beginning of the digital age in the 1990s, Czech type designers were lucky to have Jan Solpera (*1939), the head of the Typeface Creation and Typography Studio at the Prague Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design (AAAD). When he retired, he handed the reins over to his student, František Štorm. Extremely knowledgeable, Solpera has an almost contagious sense for typographic deta il, so there is no surprise he was inducted into the Czech Grand Design Hall of Fame in 2015. Perhaps it is this obsession for detail that connects Czech type designers, from Vojtěch Preissig and Oldřich Menhart to František Štorm, Tomáš Brousil and Veronika Burian: the desire to be perfect, all the way down to the slightest detail.

Experiment and typography website

Experiment and typography website

In 2004 a joint Czechoslovak project called EAT – Experiment and Typography was created to chart experimental trends in typeface design. Over the course of two years, the travelling exhibition stopped at eight galleries in the Czech Republic, Poland, Netherlands, Slovenia and Hungary. Slovak curator Johanna Balušíková Biľak and Czech curator Alan Záruba aimed to document interest in experimental approaches to typefaces not only among experienced type designers, but also among graphic designers who sensed a need to try their hand at typefaces. The tangible result of this project is We Want You To Love Type, a 40-page catalogue published at Typotheque in 2005. Johanna Balušíková Biľak’s introduction is available on the type foundry’s website.

 

Onward forward

Till recently, typeface design focused around the Typeface Creation and Typography Studio at AAAD. New typefaces continue to be created here; current students such as Vojtěch Říha and Jan Novák have already managed to receive important awards for their fonts. The studio, led by graphic designer Karel Haloun (*1951), Tomáš Brousil and typography expert Radek Sidun (*1980), is quite flourishing. Their Bestsellers project (students were asked to design a commercially successful typeface) was internationally acclaimed as Nicola Giacintová’s Rukola managed to succeed at MyFonts.com shop. Graduates of other schools have also created interesting typeface projects, such as Jiří Toman (*1987) from Jan Evangelista Purkyně University in Ústí nad Labem or the aforementioned David Březina, a graduate of the typeface and typography course at the University of Reading.

Rukola by Nikola Giacintová

Rukola by Nikola Giacintová

An unique project that should help talented type designers in promoting and distributing their typefaces was initiated by Tomáš Brousil and Radek Sidun . They decided to put their experience to good use by creating Briefcase, a small company primarily focused on typefaces created by past and present AAAD students. The type foundry was lanuched in the middle of 2014 and now offers two dozens of original Czech typefaces from the past (Alphapipe by Jiří Rathouský) as well as contemporary creations (Mikser by Filip Kraus). This not the only new type foundry, graphic designer professor Rostislav Vaněk, long standing teacher at the AAD, opened Signature Type and there are two more type foundries in the progress: Vojtěch Říha’s Superior Type and Heavyweight by Filip Matějíček and Jan Horčík.

Czechs have another advantage in that the country has erudite typeface critics. Jan Solpera’s typeface reviews were published in Typografia in the 1970s and 1980s. Typo, a magazine mainly focused on typefaces and type design, was founded in 2003. The magazine features new typeface reviews written by well-known international critics as well as Martin Pecina (*1982), otherwise a book designer and the author of the brilliantly-written bestseller Knihy a typografie (“Books and Typography”), several chapters of which were dramatised and featured on Czech Radio, and David Březina.

At the turn of 2012/2013, the last issue of Typo, led by Editor-in-Chief Linda Kudrnovská (*1977) was published after 10 years and the publication of its 50th issue. The quarterly magazine had featured articles written by dozens of respected contributors from throughout the world, helping Typo garner a reputation not only in the Czech Republic, but especially abroad. Special issues focused on typography in countries as diverse as Mexico, Iran and Israel attracted considerable interest.

Czech typography enthusiasts have organized professional type design and typography conferences attended by Czech and international specialists. Lastly but importantly, I must also mention TYPO9010, a publication being prepared by a group of AAAD students led by Petra Dočekalová which aims to encapsulate the boom in Czech digital typefaces from 1990 till 2010. All this provides young artists with a professional basis and allows them to focus on the main thing: great type.

At present it would not be right to talk about a “Czech school of typeface design” or an approach that is specifically Czech. Czech designers simply have ideal conditions for type design and use them to the fullest. Czech typefaces are regularly ranked among the top new fonts and regularly win various international awards. It’s nice to see a poster or book in a Czech font in Australia, but it’s no longer a surprise. Czech type design has become a fully-fledged part of the world of typography.

 

Filip Blažek

translation from Czech Elizabeth Spacilova

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1. Šalda’s article is available online at www.ucl.cas.cz/edicee/data/soubory/FXS/KP6/1.pdf
2. The journal can be purchased at http://codexmag.com as a PDF; the print version is already sold out.
3. Some of Štorm’s fonts can be seen on this website
4. The first versions of fonts from Střešovická písmolijna utilised highly non-standard encoding, they probably would not work on applications in use today.
Bibliography

Dyrynk, Karel: České původní typografické písmo. Spolek Typografia, Prague 1925.

Dyrynk, Karel: ‘Nové směry v akcidenční sazbě’. In: Typografia, Prague 1905.

Dyrynk, Martin: ‘Bibliofilské hnutí v Čechách (geneze, bilance, realita, vize)’. In: Zprávy Spolku českých bibliofilů v Praze. Prague 2008.

Menhart, Oldřich: Tvorba typografického písma (first edition). Státní pedagogické nakladatelství, Prague 1956.

Morris, William: ‘Knihtisk’. In: Typografia, Prague 1905.

Šalda, František Xaver: ‘Kniha jako umělecké dílo’. In: Typografia, Prague 1905.