Mário Feliciano: Designing Typefaces to Fuel the Imagination

I can still remember seeing the first Feliciano Type Foundry catalogue back in 2002. A modest cardstock cover belied the visual punch that would be delivered by the typefaces on the pages within. A punch which, gratifyingly, has lost none of its power and is perhaps driven home most convincingly by the potent sans system of FTF Morgan presented alongside a delicately honed historical revival, FTF Rongel.



So while researching Mário Feliciano, the designer behind this Portuguese foundry, it was with some amazement that I discovered that another early typeface, Strumpf, had been inspired by Smurfs. Yes, Smurfs. And it is exactly the fact that such incongruous ideas could come from one head that makes Feliciano such an interesting designer.

As a friend and designer once said to him of the scope of his thinking, “If your mind can produce these things, just think what else you can do!”

Feliciano is self-taught in the sense that he never studied type design in any academic setting. Instead, his training owes far more to the relationships he has built. After starting in the 90s grunge font scene and working with foundries such as T-26, he had the opportunity to work with Adobe, which brought the benefits of distance-coaching with type designer Carol Twombly. As he acknowledges, “I had the chance to get in touch with higher standards of typeface design and technology at a time when it was still a very ‘hidden’ art.”

The transition from display fonts to the more complex design territory of text typefaces was prompted by a serendipitous moment of asking the right question in the right antiquarian bookshop in Lisbon and being introduced to elderly scholar and typographer Manuel Pereira da Silva. Politely setting Feliciano’s grunge proofs to one side, Pereira used his own library to convince Feliciano of the importance of the art of typography, pulling books from his shelves which showcased fine printing from 18th-century masters such as Joaquim Ibarra of Madrid. Several hours later, Mário’s fate as a typeface designer had been sealed and ideas planted that would eventually lead to the capsule collection of exquisitely nuanced revivals celebrated in his 2005 specimen Cosas de España. In Feliciano’s words, “That was the day! I opened a new folder on my hard disk and labeled it ‘Typeface design.’”

The fact that he was subsequently able to realize his ambitions says much about the generosity of those he was working alongside. Digital technology had opened type design to a new community of independent practitioners operating beyond the once-dominant monolithic corporations, a community which clearly recognized something in Mário and his early work. As Feliciano recalls, “They were also fascinated by this guy who called himself a typeface designer without ever having met one! How could you call yourself something that you don’t know?”

Feliciano attributes this fortunate support to luck, though he seems to have had a knack for putting himself in the right places and opening out opportunities to build the friendships that would shape his learning curve. “I had handwritten letters from John Downer and Robert Bringhurst, faxes from Rudy Vanderlans and phone calls from Jean-François Porchez criticizing my designs, […] and other type designers sending me books and technical notes about type design.”

Especially instructive was meeting some of the leading Dutch type designers of the era. A chance introduction to Matthias Noordzij led to a contract from the historic Enschedé Font Foundry (TEFF) to publish his Spanish revival Geronimo, a contract which also afforded him the opportunity to work with Dutch designer Paul van der Laan on production.

“As a designer I see myself more as a European with Portuguese tendencies and Dutch influences.”

When asked if it is possible or even desirable to pin down what characterizes a Portuguese typeface, he replies, “For years I had a simple answer: there is no such thing as Portuguese typography. And I still think that way. But we can talk about visual identities, and the Portuguese visual identity is made of a wide diversity of things.” Among the things it currently comprises are two Feliciano typefaces, Merlo and Flama, used in the Portuguese passport and national identity card. He is cautious, though, of the tendency to romanticize. “I’m not sure if my work is shaping Portuguese culture in a formal sense. I’m aware of the fact that being the ‘first’ as a digital typeface designer was quite meaningful, and also that Flama is popular. But I don’t feel like I’m branding the country; quite the other way around, the country is branding me!”

FTF Merlo FS2


Feliciano’s background as an art director has also clearly shaped his typeface repertoire. “I was art directing a monthly magazine and designing the typefaces for it at the same time. I had a very close relation with the editorial department, often writing the headlines and cover titles myself, and I was free to do whatever I wanted.” Pragmatism steered the decision-making too. For example, a need for sans serif types sympathetic to classic text faces for use in bilingual setting, something he was doing a lot of, informed his humanistic approach to the design of his typeface Stella. Such pragmatism has surely helped in what he sees as the particular challenge of designing typefaces for newspapers as well. He is currently finishing a revised version of Majerit for El País (see also Sueca for Svenska Dagbladet and Expresso for the Portuguese weekly of the same name). While an emphasis on design change often limits the lifespan of typefaces for magazines, Feliciano is enjoying the greater constancy that designing for newspapers can bring and is very pleased to report that all three of these fonts have been in use for ten years.

FTF Sueca FS2


“I design typefaces so that I can design (or at least imagine) things!”

Editorial design has certainly taught him the need “to be consistent but somehow constantly innovative.” And he has lost none of his early eclecticism, nor his magpie instincts when it comes to secondhand book stores. Marcin is flavored by an encounter with a catalogue from a 19th-century Parisian type founder, Garda Nova brings together the writings of Renaissance calligrapher Cresci with a dash of German calligraphy in the form of a very lovely alternate capital R, while the forthcoming Rotep was inspired by the beautiful lettering from a series of maps from the 1950s and 60s, maps which were, as Feliciano describes, “a kind of propaganda tool of the Salazar dictatorship and so underrated by a certain cultural elite that emerged after the 1974 revolution, but they are very nicely designed and extraordinarily beautiful, and with lettering that imitates type.”

Seeing the design of Rotep as a work-in-progress is just one of the treats you get from following Feliciano Type Foundry on Instagram. It is a platform he uses well. “It’s very hard to get visibility these days, even if you are somewhat known. And it is very hard to be consistent across all the various channels and do all that alone. So my reason for using it is somehow practical. It helps to keep a sort of a routine, it’s relaxing.”

“I’m constantly changing the rules and setting new challenges.”

The wonderful sequences of experiments he posts are his creative antidote to the hours of production involved with longer-term custom projects. Though when I ask him if he can still be so brave in his work because he works alone, his answer speaks to an awareness of the need to remain creatively self-sufficient: “My biggest fear as a type designer is that I might come to a moment when I cannot find a reason to keep creating typefaces. That scares me. When I first started I had a lot of reasons to do so, but they may fade away as life goes on, and everything is changing so fast.”

Judging by the glimpses we get to see of the Feliciano Foundry faces of the future, including Airema, Peyroteo and Disquiet, I am not sure his fear of running out of reasons to create typefaces is going to be realized anytime soon. Best of all, Feliciano tells me that Morgan is headed back, handsome as ever and with some new extra features.

He’s right that the world is changing. It’s good to be reminded that it can change for the better.

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