Kontour: An Aura of One’s Own

Fontstand has recently welcomed several foundries created and managed by women. Sibylle Hagmann was among the first women to take the plunge into full-time type design after years of solid educational training and professional experience.

“As I remember,” says Hagmann, “letterforms cast a spell on me in my early days as a graphic design student. I was always intrigued by form, detail and developing exacting visuals, so typography was a natural match.”

“As a young designer working in Zürich, Switzerland, I had two significant and formative experiences: first, when I was working at Eclat as a junior designer, Richard Feurer, one of the partners, made a contribution to the Emigre “Heritage” issue that made me want to explore more and go abroad. My second key encounter occurred in a subsequent workplace, Zintzmeyer & Lux, where I met Hans Eduard Meier, the designer of the humanist typeface family Syntax, among others. Meier let me look over his shoulder while he was working on letters in Fontographer for Zintzmeyer’s Swiss Banc note series, which left a deep impression on me.

During the early 1990s, the dawn of computers as design tools, there were very few higher institutions offering advanced degrees in type design. The MFA graphic design program at CalArts (California Institute of the Arts) offered an introductory course of digital type design taught by Jeffery Keedy, which seemed to provide an opportunity to learn more about it and, as a bonus, move closer to Emigre.”





“When starting my graduate studies at CalArts, I was consciously looking for a contrasting experience to my undergraduate education in design at the Basel School of Design. This was a tricky and difficult transition, as my time at the Basel School was deeply formative, having studied under many gifted people.”

Within a few years, Hagmann established herself as a graphic designer while developing her first typefaces. The process of expanding her type design practice in parallel to her graphics studio, however, took some years.

“Kontour went live as an independent foundry in mid-December of 2012,” remembers Hagmann. “I had founded Kontour in 2000 shortly after moving to Houston via Los Angeles and deciding to strike out on my own. Cholla had already been released with Emigre in 1999, but getting settled in a new city, my concern was to gain some steady income, which was more likely to be accomplished with graphic design than type design. In 2002 I started teaching at the University of Houston with a research focus on type design, although in my studio work I still divided my time between type and graphic design. Over the course of a decade, however, I felt increasingly drawn to focusing exclusively on type, which seemed a professional shift that called for more of a public face. The re-establishing of Kontour as a type foundry was a personal statement of that transformation.”

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“And in the context of that, the intention was also to become more independent as a way of branching out, to have more direct relationships with type users and produce direct funds to invest in new designs. In the midst of that process of change there was energy and a great deal of optimism, with only a vague idea of what that transformation would actually entail.”

Several of Hagmann’s typefaces are rooted in history, though she’s more interested in giving past designs an “aura” of her own, rather than imitating references and crafting accurate revivals. It’s quite obvious for example in Odile (2006), partly inspired by Charter, an experimental typeface of W. A. Dwiggins, or Kopius (2016), her serene interpretation of Liberta, designed by Herbert Thannhaeuser in the 1950s.

“The beginning of a design process is often initiated by something I come across that takes hold of my eye,” says Hagmann. “What catches my interest is mostly serendipitous, and ideas form as I stumble on a shape that excites me. At times I can’t quite pinpoint what exactly it is that pulls me to a certain image which remains in my mind and may trigger some sketching as a starting point of an ongoing effort of form-shaping. As the form starts to develop more clearly, concepts emerge and take shape. After this initial ‘falling in love’ with a form idea, many iterations follow, and ultimately I have to weigh carefully the option of further pursuing a sketch, since the design and production process is less romantic and very time and energy consuming.”

“As for type history, language is in constant flux and we’re living in a snapshot of a long evolution of signs and symbols in use, influenced by technology, historical conventions and craftsmanship.”

Kopius box labels

“Design as a practice, and across the board, appears shallow and forged if not rooted in history. We create in the context of what already exists and the multiplicity of available resources.”


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“Additionally, understanding tradition, technology and means of production is key to making sense of the past and being able to look to the future. The ‘aura’ you are referring to, is perhaps a result of the above-mentioned process of re-forming, considering the potential within a contemporary moment.”

A few months ago Kontour released Utile, Hagmann’s invigorating take on a seemingly worn-out typeface pattern.

“Utile started out as an exploration of grotesk and neo-grotesk sans serif typefaces, considering the potential for a new design. In the process of scrutinizing numerous types of this category, I became interested in the idea of maximum flat-opened apertures in upper cases (C, G, S) and lower cases (c, s), a concept which didn’t lead far and was abandoned at that time. Instead, my focus turned to a humanist model for superior readability for print and screen.”

“During the working process, I pursued experiments with increased contrast as a way of broadening the palette of integrated styles. The dual optical-size interpretations are a result of striving for great readability, hence Utile was developed for smaller set typography, whereas Utile Display showcases more of the design’s elegant flow in display type. I envision the two families being used for a range of different applications that take advantage of inconspicuous features such as, for example, the subtle asymmetrical flares that lend the type some movement. The families recall 20th century type, yet they are made for the present.”

In a way, Hagmann’s approach resembles the potter’s slow, precise process of modulation, carefully shaping the contours of each character, making the name of her foundry all the more fitting.

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