Letters from Sweden: Rough Around the Edges

Sometimes, typefaces don’t need to be polished or gentrified to get the job done. They just need to be the way their designer thinks — or feels — they should be.

Göran Söderström began working in various design and advertising agencies when he was 18 years old. He had no previous formal education in graphic or type design, but was always keen on learning as he went along. He remembers today that tasks considered dull by his colleagues were rather exciting for him, “for instance, vectorizing badly scanned logos was one of my favorites. I could also really enjoy setting long, boring texts in brochures and catalogues, organizing paragraph styles neatly. I was the opposite of a conceptual art director.”

Trim

It didn’t take long for Söderström to start sketching and fiddling with type and designing outside his daily job, though his path towards making a living from type design would be long and uncertain. “Ten years ago, I was even thinking of a career change and aimed to become a professional music producer. Eventually, I realized I was better at type design than music production. Being a type designer in Sweden also had so much better odds of succeeding. There were hundreds of great musicians in Sweden, but less than a handful of great type designers. I do find both trades similar in many ways, and they require a high tolerance for repetitive tasks, which seems to work for me.”

Trim Mono

Thus in 2011, after a period when he published his fonts through various distributors, Söderström decided to set up a foundry, Letters from Sweden. It was the first step in taking control of his own career, but he knew that this side project would someday become his main profession. He launched his new venture “with a website that was powered by live webfonts! People could write whatever they wanted with our typefaces, directly on our website. Everything was rendered live, and I believe we were the first foundry to do that, so it created some buzz.”

Trim Poster

The first typeface published by Letters from Sweden that year was Siri, a burly, attractive sans serif family (eight weights from thin to black, roman and italic) filled with discreet, refined details. It was followed in 2012 by Trim, another sans serif family derived from an alphabet by the Danish architect and designer Knud V. Engelhardt. In 2013 Söderström released two more projects: Line (with Stefania Malmsten), a monolinear script family possibly reminiscent of Stockholm’s abundant neon signs, and Kumla, a font with both Latin and Cyrillic character sets. Kumla was also the foundry’s first release in the Fabrik Suite, a project inspired by Swedish industry, factories and harbors, (in this case by the 1920s letterforms of the sign on the front side of the Kumla Skofabrik, a shoe factory located in the eponymous city).

Siri

Line

Kumla

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When asked whether he agrees that most of his typefaces share an indefinable, crafty, vernacular touch, Söderström answers point blank: “I don’t think very much about having some special design approach. I’m also not a fan of (or good at) describing design. I guess what you see is my style of drawing type hidden there in the letters, as simple as that. I live in symbiosis with the typeface I’m currently drawing, and eventually the typeface tells me what to do and I just follow it.”

At this point Söderström was focusing primarily on developing his typefaces, managing the foundry during his weekends and evenings. He was also still employed at a design agency where he was sporadically asked to design custom typefaces, though it was not really the company’s main activity. Noticing that more and more clients were contacting him with requests for typeface work, he slowly realized that it would be wiser to strengthen his own business and undertake those jobs directly, so at the beginning of 2014, he took the final step and quit his job, even releasing a press statement. Surprisingly, the market in Sweden opened itself, and from day one he was fully booked and even had to turn down commissions.

“I find it very important to try and create something new which is not already available in the major font libraries. It’s too easy to just follow the trends on what sells, and do what some other designers are doing at the moment. When we do so, (besides the fact that it’s dead boring), we don’t really contribute to the history of type. I’m looking at the bigger picture, and I hope that at least one of my typefaces would find a place in history after I’m gone.”

“Today,” Söderström says, “Letters from Sweden works with clients from all over the world: Hong Kong, New York, Berlin… and Sweden of course. The company’s work ratio is currently based 70% on custom fonts and 30% on retail fonts. I wish we had more time to publish retail fonts, but on the other hand it’s really exciting to collaborate with external designers, artists and companies on various custom projects. I’ve also found a colleague who shares my ideas about quality and authenticity, Erik Moberg. Besides being a talented young designer, he knows Arabic! This means we can manage much larger projects than I ever could alone.” Moberg designed 2014’s release Ferry, the second installment in the Fabrik Suite, a black capital face with Latin, Greek and Cyrillic character sets inspired by the lettering of the steam ferries sailing in Stockholms Ström since the early twentieth century.

Ferry

Two new releases have been freshly added on Fontstand: Lab Grotesque, a family developed in collaboration with Stockholm Design Lab, and Eksell Display, based on an alphabet by Olle Eksell. In 1962 this renowned Swedish designer and illustrator came up with a set of wonky roman letters, as if he had somehow tried to carve a black Caslon in wood using only a machete. Sharp, settled, slightly disjointed, Eksell Display comprises three optical styles and a stencil version, all respecting and enhancing Eksell’s original artwork; all in all, a real treat for book and poster designers.

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Letters from Sweden font families available to rent on Fontstand for a fraction of their retail price.

Lab Grotesque

Eksell Display

Within a few years, Letters from Sweden has succeeded in establishing an earnest and uncommon type library, and is likely to continue down the road it has chosen, if one believes its driving force. “Something I try to move more and more towards is to make typefaces not so bloody perfect. Typefaces can be more interesting if there is something that looks a bit “off” in them. I guess I’m trying to avoid making boring typefaces, but on the other hand who isn’t?”, says Söderström with a wink.

Cover Photo: Björkhagen district close to Stockholm, where Göran Söderström has his office. Photo © Ola Bergengren.

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