Rui Abreu: Drawing the Spaces Between the Lines

Fontstand welcomes new contributor Catherine Dixon, who is a designer, writer and typography lecturer in London. Her first article is a face-to-face interview with Rui Abreu of R-Typography.

Spring had arrived in the Lisbon suburb where R-Typography and designer Rui Abreu are currently based. Saturday afternoon sun streamed into the suspiciously tidy office, though the ubiquitous technology of the contemporary designer was leavened by the presence of his wife’s small proofing press, various bookbinding tools and a small wooden type cabinet, not to mention both a black and a grayscale cat.

That the instruments of craft should anchor Abreu’s digital design practice is no surprise. He learned “the pleasure of building something for yourself to use as a tool” early on when he first started to draw typefaces in his spare time while working for an advertising agency in Lisbon. Though he’d studied in the design-savvy city of Porto, the economic standstill he graduated into in 2003 necessitated a move to the more advertising-oriented capital to find work. He sent three fonts one after the other to the experimental type foundry T26, each of which was accepted and published.

With the independent foundry scene in full swing, and spurred on by the relative ease of his success thus far, Abreu was prompted to push himself further and sent the next typeface he was working on to Peter Bruhn of the Swedish foundry Fountain. For Abreu it was a question of taste. Yes, Bruhn was already working with fellow Lisbon type designer Ricardo Santos, but it was the thoughtful curation of Fountain’s font collection that really stood out and which Abreu identified with.

Abreu’s considerable drawing skills were obvious to Bruhn, who enthusiastically received Catacumba, a typeface based on a beautiful set of painted inscriptions from the catacombs of the Igreja de São Francisco in Porto. The inscriptions combine lettering of both Portuguese and French sensibilities, an ornate Tuscan working together with an elegant, if no-nonsense, high-contrast Roman. Within the context of one font family this is a lot to manage, yet Abreu channels their spiritedness into two core titling styles while also delivering four “tamer” text faces for more general application.

Catacumba

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Orbe, a set of award-winning Lombardic capitals, followed. Seemingly an idiosyncratic choice of creative direction, it was in fact inspired by a certain kind of book cover that the ubiquitous second-hand book stores of Lisbon used to like to display. “Old books referencing the historical achievements of Portugal were always lettered in a late medieval style, typically with blackletter and Lombardic capitals. There is a dose of melancholy in this that I like.”

Inspired by lettering as much as calligraphy, these Lombardic cover capitals offered Abreu still further scope for showcasing his drawing abilities and the unrestrained energy of an artist starting out on his journey. “As a set of capitals, the letters exist as individuals. You can give everything to them; they are letters that allow for showing off, for finding that virtuosity in exuberance.”

Orbe

“Since I was a kid, I have had an inclination for drawing. At college, we had real training in it, which gave me my skills, especially in drawing the human figure. Nowadays, I actually look as letters as having a posture in space.”

That Abreu could draw a letter was clear, but what he had yet to master was how to draw a letter as a part of a system, and he acknowledges his great debt to Bruhn’s mentorship in this area. “Without him I wouldn’t be doing this. He was the model, the one who really helped me learn.”

Abreu was working on the design of Foral, a slab serif whose genre offered no graphic elaboration to hide behind. Bruhn had accepted the typeface but insisted on a development phase which was to last a testing but rewarding four years. “It is a hard thing to design a typeface,” says Abreu. “This was the point when I really learned this.”

As steep a learning curve as this might have been for Abreu, in part it is this long-haul aspect of type design that has always attracted him. “I didn’t mind the training for such an extensive project, to apply that kind of will. Maybe that’s what makes the difference? The will to create the pieces, to want to be able to build a world with those pieces.”

“At college I never really ‘caught’ graphic design. I mean, what is graphic design? But with fonts there was something to really grasp.”

As he has approached the building of his own world of types, perhaps the most important lesson Abreu learned from the mentorship of Bruhn is to see a foundry as more than the sum of its collective typefaces. As he says, “What makes a foundry is the whole body of knowledge.”

To really start to build his own body of knowledge necessitated a strategic step away from agency design, affording Abreu one day a week to focus solely on type design. “Azo Sans was the project I was working on on those days, and as I worked on it, I was available to really think about my workflow and improve it. I had never worked on fonts for something like 10 hours at a time, and if you don’t give real thought towards establishing, improving and tuning your workflow, you end up wasting time. This is actually what I mean when I say that a foundry is a ‘body of knowledge’. It is your views on type, but also the way you make your fonts, the tools you use, the tools you make for yourself, your methods, and your whole ‘program’ of designing and producing a typeface. The fact that I felt I was building my ‘body of knowledge’, a solid ground to grow upon, gave me the confidence to leave agency work for good.”

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Azo Sans

As Abreu has curated the R-Typography portfolio thus far, there is an obvious repertory aspect to the selection of typefaces, “to show what you can do, so that clients know what they can ask you to do.” Still defining the scope of what he does, Abreu’s innate pragmatism and concern for usability are determining a personal yet practical take on how to stock the standard genres of sans, and more lately, serif types.

“I want my typefaces to be useful, to make a contribution to the visual landscape.”

“I work on a lot of types for branding because this is the type you see on the streets.” A little later, checking on Google StreetView to help me locate some secondhand bookshops I want to visit, Abreu laughs as the camera pans around to show a billboard with one of his typefaces in use.

The fact that his types visually chime with the city from which they originate is undoubtedly satisfying, though there is no intention to specifically exploit an idea of what Portuguese typography might be, or as he refers to it, “the big mystery of aesthetic orientation and working life.” He adds, “It is a fact that letterforms exist in a cultural dimension. We grow up looking at certain things.” Still, it is sometimes the outsider who is best positioned to discern the unique qualities of the vernacular. Lisbon, he reflects, is more a sans city than his native Porto, an observation channeled into the development of the vernacular-inspired Sul Sans.

Sul Sans

When I ask Abreu when he first considered himself to be a type designer he hesitates. In spite of the fact that type design is now how he earns a full-time living, as he balances his achievements against the weight of history this is something he is still inclined to resist. I wonder if such lack of assurance stems from having been self-taught. “No,” he answers, “Many of my heroes were self taught.”

This is not a lack of assurance then, but rather a quietly determined designer open to the possibility of always being able to learn more. That, and the cautious negotiation that comes with greater maturity in practice, of a shift in position from “knowing” to simply “being”.

Aria

Agility of line and drawing are clearly still important. As type designer Laura Meseguer notes of the titling font Aria, the forms speak of pure joy. Yet, when describing the process of designing his first magazine typeface Grifo, Abreu emphasizes the need “to see the rhythm before the drawing.”

Grifo

Scanning the many bookshelves in his office, I ask which are his favorite titles. “Adrian Frutiger, The Complete Works” comes the reply without hesitation. “Back when I started out working as a type designer one day a week, I made myself read on those days at lunchtime. You have to inform your practice. That book felt like a course. It is one of the most generous.” For Abreu it is Frutiger’s notion of space in his typefaces and throughout his texts that has found a particular resonance. “When you design a building, what people use is the empty space. We are now in a room, not on the walls. This is a very powerful way of thinking about what it is that you are actually designing… When type designers share their ideas and are generous enough to do that you learn a lot.”

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