Typotheque: Always Looking Further

Peter Biľak and his partner Johanna (née Balušíková), both born in Czechoslovakia, started Typotheque in The Hague in 1999. Since then, it is safe to say, their studio/foundry has become one of the most innovative ventures of the digital type era. It was a forerunner in developing expansive font systems such as Fedra, Biľak’s biggest typeface work-in-progress, which has been in continuous development since 2001. Its Latin version currently comprises eight variants (two serif, six sans serif and one monospace), all designed in a wide variety of weights in both Roman and italic.

But Fedra also illustrates Typotheque’s long-standing interest in multilingual typography. Fedra Sans, for instance, supports the Arabic, Armenian, Bengali, Cyrillic, Devanagari, Greek, Hebrew, Inuktitut, and Tamil writing scripts, and will soon support more languages, becoming one of the most “global” typeface ever conceived. Biľak also started Indian Type Foundry with Satya Rajpurohit in 2009 (leaving the company in late 2012) and TPTQ Arabic with Krystian Sarkis in 2015, and Typotheque itself recently expanded a number of its typefaces with the release of a new Hebrew collection.

Fedra Sans

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Nor is Typotheque’s innovation limited to language support. In 2009 it became the first digital foundry to launch a web font service compatible with most existing platforms and systems, and it has explored new finance and distribution models, a pursuit which culminated in the co-founding of Fontstand in 2015.

Another of its singularities and strengths is to provide its clientele with engaging, comprehensive information for every new release, and its website is probably one of the most resource-laden foundry sites currently online. “Type design,” says Biľak, “is a formal discipline, and the resulting fonts are collections of black and white forms. Without providing context, it is hard to appreciate them or know how to get the most out of them, so we publish articles describing the creative processes behind the typefaces, the research and development. Some call this marketing, but for us, it is a rare chance to discuss the intentions of the typeface.”

“Most of my work is about simple ideas and finding ways to deliver them to audiences. A magazine article is self-contained and doesn’t need any other explanation. A typeface however, is not self-contained and requires a context. It’s a semi-product whose meaning changes according to its use.”

“Consider Karloff for example. If you look purely at the forms, Karloff Positive is a nondescript Didone. It is not even the best Didone, and a close examination of its details reveals many compromises made to accommodate Karloff Negative, which is based on the Italian model of the early 19th century. But the idea of the typeface is that it links what some have described as the most beautiful and ugly styles ever produced. That isn’t evident from a single style, so we produced a short animation that explains the main concept, and then we published a longer essay about the development process on our website, and usually we also publish a printed type specimen that explains the specifics of the typeface.”

Karloff

Karloff is in good company in Typotheque’s catalogue, which is filled with bold experiments and crazy ideas brought to life as typefaces, for example History or their latest release, Wind, a variable layered font designed by Hansje van Halem. Though it has released designs rooted in type history like Parmigiano (a Bodoni revival) by Riccardo Olocco and Jonathan Pierini, William (a Caslon revival) by Maria Doreuli, or Neutral (a utopian idea of a 20th-century sans serif) by Kai Bernau, Typotheque remains the house of the “now,” rather than the “then.”

History

“At the start, back in the 1990s,” Biľak recalls, “I was interested in using type design to define the idea of contemporaneity. Although I appreciate the past, the work from the past I admire most was trying to make full use of the available possibilities, rather than merely replicate history. This is how I approach our work too.”

“We take time to research, design and develop a typeface carefully. Sometimes the process takes many years, so our focus is on getting the most out of each project, working beyond the whims of trends. We take our time making type, and we hope that our type will be useable for a long time, not just for a season, continuing to acquire meaning as the years go by.”

“Working directly with end-users and eliminating distributors has one important advantage, that we see how people use our fonts, and how their reception changes over time. Our text faces typically reach their commercial peak after four years, and they continue performing well after that too, so they are a lasting investment for us and for our clients. In some cases, typefaces we published almost 10 years ago are just becoming popular now.”

“While most of our output is still strictly contemporary work exploring aspects of design that we think haven’t been explored, I personally became interested in typefaces with stories, and sometimes those stories may also come from the past. That interest aligns well with our other activities, like publishing a magazine, writing, editing… Today, I see Typotheque as a publishing company rather than solely as a type foundry. It produces works in the form of books, magazines, exhibitions, theatre performances, and typefaces, and we seek audiences that can engage with them.”

Brioni

Biľak’s teaching position in the Type & Media masters program at the Royal Academy of Art (KABK) enables him to meet many talented new designers. “Brioni by Nikola Djurek, published in 2008, was our first external design. Nikola has worked with me since his graduation from Type & Media in 2005, so it was natural for us to discuss publishing his fonts through Typotheque. Since then, we have published works by many other designers, though we don’t actively solicit submissions. Many of the designs by other authors that we’ve published were already quite familiar to me, for example Andrej Krátky’s Nara, which was the first digital typeface from 1980s Czechoslovakia, and we looked for a way to complete it and publish it more than 20 years after it was first sketched.

Nara

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These kinds of relationships develop organically; we stay in touch with people and continue discussing the work of various designers that I respect and admire. Publication of their work then comes naturally, and we have some projects by external authors lined up for 2018/2019.”

Greta Sans

Today, Typotheque is still managed jointly by Peter and Johanna, whose only typeface (so far), Jigsaw, was one of the foundry’s first releases. “Johanna works as an advisor, reviews projects, and runs the online bookstore. Her critical contribution is naming our typefaces: she is the person who proposed names for Fedra, Greta, and many others. She also pursues her own projects and interests, maintaining her design practice working on smaller book or branding projects, and more recently has been running art classes for children aged 6 to 10.” Nikola Djurek also became a partner in May 2016, and the catalogue of his foundry, Typonine, is now part of Typotheque’s collection.

Its unrelenting search for ways to discover, explore and invent may be why Typotheque feels like the ideal place to grow ideas — and people — endlessly.

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