a part of the mythology of French typography

Roger Excoffon

The confident and keen gaze of Roger Excoffon spoke volumes; his place in French typographic and graphic design history spans generations, some rejecting his work, while others, often more recent, venerating his vision and the visual force of his work. In my beginnings, as a student at the end of the 1980s, Mistral, Banco and Choc were lumped among the tacky fonts that should only have been used for parodying the shop window of a provincial butcher, baker or hair salon. At least that was the view of graphic designers, design instructors, journalists, etc. of the time. To recap the well-worn banter of that era’s agencies and studios: Excoffon’s typefaces were not modern.

Roger Excoffon, banco, olive

Only a few typographic dinosaurs, such as Gérard Blanchard1, René Ponot and a few others, could not imagine that Roger Excoffon’s creations were pointless. But make no mistake, these great men of French typography, who saw themselves as the bards of Latin typography, were considered regressive by non-Lursians2. We should note that not even Antique Olive had the honor of being considered among the basic, neutral typefaces — it was basically useless and most often overlooked as “that font with a gigantic eye and those bizarre forms that make it impossible to use”.

The grass is always greener on the other side — the well-known saying nicely illustrates the circumstances in which Roger Excoffon’s work has regained its stature in France some 15 years later. Along with Gerard Unger, designers both Dutch and Anglo-Saxon were worshipping Excoffon’s body of work, while he was considered corny in his own country3. He has avowed boundless admiration towards him in a number of articles in various international journals4. At ATypI’s annual conference in Anvers5, I met Martin Majoor, Fred Smeijers and in particular Evert Bloemsma (1958–2005) who explained to me at length that Antique Olive was the work of a genius, and formed the basis of his research for his upcoming FF Balance, released soon afterwards. Thus we found, the other young type designers from France who had long been admirers of Roger Excoffon’s talents, proof that it was possible to restore to grace typefaces such as Antique Olive, Mistral, Banco in our domain. Concerning this I also remember great discussions with Gérard Blanchard where I informed him of novelties outside of France, for example FF Balance, and the new weights added to Mistral in the early 1990s by Phill Grimshaw for ITC.

Roger Excoffon, banco

I think I can understand how Roger Excoffon is a lively and creative personality for the younger generations of type designers, posing many good questions, reevaluating the canons of avant-garde typography now become traditional due to the Swiss school’s standardization of the 1950s, which brought so much to page layout. Typography is multifaceted, and he demonstrates that well. Typography can be light-hearted without losing the concept of challenge particular to design.

Roger Excoffon, mistral, banco, choc

The script face Mistral evokes writing thanks to many months of research: how to preserve the meandering rhythms of human writing via unsubtle, static typography, more suitable to a design like Univers and Helvetica? Mistral is a miracle of typography — Excoffon was ingenious — resulting from a refined analysis of sources and technological limits, and a perfect mastery of the era’s production tools: the manual composition of individual lead sorts.

He also knew how to reevaluate himself. Choc is in fact a result of various efforts to make a bold for Mistral, of which a trial font was in the hands of Gérard Blanchard for years, but was simply put aside purely because it did not satisfy the eyes of its creator. A careful analysis of the design’s aesthetics confirms that Choc perfectly fulfills its role of a bold when used with Mistral: picture writing a document with a fountain pen and needing to vary some headings, some words. The best means is none other than to choose a darker instrument, such as a fat felt pen. Choc is exactly that process adapted to typography.

In promoting the faces of the Olive foundry, Roger Excoffon was an aesthete. He reworked the dummy text that forms the perfect gray of typographic catalogs many times over; he started it with: Triumphant at the borders of an abolished empire… Thus the typefaces are presented so as to outsmart the eyes of the viewer looking for his next typeface6.

Roger Excoffon, antique olive

Masterwork of his typographic œuvre, Catsilou7 (later renamed Antique Olive) is cast as a Latin rebuttal to Univers and Helvetica, which would take pride of place in international typography. This Olive foundry sans is more than that. Antique Olive is a typeface that’s horizontally expansive, while the sans serifs of that time were constructed using shapes with terminals asserting a verticality characteristic of Didot. This principle of horizontal expansiveness matches the direction of the eye on a line of text — the forms are more open, visible, the counters are more easily seen. We would have to wait until the mid-1970s to see this category of shapes spread with Adrian Frutiger’s Frutiger8, and also Praxis, which with Demos forms a “superfamily” conceived by Gerard Unger for Hell. Already mentioned above, Evert Bloemsma, by giving FF Balance inverted weights, judiciously thicker towards the top of the x-height, surely used Antique Olive as a main source of inspiration, a sort of revival of the original idea. In fact Roger Excoffon asked Gérard Blanchard to carry out research on the legibility studies of Emile Javal, entrusting him with this painstaking job in order to justify and implement an open typeface with a large eye and inverted weights. The typographic result is a study in legibility, a synthesis of that time period’s research concerning the reading process.

Roger Excoffon’s cleverness is also in evidence in publishing Antique Olive, where instead of following the standard marketing scheme of a family with a light Roman, tried from the start to force through the stunning, surprising, unusual shapes: he chose to lead with the famous Antique Olive Nord9, seen in numerous French logos of the 1960s, including hundreds conceived by himself and his team, such as for Air France. By publishing Nord first, he put forth a powerful and contemporary extra-bold conducive to titling work, where the ideas of legibility were actually only hinted at and barely visible to eyes unattuned to things typographic. Afterwards it was easier to justify the elaboration of the family as simply an addition to the Nord already in use. So a means of getting over the hump of promoting a daring idea concerning legibility, which would have probably been rejected if proposed outright.

Even though Roger Excoffon belongs to the French graphic design landscape of the 1950s and 1960s, his work should be studied in depth, and not simply as part of the popular imagery of a prolific post-war France with its flood of goods, appliances and design elements become kitsch over time. His work surpasses the mistaken view that leads a type designer to look to the past and the imposing history of typography. He is resolutely facing the present day, active, dynamic, alive, never static, like his designs. His style, his typographic bravado, his reasoned thoughts are a model for the type designer I’ve become over the years.

Roger Excoffon, Francois Ganneau, vendome

Jean François Porchez.

Notes

1 Gérard Blanchard, The state of contemporary typo-graphic design in France from the end of the Second World War to the year 2000, Lettres Françaises, edited by Jean François Porchez, ATypI, 1998.

2 In opposition to those who take part in the annual summertime sessions of the Rencontres Internationales de Lure held in the village of Lurs-en-Provence, whose inhabitants are called Lursians.

3 Gerard Unger, The border of beer and wine, Lettres Françaises, edited by Jean François Porchez, ATypI, 1998.

4 Christian Schwartz, Paul Barnes, “Deep in the archives”, Eye Magazine #75.

5 1993, ATypI Anvers, Belgium. Annual conference of ATypI (Association Typographique Internationale), founded by Charles Peignot in 1957.

6 Conversation with Gérard Blanchard (circa 1995).

7 José Mendoza y Almeida & Gérard Blanchard, Communication et langages #57, 1983.

8 Based on the Roissy typeface designed by Adrian Frutiger for the signage of Paris’s Roissy – Charles de Gaulle airport, 1973.

9 Observations garnered during an interview of José Mendoza y Almeida by the author, conducted in his workshop in Sèvres in December of 1998: José Mendoza y Almeida, créateur de caractères, Étapes #47, January 1999.

By Jean François Porchez, early May 2010, during a trip to Switzerland (Romand border).

Credits

Roger Excoffon, David Rault

Originally wrote for Roger Excoffon. Le gentleman typographe, published by Atelier Perrousseaux (French-English). €45, ISBN 978-2-911220-39-5. English translation by Hrant Papazian.

 

Roger Excoffon: a name that means little to the man in the street. And yet… if this man in the street were born in France between 1930 and today, he would doubtless have been exposed to one of his creations. This bilingual French and English monograph by David Rault (graphic designer and journalist, director of the Atelier Perrousseaux collection, member of ATypI, and author of Guide pratique de choix typographique) deals with the type designer as well as the adman, with the man as well as the artist, and features: a biography based on an unpublished interview Roger Excoffon gave to François Richaudeau in 1977; an important iconography (including rare photographs by Jean Dieuzaide and never before published paintings from private collections); and exceptional contributions by Massin, Peter Knapp, José Mendoza y Almeida, Jean-François Porchez, François Richaudeau, Yves Perrousseaux and Hrant Papazian.

Further reading

Roger Excoffon. Le gentleman typographe, By David Rault, Atelier Perrousseaux. Texts by Massin, Peter Knapp, José Mendoza y Almeida, Jean François Porchez, François Richaudeau, Yves Perrousseaux & Hrant Papazian (French-English).
Roger Excoffon et la fonderie Olive, By Sandra Chamaret & Julien Gineste & Sébastien Morlighem, Ypsilon (French-English).
France TV: Excoffon, un homme de caractères, at Musée de l’imprimerie de Lyon.
Tout le monde connaît Roger Excoffon, Éditions 205.
Blog in French about Roger Excoffon.