Alejandro Lo Celso and Gabriel Martínez Meave interviewed by Jean François Porchez.

As France is categorized as Latin country, we’re always interested to see what happens in other Latin countries. It looks like we have something in common, culturally, with respect to Italy, Portugal and Spain, perhaps; but in fact less with Latin America countries.

Introduction

As France is categorized as Latin country, we’re always interested to see what happens in other Latin countries. It looks like we have something in common, culturally, with respect to Italy, Portugal and Spain, perhaps; but in fact less with Latin America countries. I heard about Alejandro’s work for the first time from my friend Gerry Leonidas, who is in charge of the MA Type Design curriculum at Reading University, then discovered his Rayuela concept (in brief: “not all typefaces are suitable for all languages”) which I liked very much, as I’d done a presentation during the 1997 ATypI conference on a similar subject. The specimen of Rayuela, included in the 2000 ATypI goody bag, explained it very well. Alejandro visited me a couple of months later and we kept in contact. After a couple of years, he improved his skills and recently has won the Matthew Carter prize at the Morisawa awards. For Gabriel, the story also started during an ATypI conference. This time, because we sat beside each other at the Leipzig gala dinner, we had the opportunity to discuss various things. He showed us at the table his marvelous type designs. (if I recall correctly, at the table were Petra Cern Oven, Shelley Gruendler, John Hudson, and Jeremy Tankard). He offered me his booklet and I carefully kept it with my other specimens. I was very impressed by his expressive Lagarto and the way he managed to make lively geometric typefaces too, he makes them “organic” as he says. In the 2002 ATypI Rome goody bag, again a small specimen from him was included, and again it was wonderfully valuable.
During these type discoveries, a 2001 type conference in Buenos Aires organized by Rubén Fontana’s team was internationally regarded as a major sign of true emergence of Latin American typography. Another sign is the strong presence of Latin, and Latin American, type enthusiasts on Typophile forums. Jean François Porchez

Alejandro Lo Celso

Gabriel Martínez Meave

What are you doing the last minute before you started to answer us?

Alejandro Lo Celso I arrived at my office at the Universidad de las Américas, where I started work three months ago. I had a look at the beautiful snow top of our towering Popocatépetl volcano from my window, and finally checked my email and discovered that Jean François Porchez had sent me his questions at the bottom of his messages, three times already, and I hadn’t realized!

Gabriel Martínez Meave I was arriving at my office, from a two-hour trip from Puebla, a city about 200 km from Mexico City (by the way, Alejandro is living near there right now). I was at the Universidad Cuauhtémoc, in a little chat on type and graphic design.

Organica by Gabriel Martínez Meave is an interesting semiserif mixture of organic and geometric forms. The letterforms make the text dancing like a “page fiesta.”

And your actual project?

ALC Since I arrived in Cholula, Mexico, my main activity has been that of teaching — or trying to teach — typography to undergraduates of the Information Design course here at the Universidad de las Américas. This is a special place, not at all an average university of the country, in terms of its good resources. It is said to be a university for rich people, though it is not strictly that. The town is probably the most ancient religious center of the region, and was early christened by conqueror Hernán Cortés as “the city of 365 churches”! (He actually counted 430 pyramids or teocallis from the top of the greatest one, whose base doubles that one of Cheops!). Today, these people have turned into the form of noisy tourists, but still you can feel you are in the center of a mysterious, ancient knowledge site. Since I teach typography, I’ve found no time left for designing type yet. But I seek it.

GMM I have different projects right now, mostly in graphic and editorial design. Kimera (my studio) is a small design firm — and a newly-born type foundry. We are doing a magazine, some label and packaging design, logos and corporate identity. Very recently we started the design of a local newspaper, in which I was given the opportunity to feature some of my fonts for text and titles. This year we have been involved also in design projects for Camel, the Mexican beers Sol and Indio, and logos and branding for products ranging from chocolates to Pampers to industrial paint. Concerning type, I have been mostly working at completing my fonts, adding weights and versions, as well as working on Lagarto, a custom-made font inspired in a 16th-century colonial manuscript.

Rayuela by Alejandro Lo Celso is his the first typeface started during his MA Type Design course at Reading University. The main concept is a study of the differences between text compositions for several languages, and the effect of the characteristic letterforms.

Rayuela’s various alternates appeared later with the development of the family that includes a nice open face.

What is your typical journey?

ALC As I said, while adapting to this new place (Mexico and Argentina, being culturally strong references of Latin America, however have very important differences in day-to-day life: language, food, habits and so on), my new job and life have kept me from designing type, which has been my main activity since I joined the MA Type Design course at Reading University, United Kingdom, in 1999. I later finished my stage at the “Atelier National de Recherche Typographique” at Nancy, France, in 2001. Usually, I wake up at 7:30, do a quiet 10 minutes journey to work, passing through by beautiful Cholultec pyramids, and get to my office. I’ve got two beginning levels of students, first and third semester of Typography & Text. Academic work here seems to me a very stimulating environment to keep myself inside all typographic and design issues. Students are a constant source of learning for me. I also find some time to run my own small foundry PampaType, which presents to me the possibility of getting my work published and used by other designers. This has been a great pleasure. And from time to time I also get a chance to write short parts of an endless novel that hope I will publish one day, and which of course has to do with typography! Having said that, I look forward to get back to some “real life” projects again. I am starting to meet some very interesting Mexican graphic and type designers, among them Gabriel Martínez Meave, whose work has always struck me for its great originality.

GMM My typical journey starts early, since I live far away from the studio, in the outskirts of Mexico City (which happens to be very big and troublesome). I spend most of my office time doing packaging or advertising commissions, attending meetings with clients and supervising other projects. If I have some time left, I check mail and answer typo-questionaries! The rest of the time I eat, sleep and design type, among other basic human activities. So type design is not my main professional activity, though I wi sh it were. That’s because it’s not easy to make a living only doing type in Mexico at the present time, to say nothing about graphic design, which sometimes is not very well paid. Fortunately, in the last two years I have been more and more involved in interesting type projects, many of them derived from the other design projects done at my studio. As far as I know, I am the first Mexican designer who has been commissioned to do an original typeface for a Mexican client, and I am getting paid for it. In my spare time I teach, help my wife to take care of three cats, play a little piano and enjoy traveling.

Arcana by Gabriel Martínez Meave is a lively and very dynamic calligraphic script based on historical researches on nineteenth century romantic scripts and the quill scripts of the Victorian era.

Lagarto by Gabriel Martínez Meave is based on the manuscript of the same name, by a sixteenth-century Mexican calligrapher. The letterforms are imaginative and playful, pushing the swash style to the extremes.

What is responsible for Latin America’s new wave of type design?

ALC Well, I think there are several reasons. One, might be a classic European ethnocentricity, quite self-explained if we think of it as the very origin of our actual Western civilization. Europeans tend to think that things happening outside Europe and New York are peripheral, don’t they?
Something similar occurs in the United States, though it might seem a bit more open to Latin America in that respect. Naturally the great type designers we admire are also still from Europe and USA, with the sole consideration of some Eastern Europeans, namely Menhart and Preissig, whose works I just consider amazing. (And yes, I also hate Rotis!)
On the other hand, it is easy to think of the “Latino” feeling, widely incorporated as a ready-to-use fashion in the northern countries and its correlative in typography. Let’s face it: this is usually interpreted as a “minor” expression by some, and quietly pushed to the display type area, where everything seems to be allowed. Gabriel and myself, for instance, seem to be working in a different direction, trying to get our own views and thoughts into text typefaces (even if Gabriel wouldn’t allow such a distinction for seeming pedantic). But of course the same happens with many other Latin American designers, whose valuable work was greatly shown and appreciated by numerous attendees at the biggest type event which occurred in Latin America ever: the tipoGráfica magazine congress at Buenos Aires, November 2001. Around 700 people participated in workshops and attended important talks by designers such as Matthew Carter, Lucas de Groot, Erik Spiekermann, and Gerry Leonidas. Meanwhile an enormous exhibition showed the work of many graphic and type designers from Argentina, Brasil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Paraguay and other countries. The whole event had a very important impact on the region, and on the way we ourselves consider our own work in regard of that of the “central” countries. I think notable changes have taken place since then. Access to current technology is not a difference between industrialized and non industrialized countries anymore, and naturally Latin American voices will have something to say to the world. There might be a fresher approach due to a different sensibility, less attached to tradition and more keen to search for changes; as it has proven to be with American designers during the xxth century, namely Williams Addison Dwiggins and Frederic Goudy.

GMM In Mexico, this “wave” is relatively recent, although there has been interest in typography and letterforms for centuries (in fact, Mexico has the oldest typographical tradition in the Americas, dating from 1531, when the first printer, Juan Pablos, established his workshop in Mexico City). This new wave, I think, was accelerated by the introduction of the Mac and the digital type-setting technologies. Quite simply, before the Mac came along almost all type was imported from abroad, with the exception of a few, interesting cases in the colonial times and the 19th century. On the other hand, there was a big local tradition of popular lettering and sign painting, made by specialists named rotulistas. This “new wave” — or “type boom” as some local publications call it — probably started in the early 1990s, mostly among very young designers who rebelled against the old “correct” use of type (our teachers kept telling us about the marvelous — but somewhat alien to us — properties of Garamond, Times and Helvetica). Not having an established type-design tradition, like those of Germany, The Netherlands, or France, we started to do type design from scratch, some designers making grunge-style fonts inspired by our northern neighbors, some rescuing vernacular and popular letterforms found all over Mexico, and some others taking inspiration from our extensive — and not very well understood (even by Mexicans) — pre-Columbian heritage of graphics, architecture and imagery. All this activity paved the way for local design magazines, notably Matiz, DX and especially Typo, to start publishing and spreading the work of Mexican type designers, among them Gonzalo García Barcha, Enrique Ollervides, Edgar Reyes and José Luis Cóyotl Mixcóatl. Later on, we realized that designers from Argentina, Brazil or Colombia were doing the same thing, which provided an unprecedented interchange of ideas between Latin American designers, which is amazing to me.

Integra by Gabriel Martínez Meave inspired by some fifteenth century tombs seems influenced by booth Rotis and some Excoffon typefaces, together with a truly Latin touch who make it more lively than its references.

What makes you different from a designer in the USA or EEC?

ALC ¿Economically? Well, that’s a very delicate question for an Argentinean right now. What is happening in Argentina, as a consequence of the IMF markets’ experiments of the recent past, is very sad. It’s certainly very sad for my generation in my country to see how our dreams for a better place to live are sold very cheaply to an economic model. A weak citizenship consciousness, plus opportunistic politicians, have been the perfect formula to match for domination appetite of the money power. From a cultural perspective Latin America is a very rich part of the globe. Meso-American civilizations, notably the Mayas and the Incas, their heritage and historical presence mainly among Mexicans and Central Americans, plus the “criollo” culture that developed within the Spanish conquest and after the subsequent independence processes taken in all different countries, with all its social characters, gave our people certain peculiarities. That shows in architecture, traffic, religion, food, social habits, ceremonies, languages, and in the character and mood of people in the street. Indeed Argentina might enjoy the most European-like culture of the region, while Mexico takes probably the opposite extreme of the spectrum. But neither we Argentineans are Europeans at all, although our faces, architecture, food and wines would tend to convince you of that, nor are all Mexicans proud of their indian roots, endlessly pushing themselves as they do to the cliché of American lifestyle. Maybe this sort of thing is what makes us culturally similar: a big question mark over our identity label! And all this happens regardless of the languages spoken in each of the countries, which differ a lot, not only in words and expressions (I always find myself frozen in front of vegetables in stores, trying to figure out what it is that I’m going to buy!) but also in tone and accents, according to the voices and inflections inherited from the different peoples who were in each region long before Columbus arrived.

GMM I have always thought that we belong to the Occidental civilization, but to the edge of it. In fact, Latinization in Mexico was forced onto peoples who already had a complex degree of civilization of their own, many of whom had long-established literary and scribal traditions, a strong economy in some cases and even an organized production of what we would call today “consumer goods.” In the USA, on the contrary, the aboriginal population was simply put aside, so their “American” culture is a byproduct of Occidental, Anglo-Saxon culture. Mexico is a hybrid, “mestizo” nation with a thin layer of Europeanization over a deep aboriginal background. If you add to this that, besides Spanish, there are about 60 native languages still spoken in Mexico, some of which have a million or more speakers, you should have and idea of the culturally-complex mosaic this country is. These languages, by the way, are extremely different from one another. For instance, Náhuatl and Otomí, both spoken in the surroundings of Mexico City, are as alien to each other as German is to Thai. On the other hand, some Latin American countries, like Chile or Argentina, are less “mestizo” and more immigrant-based, so the aboriginal impact in their culture is probably less apparent. As an old Mexican joke goes, “Mexicans descended from the Aztecs, while Argentineans descended from the ships” (I’m not sure my English translation is good enough!). Economically speaking, I think that things are not too bad, nor too good. In comparison with the USA, Mexico is rather underdeveloped, but substantially more prosperous than other third-world countries. Perhaps the most typical — and sad — situation in Latin American countries is the uneven distribution of riches, with a few people living lives of luxury on one side and lots of poor people on the other, with a small and unstable middle class struggling to survive between them. All this makes Mexico a very different place from the USA and the EEC. Inevitably — and sometimes happily — Mexico is linked to Europe and the Occidental culture, two of its assets being the Latin alphabet and our beautiful Spanish language, four-hundred-million-speakers strong.

Alejandro Lo Celso, with his typeface Borges, shows how mature his forms are: a good balance between strong ideas and smooth equilibrium at text size. Again, a very nice Open face that seems to indicate he fell in love with this category.

What is your approach in terms of type design?

ALC I realize I have a literature tendency, exploiting this — maybe lyric — idea of trying to cope with the styles and themes of the writers of my region. Thus my typeface Rayuela is inspired by the work of Julio Cortázar, whose most known novel, Rayuela — appeared in 1963 — completely changed the way Latin American literature was written and read. My Rayuela type is intended for long texts, though you might not find it easy in the beginning. One of my challenges was to explore how much informality can be brought to text without losing letter recognition and clear word shaping. Some variants of the family were also developed for display use, including an Extra Black roman and an Open face, which have been quite successful, to my surprise! Before leaving my country I completed ten variants of a new family I was developing at that time, inspired by Jorge Luis Borges’ literature. I hope Borges wouldn’t have complained about the type. In regard to Cortázar, he hasn’t done so! The Open face variant of Borges has just been awarded a Judge’s Prize (Matthew Carter) at the Morisawa Awards 2002.

GMM While I was at college, studying design, I was shocked by the differences between the things they taught me and my immediate, every-day reality. My teachers told me about the Bauhaus, about the Swiss international design, about corporate identity, about Gill Sans and Univers, but they told me nothing about the signs in the street, about other script systems, like the Maya, about the Mexican colonial printers, or about the lettering in popular Mexican products or food found all over the place. I simply watched a lot of great visual ideas on my surroundings that were not even mentioned in class! At the same time I was developing a special interest in type, which eventually grew into a passion. So, when I started designing my first fonts, I just tried to put some of those ideas into type. I tried to do something as good as Garamond, but from a personal and local perspective. And I’m still trying.

Economista by Gabriel Martínez Meave is a custom typeface family commissioned by the Mexican business newspaper “El Economista” and it helped create a strong typographic identity along with the page layout. The typeface has been considered easier to read by the customers and the owners of the newspaper, which proves again that readability is a true cultural fact.

Both of you seem have some interest in newspapers typography. True?

ALC Well, I used to work in newspapers. I was part of the Art Department at a couple of major papers in Buenos Aires. In one of those a very long and thorough process of redesign was carried on by a Catalan design agency, and of course all type issues were brought to the fore. I saw how the beautiful Scala was renamed with the name of the paper and awfully postmodern display faces were added as companions to Scala for the supplements’ titles. But I learnt a lot about type and its relationships to layout and press. I guess I should face a newspaper type project in the future?
An interesting discussion took place at the ATypI forum recently, in regard to letterform visual codes imposed by tradition of reading in newspapers. Some said that a more coarse, robust, less subtle face was more appropriate for a news layout, while others considered this an old fashioned statement, and accepted that a more refined, “bookish” typeface was perfectly suitable for a paper. On the first side there were mainly English, and on the other mainly Dutch. I found this very interesting. Gerard Unger has said that there’s no more technical constraint in a newspaper’s press for rejecting the possibility of designing a very subtle, fine, and delicate typeface for it. And indeed his Paradox family is a notable result of this ironic statement. I wonder if we are going to keep visual codes strictly related to past technical constraints, or will follow Herbert Spencer’s advice: “Liberate the page!”

GMM Type in newspapers is challenging, because it has to fulfill a very specific function, and it has to look distinctive and transparent, at the same time. It has also to work well in less-than-ideal circumstances, like uneven inking and irregular paper. I have made only one design specifically for a newspaper, the family Economista, for the diary of the same name. It has been an enriching experience, because this typeface combines baroque, neoclassical and modernist elements in a single design, and I was given complete creative freedom to develop the concept. A curious thing is that some friends who are type connoisseurs have told me that they find this design a little too daring and probably not completely appropriate for a newspaper, but both the owners of the diary and the public appear to have liked it, since their opinion is that it is “easier to read” than the previous font (a condensed ITC Garamond!) and more “modern and intriguing” to their eyes.

to be continued… Part II

Credits

Copyright 2002 Alejandro Lo Celso, Gabriel Martínez Meave and Jean François Porchez. Thanks to John Downer.