Probably the last text by Gérard Blanchard, wrote in July 1998. Originally published in Lettres Françaises, a collective book on type design in France conducted by Jean François Porchez for ATypI Lyon 1998.

Let us begin with a short overview of those nineteenth & twentieth centuries that no longer really belong to us. All the generations of typographers who used metal type in their daily work understood the power of that poem of rectangularity, Gutenberg’s mechanism, the industrious craft that reached its first apogee with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, & carried on until the middle of the twentieth century. (Whatever importance it has as a pre-cursor, I shall leave to one side the technique of stereotyping used by the Didots & others which, with its moulds & plates, brought the pages of newspapers & cheap editions back to an earlier existence as the block books of pre-typographic printing.) Ideas of space in typographic architecture underwent an abrupt shift with the arrival of photocomposition & paste-up.

This technological mutation eliminated whole areas of traditional skill, to the advantage of new generations brought up with computers. One of the tasks of the twenty-first century must be to build on the ruins of letterpress printing by discovering foundations that are older still: those of writing itself. New rules will be needed to calm our anxieties, including those that stem from the false reassurances of a history denied at first & then revised as “new history.” Without going back to the Flood, let us compare the condition of typo-graphic design in France today with that of yesterday & the day before.

I put a break in the word typo-graphy to take better account of the transition from “legible/visible” text to “visible/legible” graphics in which the impact of the work as a whole, perhaps with letters included as graphic elements, takes precedence over its legibility. When the dimension of sound is added, as an independent component or synchronised with changes in the text, it acquires an importance that has no precedent except in purely oral cultures. The faders of the mixing desk take over from the surrealists’cut-&-paste as influences on the graphic design of the future.

Gérard Blanchard (on the left) with Ladislas Mandel during the annual summer session of the Rencontres internationale de Lure, Lurs-en-Provence, France.

First stage – the day before yesterday

The death of Gutenberg, announced in 1952–54 by Maximilien Vox as well as by MacLuhan, followed on the application of photography to typographic composition. This was not before time ; Nièpce’s first photograph dates from 1822. It was above all the technical evolution from flat-bed lithography to offset printing that brought about the decisive transition from Gutenberg’s (and the Monotype’s) movable types, via the single-line slug of the Linotype, to the compositional unit of several lines (a kind of visual paragraph at a higher level than the linguistic-semantic division of the text into sentences) & thence to the graphic unit of the single or even double page, altering as it did so the understanding of how space is articulated on the printed surface.

In addition, photocomposition rapidly recycled five centuries’worth of typefaces salvaged from the hell-boxes of history. This was the latest remodelling of the “Imaginary museum of historical designs” that was modestly begun in France by Louis Perrin or Eugène Grasset or in England by William Morris, & patiently completed by Stanley Morison for the Monotype Corporation between the wars. Archetypal designs were recovered from more or less remote periods & countries & redrawn for the composing machines of the time (Aldines, Garamonds, Fourniers, Baskervilles, Bodonis & so on.)

The France of 1944 was still staggering from the consequences of the war, & its printers’equipment was worn out. This helped towards a progressive conversion from letterpress printing to offset lithography &, after many hesitations & disappointments, to photocomposition with the Photon-Lumitype & the Monophoto. The new technology copied the existing heritage of typefaces on to the photographic matrices of its new machines.

French type design, already suffering the consequences of the first world war & the economic crash of the 1920s, had been dealt a further blow by the war of 1939–45. The partition of the country under the Nazis was still perceptible in the post-war rivalry between the Deberny & Peignot & Olive foundries & their principal designers Frutiger & Excoffon. The Fonderie typographique française, bulit up on the ashes of the small French foundries, was not capable of playing the arbiter in that contest. Looking for a second wind after the prolonged success of Cheltenham, the American design for which it was the agent, the ftf promoted & then abandoned Crous-Vidal & his inclined sanserif Paris with its shaded version Flash (which in 1953 served as the banner of an unsuccessful attempt to return to a so-called “latin typography”). In 1957, with the “grotesque” or “gothic” style of sanserif at the height of fashion, the FTF was pushing Folio/Caravelle, designed by Konrad Bauer & Walter Baum.

Excoffon, Olive’s brother-in-law, confined himself to the design of ornamental faces for advertising : Chambord (a pseudo-Peignot) in 1945, Banco in 1951, Mistral in 1953, Antique Olive in 1962. At Deberny & Peignot, Frutiger stood at the crossroads between traditional typesetting & photocomposition. In 1957, with the 21 variants of his Univers, he represented the emerging theme of the “Swiss international style” that was ably defended by Professor Ruder at Basle.

Apart from these three principals, there were almost no openings for type design in France. The new team of young designers, like Mandel, Boton & Mendoza, were working anonymously in the foundries’drawing offices.

Gérard Blanchard during the annual summer session of the Rencontres internationale de Lure.

Second stage – yesterday

The pre-war generation of designers like Cassandre or Jacno now worked on commercial or cultural brand images & graphic identities. With Jacno, they found a new medium for their work in dry-transfer lettering.

The development of photo-lettering machines for advertising typography provided scope for more or less ephemeral work to many graphic designers who were also passionate about letter-drawing. In the 1970s Hollenstein’s studio brought together Chante, Larcher, Alessandrini & others with a strong inclination towards ornamental design, influenced by the pop-art & op-art record sleeves of the time. Boltana, Boton & Mendoza were more traditional. In the international type-design market led by the traditional manufacturers & by new alliances such as the International typeface corporation, France played only a modest part. The market for type was in the hands of the manufacturers & distributors of printing machinery.

During the same period, beginning in 1954, well-known designers from all over Europe came to the Rencontres internationales de Lure in Haute-Provence to exchange ideas. The ATypI was established as a more formal grouping of Western type manufacturers which also included international figures in type design & typographic education.

Graphic-design education in France remained distant from these developments in spite of the development of a new profession of page makeup designers, self-taught for the most part. It was the Swiss school, profiting from the lessons of the Bauhaus, that defined the basic rules governing the ascetic purity of a “new” industrial aesthetic, put into practice by Frutiger, Hollenstein, Knapp, Widmer, Meyer & others.

In 1968, on the margins of the fine-art education system, the Scriptorium de Toulouse was founded by André Vernette. Continued by Bernard Arin, the training it offers in calligraphy has been a seed-bed for graphic designers who also design type. This training links up, late in the day but firmly & in an original way, with the tradition stemming from Edward Johnston’s work that was established in Europe – except for France – in the first decades of the century. As the Scriptorium dropped out of the official system the Atelier National de Création Typographique was established with the help of Ladislas Mandel & José Mendoza, associated first with the Imprimerie nationale & subsequently with the École nationale supérieure des arts décoratifs under the guidance of Peter Keller.

Gérard Blanchard (on the left) with Jean François Porchez during the annual summer session of the Rencontres internationale de Lure.

Third stage – today

What about specifically typo-graphic education? A new generation of designers is emerging from the École Estienne (with Franck Jalleau & Michel Derre) & from some other schools (with Jean-François Porchez) whose teachers have at last understood the challenges the subject presents. The question of craft training remains unresolved. The university, although it has awarded a few doctorates to specialists at the end of their careers (Blanchard, Peignot, Jacno, Ponot, Richaudeaux) has difficulty in promoting research in typo-graphy applied to new technologies.

There are indeed plenty of computer courses, but teaching computer-based typo-graphy demands a different set of objectives.

To begin with, revision & adaptation of the archetypes in the “museum” of type design, now all equally unfaithful to their originals in spite of misleading guarantees of authenticity. The present day must nevertheless be allowed its own view of history & its own theories to cater to the demands of advertising typo-graphy’s tourist trade, greedy for the picturesque & the fast food of brand images. These tourists of the post-modern recycle avant-garde designs as easily as the rearguard from the beginning of the century, & ultra-personal imagery as easily as folklore. Genetic engineering in the same area also produces hybrids & other monsters.

Every new type design now has to include a range of variants (light, semibold & bold at the very least), perhaps to the detriment of the design itself, for which the justification in terms of historical usage becomes less & less clear. What meaning can an ultrabold Garamond have, when it comes dangerously close to being a Cooper Black? The social function of connotation is lost, to the benefit of new functions defined in terms of new shapes & colours, outside the accustomed usages of historical reconstruction. The same happens in the theatre when classical works are re-staged in deliberately anachronistic styles that shed new light on their interpretation. The reference structures of our mental associations are no longer the same : their cultural environment has been radically altered.

The law of equivalence between a text & its graphic rendering, formulated in 1896 by Pelletan to put an end to all sorts of excesses in bookwork composition, is challenged by the law of optical contrasts (formal generalized oppositions). The latter law is an old one, precisely codified as far as the use of capital letters or italics is concerned. It becomes the leading authority with the use of bolds & sanserifs in advertising, taking the particular form that I call “total typo-graphy packs.” These correspond to what the socio-psychologists of Palo Alto have called paradoxical communication. Today, in contrast to the reductionist formula of the Swiss international style of the 1950s with a single sanserif typeface family (Akzidenz-Grotesk, Helvetica, Univers), multistyle design unites the oppositions of serif & sanserif, or semi-serif, semi-sans, typewriter faces & others, & presents no obstacle to the multiplication of visual variants that one sees for example with Adobe’s Multiple Master technology.

Final aspect of the question: the move into other media. Total typo-graphy is of the same order as the hyper-texts whose hyperlinks are invading the new networked spaces of cd-rom & the internet. Wandering typography, typography that moves, offers a field for experimentation well beyond those that television & the cinema could provide. Typography on screen exists in a space whose expanses invite us to dream of a new North-West passage.

I contemplate with great pleasure & interest the magnificent congregation of old & new designs that fills the following pages, all of them proud to exist & full of impatience to arrive we cannot be sure where.


By Gérard Blanchard, (c) 1998, Typographic researcher, Doctor Honoris Causa es Arts. All rights reserved. Translated in English by Richard Southall.

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Gérard Blanchard: 6 September, 1998