dot-font: A New Typographic Glasnost

At the beginning of December, I was in Moscow for the judging of bukva:raz!, the international type-design competition sponsored by ATypI, the Association Typographique Internationale. Moscow in December may not be most people’s idea of a fun-filled lark, but in fact it was fascinating, refreshing, enjoyable, and full of surprises. Oh, and the competition came up with some very fine typefaces, too.

The Book on bukva:raz!
I was there, officially, as an observer, because I’m editing the book that will come out of this: “Language Culture Type,” which will be published for ATypI by Graphis at the end of this summer; the book will be distributed to ATypI members at the 2002 conference in Rome, and will be on sale at all the usual places internationally. One of the things I’m doing for the book is to write an illustrated account of the judging itself. This column is a sort of foretaste of that, with a few ancillary observations that might not make it into the more focused write-up for the book.

Up to Their Eyeballs in Serifs
Since this was the first time ATypI had ever put on a type-design competition, everybody involved was on pins and needles wondering how many entries there would be. The idea of bukva:raz! was to be inclusive and comprehensive — and to represent as wide a variety as possible of the many scripts and languages that have been represented in type around the world. Publicity went out widely and repeatedly, in many countries.

As in every professional competition, only a handful of entries arrived in the early days. We worried. Chairman Maxim Zhukov worried. Would there be enough entries? Enough good entries? Would the range of typeface design of the past five years be truly represented at its best? Were some entries not arriving, or slow in arriving, because they had to be sent to Moscow?

In the end, the organizers in Moscow, who were tallying the incoming entries, were inundated. Anna Shmeleva, the bukva:raz! secretary, was up to her eyeballs in serifs. Over 600 typeface designs were sent in, from 30 countries, representing not just the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets but Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, Armenian, Devanagari, Georgian, Japanese, Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics, Amharic, Ogham, and the International Phonetic Alphabet. From this wealth of typographic talent, the panel of judges chose 100 winning designs (see figure 1).

Figure 1: Judges assess more than 600 typeface designs from 30 countries at the bukva:raz! competition in Moscow. Gerry Leonidas makes a point about one of the submissions. (Left-to-right: Akira Kobayashi, Matthew Carter, Gerry Leonidas, Fiona Ross, and Yuri Gherchuk.)

You can find the information about the winners, the judges, and the details of the competition at the bukva:raz! Section of ATypI’s web site. With 100 winners, it’s obviously not practical to show examples of all the designs on the site; you’ll just have to wait for the book.

Type Styles in the Streets
Moscow was awash in light. My partner Eileen Gunn, who had been to Moscow twice before, in Soviet times, was amazed at the changes: Advertising! Neon lights! Shops! Restaurants! People looking prosperous! People smiling!

As a typographer, I found myself peering around constantly to see the kinds of lettering and type in the streets. I speak only a few words of Russian, but I can read the Cyrillic alphabet (though I have trouble with some of the cursive forms). There was advertising everywhere, and it took every form imaginable (see figure 2). Some of it was in the Latin alphabet; perhaps there’s a cachet to English and other Western languages at this moment in Russia’s history. Often enough, the script was Cyrillic but what it was advertising was European or American – Kentucky Fried Chicken, for instance, or McDonalds. Most of the businesses, though, were homegrown.

Figure 2: Many styles of Cyrillic lettering abound in
Moscow, such as this found on a back street. While not representative of any particular lettering style, the bottom sign seems vaguely reminiscent of show-card lettering from the ’20s.

There’s been a vogue for typefaces that reflect the pre-Revolutionary days, which means a lot of Art Nouveau, and more modern type designs that were influenced by Art Nouveau. (I spotted a large building whose top was labeled in a Cyrillic version of ITC Benguiat.) There’s an even older visual reference in all the lettering styles based on the old writing of the Russian Orthodox Church, the very beautiful letterforms that preceded Peter the Great’s huge writing reform in the 17th century, when he insisted that Russian should be written – or at least printed – in forms that resembled the then-current type styles of the West. The old styles, with their religious associations and their deep references to Russia’s past, now show up everywhere, but they’re especially prevalent around the historic buildings of the Kremlin. (Some of this is clearly for tourist purposes – that is, Russian tourists, since the Cyrillic type styles wouldn’t evoke any historic echoes for visitors from the West.)

There’s also enormous creativity in the design of new, rough, cutting-edge typefaces. The family-run type and design studio Letterhead, whose typefaces have won previous design competitions in Russia and abroad, welcomed us and gave Eileen and me a window into the local culture during our couple of extra days in Moscow.

I’ve written about Yuri Gordon and his type designs (in a 1999 article for “Print” magazine); with his son Illarion, his colleague Valery Golyzhenkov, and Yuri’s wife Olga Vasilkova, who is an artist but not a type designer, Yuri has been able to turn type and graphic design into a viable business in a dicey economic climate. As Yuri, Valery, and Illarion guided us around Moscow on the subway, they could point to posters and ads that used their types – sometimes in ads designed by them, sometimes by others. (“We never use that one anymore,” said Yuri at one point. “It’s too ubiquitous.”)

Browsing the Russian National Library
On the Monday after the end of the judging, the judges and guests such as ourselves were invited to the rare-book room of the Russian National Library (formerly the Lenin Library). There, in the crumbling building across from the Kremlin, Yuri Gherchuk, who was one of the judges and is an art historian and critic who specializes in typography, book design, and illustration, gave us a private tour of some of the rarest holdings from the history of Russian printing and Cyrillic type.

The earliest Cyrillic books were actually printed in western and central Europe, but we were allowed not only to see but to handle and look through a copy of the first book printed in Russia, from (if I recall right) 1564. The library also had examples of a Cyrillic font cut, apparently, by the great 16th-century French punchcutter Robert Granjon. The Granjon Cyrillic had never been publicized or written about in Russian typographic circles, although Matthew Carter said he thought he had run across something in one of the libraries in Rome. (He later
researched this and found that there’s a specimen in the Biblioteca Vallicelliana.) It was, as you might expect, a very beautiful typeface.

We also got to look at a small volume from the late 17th century, one of the early books printed in the “Civil Type” designed by Tsar Peter the Great. The new typeface was based on current Dutch faces, but, as was explained to us, since the tsar went with the lowest bidder, his new type was not based on the best Dutch types but on the mediocre ones. Since that was a golden age of Dutch type design, some modern Russian typographers have wondered how different the look of three centuries of Russian printing might be if Peter had gone for the best.

Year of Dialogue
There’s much more, both typographically and culturally. A week in Moscow, in the company of an international group of typographic experts and a welcoming community of local talents, can’t be described in just a few words.

The bukva:raz! competition was conceived as ATypI’s contribution to the United Nations’ “Year of Dialogue among Civilizations” (2001). It would have been an admirable goal in any year, but as it turned out, in a year of destruction and hatred across much of the world, this sharing and celebration of the great variety of our cultures and languages and types seemed a very appropriate contribution after all.

Posted on: January 4, 2002

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