The Fate of Fonts, Part Four

History of French Fonts, Part Two

Cassandre and the Fonts of Art Déco

A. M. Cassandre, as the artist sometimes signed himself, was also known more simply as “Cassandre.” Adolphe Jean-Marie Mouron (1901-1968) burst on the Parisian scene as Cassandre with a prize-winning poster design for the Bûcheron furniture company. As can be seen by the lettering in this work, Cassandre’s career as a poster designer would be pivotal for his dual career as a font designer. Although the Bûcheron poster was influenced by Cubism and Futurism, the font he modified for the lettering was an ancient one, known as Capitalis quadrata. Capitalis quadrata was also known as capitalis elegans. Capitalis quadrata was a Carolingian (medieval French) revival of inscriptions carved in stone during the Roman Empire. The script may have been suitable for carving but writing it by hand was an awkward experience. Therefore Medieval scribes saved this difficult quill manipulation for titles and, laboriously, for coping Latin inscriptions. The Carolingian Empire under Charlemagne was a revival of the Roman Empire and the difficult font was selected deliberately and deployed semiotically to evoke past glories.Image result for cassandre au bucheron

Not only was capitalis elegans in the French bloodstream, it was also not as antique as it might seem, as this font is the ancestor for today’s square capitals. However, it must be admitted that the use of an ancient Roman font for a very modern poster was perhaps too hybrid for the modern era. After this excursion into thick letters inspired by the past, Cassandre confined himself to the more modern and sleek sans serif styles. Trained as an artist, it is clear that Cassandre brought an artist’s mind to the problem of modern design. But he also designed with a strict eye to mathematics and proportion. Every element of each poster was determined by an underlying “grid” of proportions, invisible to the eye of the intended audience but visible in the organization that made his layouts so effective. A Russian émigré, Cassandre seemed to be able to move easily among a number of artistic circles, which, no doubt, enabled him to remain inspired and open to new ideas.

According to the Rochester Institute of Technology,

Cassandre moved among the circles of the 1920s Parisian Avant-Garde which included the symbolist composer Eric Satie (1866-1925), the absurdist writer Apollinaire (1880-1918), and the Cubist painter Fernand Léger (1881-1955). Following the Art Deco premiere at the 1925 Exposition, Cassandre joined with designer Jean Carlu (1900-1997) to form a group of artists whose mission would be to advance Modernist aesthetics in all applications of design and thought. The Union des Artistes Modernes (UAM) was born of this common goal. Charles Peignot, joined the group’s membership with the likes of writer Jean Cocteau (1887-1963), Nobel laureate André Gide (1869-1951), architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965), decorator Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979), Maximilien Vox, and other artists who specialized in the design of jewelry, textiles, furniture, and lighting. Peignot later clarified the group’s purpose: “Together we tried to break away from the style that survived the first World War. It is not surprising that I tried to accomplish in my field what my friends were doing in theirs.”

Charles Peignot (1897-1983) was the artistic head and aesthetic guiding spirit behind the venerable French typefoundry Deberny et Peignot and was in search of artists who would join him in bringing the ossified field of designing fonts back to life. The three collaborators, Peignot, Vox, and Cassandre, produced Les Divertissements Typographiques, a publication designed by Vox to show off the new fonts designed by himself and Cassandre to potential buyers and publishers. The next unexpected juxtaposition famous artists occurred in 1929, when Charles Peignot acquired the rights to the Sans Serif typeface, “Futura,” designed by the German artist, Paul Renner (Renner will be discussed in the next post). The Futura font was a favorite of Vox, who asked Peignot to purchase it. Peignot was not particularly interested in the font, but debuted the character in 1931 under a new name, “Europe,” to give Futura a more international and less German origin. As Peignot said, “As to type fonts, a new internationalization is taking place.” The same year he acquired Futura, Peignot issued a new font he much preferred, the Bifur by Cassandre. Cassandre, an experienced poster designer, understood the importance of letters–not words, but the letters or fonts that composed the words–to the overall design. The words had to convey more than information, they had to convey the concept of the idea of the overall design and its message. For example, in the famous series of posters he did for Dubonnet, the letters of the brand name go from empty to full, just like the “little man” he depicted. The little man filled with color as he drank, a metaphor for the satisfaction one derives from drinking Dubonnet.

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The play between the lettering evolving from outlines to fully filled in shapes in the Dubonnet posters was part of Cassandre’s other trademark for the Jazz Age, his Bifur typeface. The Bifur is a witty exploration of the expanding shapes of the alphabet letters being filled in. The empty spaces in between the lines, the negative shapes, like the interior space of the D, were being emphasized through a series of “curtain lines” in the guise of straight marks that modestly cover the openness. The significance of Bifur is, of course, its evocation of the Jazz Age, but conceptually, the font is quite brilliant. An artist–not a calligrapher, not a font designer–was at work. Cassandre worked with an idea, a concept, seeing the sans serif alphabet in a new way, as a series of spaces caused by a series of lines. In other words, he saw the letters in terms of figures breaking the purity of the plain ground. Once the line or the mark is placed on a plane, then space is created in the mind of the viewer. However, readers had been conditioned to “see” letters as flat objects, of little importance in themselves, existing only as elements that form words that needed to be read. Therefore the words are looked at, viewed, while the individual letters were visually glossed over. What Cassandre achieved was to activate, not just the characters but also the spaces between the lines that were integral to the making of each shape. As Stephen Eskilson wrote in his book, Graphic Design: A New History, Second Edition, “Type such as Bifur are conceptually tied to Cassandre’s poster aesthetic, inasmuch as it uses strikingly stylized shapes in order to grab the viewer in the blink of an eye. Broadly speaking, most Ar Deco types are so easily associated with the look of this era they did not develop longstanding or universal appeal.” However, one could argue that the main interest of the Bifur is not its Art Deco designation but its visual play between “dressed and undressed,” “finished and unfinished,” and other clever binaries.

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This 1929 font can be seen his Nord Express posters in which the interiors are whisked away by the speed of the train which carried away the delicate lines, leaving the solid forms behind, legible to those who understood the new Art Deco font designed by Cassandre. In the poster, the nascent possibility that letters could travel was activated by the artist who was always thinking of new ways to use a straight line.

Cassandre occasionally wrote of his creations, explaining his concepts but always in a rather elliptical fashion, careful to not give away his design secrets. The essay he wrote on the Bifur font was a case in point. Published in the Arts et métiers graphiques when the lettering was unveiled, Cassandre’s essay tended towards to poetic:

Bifur is a word, a single word. But a star word. It enters a page like a leading ballerina sweeping into the radiance of a spotlight while the other dancers sink into the background on either side. Bifur was not designed by a freakish imagination ; on the contrary, I worked out a precise problem and then endeavoured to resolve it while staying strictly within the bounds of typography. I want to stress the fact that Bifur is not an ornamental letter. Bifur was conceived in the same spirit as a vacuum cleaner or an internal combustion engine. It is meant to answer a specific need, not to be decorative. It is this functional character that makes it suitable for use in our contemporary world. Initially, a letter is a pure form, but it is gradually distorted by the woodblock carver’s chisel, the scribe’s alcoholic pen, the etcher’s needle used by the first punch-cutters who delighted in imitating the pen. I have tried to restore to the letter that which originally belonged to it, and to it alone. Therefore, it Bifur looks unfamiliar and strange, it is not because I have dressed it up eccentrically but because, in the midst of a fully clothed crowd, it is naked. I have simply tried to revive the word’s original power as an image. Reduced to its barest expression, its simplest form, the word becomes more “photogenic” to our tired retinas, I believe. DANGER. Bifur was designed to function like a railroad signal-a peremptory stop sign. If by accident it does not function as it should–if it is mishandled, say, by an inexperienced typographer-disaster is inevitable. Bifur was designed for advertising. It was designed for a word, a single word, a poster word. As Blaise Cendars once said in reply to a questionnaire on advertising, “I wish that you would find–you who are today calling on writers-a spontaneous poetic genius who will come up with a simple, gigantic word that can take its place above Paris along with the gigantic Bébé Cadum poster.” Bifur was cast to print that word.

Acier of 1930 and Acier Noir, the font of 1935, also played with the half full and half empty theme, where each letter was fully formed but its lines were either left as outlines or its contours were filled in. Cassandre used color to fill in the empty shapes or the negative space that lay within each letter, activating unused possibilities.

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But the most familiar font is the “Peignot,” designed by Cassandre, and is the most identifiably Art Deco font of all. The delight of Peignot, his most popular font, is its indulgences in the occasional curved line and the gently rounded edges that replace the sharp elbows of his early fonts. Most distinctive are the font’s sudden extensions, swooping off at the will of the artist-writer and the combination of the two cases, upper and lower in the same word, again at the whim of the designer. In creating new typefaces or fonts, Cassandre was part of the post-war urge to create a style of lettering that expressed what it meant to be modern. Is important to stress once again that Peignot was designed for the Deberny et Peignot foundry, which was dedicated to keeping pace with changing times. In addition, the work Cassandre did for the firm was aimed or targeted, not so much at book publishers but more often to advertisers looking for a distinctive font.

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The post-war printers were very competitive and sought to develop their own unique signature fonts to attract customers. Creating a new font was not a task to be undertaken lightly. In a highly complex craft, largely lost today, a “punch” or the outline of the letter in steel was carved out and was then transferred to a copper matrice, an hours-long painstaking process done by only a few skilled professionals. The individual letters, capitals and lower case as desired, done in multiples, which are reusable for years. One can witness the arbitrariness and adventuresome nature of Peignot in which the capitals and lowers cases can appear at will within the same word. The 1920s were a golden age of experimenting with fonts and creating a modern design, suitable for the post-war period. With the invention of the distinctive typeface that became the visual signof the Jazz Age, Cassandre was one of the more successful of the Art Deco designers in that his work was probably circulated the most within popular culture. His covers for Harper’s Bazaar will be discussed in a later post, but his Surrealist designs for the late 1930s defined the decade before the Second World War just as strongly as his work in the twenties characterized Les Années Folles.

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In France, the invention and creation of new fonts for advertising and design were for the purpose of branding products and, therefore, of suggested a specific lifestyle. In the case of the Peignot font, the target reader was assumed to be sophisticated and knowledgable of all things fashion. This extremely moderne lettering appealed to an elegant upper crust, who needed to be tempted to purchase the latest luxury goods. It was Cassandre, who designed the still-used and very famous logo for Yves Saint-Laurent in 1961. In contrast to the merchandising role for fonts in France, in Germany, the font was fraught with political peril as will be discussed in the next post.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

The Fate of Fonts, Part Three

History of French Fonts, Part One

Cassandre and Deberny et Peignot

When an artist heaped with honors in his lifetime, including the being promoted an officer of the French Legion of Honor, ends his career with suicide that is a terrible tragedy and a great loss to the art world. But before the inexplicable end, this artist was the famed author of the visual culture of the post-war period. Born to French parents in the Ukraine, Adolphe Jean-Marie Mouron (1901-1968) shunted back and forth between France and Russia, until in 1915, the family moved to Paris permanently, thus missing the upheavals of the Russian Revolution. The young artist attended the local art academies in Paris, moved to Montparnasse in the 1920s, but did not take the expected path towards fine art. Instead, Mouron gravitated to a new and emerging field–modern graphic design, making his bones first as a prize-winning poster designer. In these early years, he adopted the pseudonym of “Cassandre,” which appeared from time to time with his last name or as “A. M. Cassandre.” Eventually, as he became famous, Mouron became the one the only and uniquely “Cassandre.” The artist first gained fame when he designed an orange-gold and black poster for a furniture company, Bûcheron, (the poster designs of Cassandre will be discussed in a later post), radiating diagonal lines that seemed to announce not just chairs, tables and bureaus but also the arrival of a new era of geometric shapes. Prominently displayed in Paris, this obvious and striking example of modern design won first prize at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs of 1925. The poster and the prize it won caught the attention of Charles Peignot, the head of one of France’s oldest and most innovative typefoundry, Deberny et Peignot, a new combination of two firms, which had just merged in 1923. Under the guidance of the artistically minded leader, Peignot, the role of the foundry expanded from manufacture to font design. Cassandre was invited to join Peignot and one of the other new designers, Maximillien Vox (Samuel Monod) (1894-1974), in the task of creating modern typefaces suitable for the modern machine age.

In his book, Modern Typography. An Essay in Critical History, Robin Kinross wrote, referring to the “black art,” or typography, “One might argue, with this distinction in mind, that ‘modern typography’ is indeed a duplication of sense because when printing becomes typography is also when printing becomes modern. Printing becomes modern with the spreading of knowledge about itself: with the published description of its practices; with the classification of its materials and processes; with co-ordination of dimensions of materials, enabling their exchange and better conjunction; with the establishment of a record of its history.” He continued with a discussion of the beginning of modern type or the beginning of sans serif. “Sanserif, as a printing type, made its first appearance in a specimen of 1816 (of William Caslon IV), though it became established as a recognized style of type only in the 1830s in England..” Matthew Carter commented in Eye Magazine on the contribution Kinross made to an understanding of the importance of printing, fonts, characters to modernity, “Robin Kinross dates modernity – implicit in the very idea of printing – as an explicit attitude that began in about 1700, when printing began to be used as the means to describe itself. Here, ‘printing’ is the practice, ‘typography’ the ordering of that practice by instruction, and in the manuals of Moxon (1683-84) and Fertel (1723) typography became articulate and therefore modern.” In other words, Kinross asserted in 1992, a certain self-consciousness about information and how it is dispersed begins to stir. In 1683, Joseph Muxton published, Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing, which not only wrote done a tradition passed down orally, he also wrote what would become a handbook for printers for the next two hundred years. In in the mid-seventeenth-century, the typographer began to separate himself from a “printer,” such as Joseph Muxon and became more aware of design. But the marriage of typography and design, or perhaps more precisely, the transformation of typography into design came in the late nineteenth century. “The familiar account, which I think has much truth in it, is that out of the Arts & Crafts rebellion emerged the figure that we call the designer—the typographic designer, the book designer. This person attempted to order the processes of production in printing and attempted to reinfuse the aesthetic element, the dimension of material and visual surplus—pleasure—which printers could no longer provide as an inbuilt part of what they were printing,” Kinross wrote.

Kinross focused primarily on British printing, but some of the most distinctive fonts that emerged from the modern period came from France. It is possible to argue that although English artists precipitated the shift into typography as an art form, it was the French and the Germans who took the next step. Leading the way in France was the firm of Deberny et Peignot. The history of Deberny et Peignot was an interesting one, starting unexpectedly with the famous author Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850). Balzac paused, at the beginning of his writing career and became a businessman before he became a famous writer. According to B. R. Tolley’s article “Balzac the Printer,” in a 1959 issue of French Studies, from 1825 to 1828, he was a publisher, a printer, and a typefounder. As Tolley wrote,”Balzac used his commercial experience and technical knowledge in his novels.” The detour into publishing seems an odd one for Balzac, but he was an author who saw the opportunity to turn this field to his advantage. Balzac had experienced some success as a writer in the early nineteenth century, and, indeed, his definition of “success” was to become rich by churning out books rich with entertaining soap opera. Balzac admired Sir Walter Scott, who had turned the writing of historical novels into a lucrative business. Balzac, however, as an observer of the “human comedy,” and was more interested in observing the contemporary age and was one of the literary pioneers in the new genre of “realism,” meaning the recording of modern life. In The Politics of Style in the Fiction of Balzac, Beckett and Cortáza by M. R. Axelrod, the author noted that “Balzac’s approach to Realism, like his mentor, made a business out of literature. In his own way, he was the ultimate bourgeois writer..” Indeed, when he hadn’t become famous by the time he was twenty-six, Balzac ventured into the printing business, convinced as Alexrod put it, that “his fortune would be made and leave him plenty of time for writing.” Using money borrowed from his mistress, Louise-Antoinette-Laure De Berny, and his mother, Balzac partnered with André Barbier, a typesetter. The publishing venture, located on the Rue de Marais-Saint-Germain in Paris was to publish the works of La Fontaine and Molière, not to mention those of the struggling author, failed, and Balzac was advised to make money to cover his debts by purchasing a printing press, a financial move that only put him deeper in debt.

The Imprimerie H. Balzac was willing to publish anything and, like a true capitalist, the author purchased the typefoundry of Jean-François Laurent to establish control over all aspects of his enterprise. Alexrod wrote, “Becoming a printer in order to save his publishing, he finally became a type-founder in order to save his printing, by purchasing a bankrupt type-foundry.” But none of those businesses succeeded, mainly because Balzac spent all the profits on his mistresses, plural. His partner, Barbier, abandoned the failing enterprise, leaving the writer with the consequences of his own bad management and bad judgment. Balzac concluded his ill-fated business career over 100,000 francs in arrears, and the author refused to descend into a bourgeois fate of declaring bankruptcy. Fortunately, in 1828, he was able to turn his debts over to his mistress and to foundry owner, Laurent. The nineteen-year-old son of the aristocratic Louise-Antoinette-Laure, Alexandre de Berny, became the new partner and, not wanting to mix nobility with business, renamed himself “Deberny.” As any reader of Balzac understands, the author’s ignominious experience as a failed printer and bankrupt businessman became materials for his mature works. But during his checkered career in publishing, Balzac printed some 168 pamphlets, newspapers, and books, and some sources say this number was as high as three hundred.

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An early article on Balzac as a Printer

Four decades later, in the waning years of the Second Empire, Gustave Peignot (1839-1899) acquired a foundry with the idea of manufacturing fonts or letters. For decades Peignot systematically acquired other foundries (and their font collections), building a business large enough and solvent enough to support the father and his five sons, including Georges Peignot (1872-1915). Georges made all the “aesthetic” decisions, from the artistic selection of fonts to business moves that guided the firm in the direction of innovation. One of the most important decisions he made was to not only acquire already existing typefaces from other firms but to also create new fonts. Starting with emerging style, Art Nouveau, he hired the Swiss architect, artist, and designer, Eugène Samuel Grasset (1845-1917). Today Grasset is best known as a designer in stained glass and is famous for his distinctive Art Nouveau posters, especially in America. In fact, although he is almost forgotten today, Grassat was an extraordinarily versatile artist, a well-known furniture designer for Charles Gillot and the decorator of the famous Chat Noir cabaret. His fame would have been a magnet to the twenty-five-year-old and ambitious Peignot, who approached the artist and informed him of his ambition to update the moribund business of typography. In fact, he told the startled artist, he wanted nothing less than a revolution that would separate France readers from the old and outmoded Didot and Garamond fonts. He wanted an Art Nouveau font. The artist himself had already attempted to get his own font engraved but no foundry was interested. When he saw Grassat’s drawings, Peignot was impressed with the rejected Art Nouveau font and incorporated the “Grasset” font in 1898 into the family business. The “Grasset” font was based on an old font, dating back to 1471, the alphabet of Nicolas Jenson. The foundry offered the new font in thirteen sizes and based the letters directly on the work–the drawings–made by the artist. The Grassat font was introduced at the Universal Exhibition of 1900 in Paris, the event that introduced the new style of Art Nouveau to the public. The contemporary Art Nouveau version was an immediate success and the striking design foregrounded a nearly forgotten art form, the creation of fonts.

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1940’s French type foundry drawer from a Deberny Et Peignot typesetter’s chest

Georges Peignot was very important to the history of modern French fonts because he recognized the need to update letters and understood that characters needed to express their own time. The other field of visual culture Peignot opened was the culture of name recognition through typography. The Art Nouveau fonts he sponsored, such as those of Georges Auriol (1863-1938), whose “Auriol” font was used ten years later for the Paris Métro, became distinctive typefaces, which “branded” certain experiences. To walk under the distinctive Hector Guimard Métro entrances was to commit to using a new form of transportation that needed to be announced by a distinctive look. The Métro used the most modern font available and the Piegnot fonts became the visual metaphor for Art Nouveau. These Art Nouveau fonts were highly specialized and worked best in selective venues. For example, the fonts of Grasset or Auriol were used only for certain kinds of decorative or “fantasy” books. For serious printed works, only the historic Garamond and Didot (acquired in 1912 by Peignot) fonts were appropriate. Peignot continued to commission artists to create new fonts until his death in 1915 in the Great War. Four out of the five Peignot brothers died in this conflict, leaving behind the memory of the important foundry, honored in Paris in the Rue Quatre Frères Peignot and a surviving young brother.

Like his father, Charles Peignot (1897-1983), the only heir, was artistic and left the business end of the foundry to those better suited to running a manufacturing establishment. In the early twenties, the main competitor for the Peignot company was the old business of Balzac, Deberny, and the two firms understood that it would be more profitable to combine forces. In 1923, Deberny et Peignot came together, combining Deberny’s traditional fonts and the modern fonts of Peignot into one enterprise with Charles Peignot as the artistic head of the new firm. Peignot began an eight-year partnership with Maximillian Vox in 1924, promising to work with the artist to actualize Vox’s “typographic conceptions.” Vox speculated, “It is not impossible that France, with its innate sense of proportion, will see the birth of 20th-century type.” Referring to the history of the role Deberny et Peignot played in revolutionizing fonts, the designer also paid tribute to Georges Peignot, stating that he was “the first French typographer who did not think of his job as confined to supplying the printer with little pieces of metal.” When the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes opened in Paris in 1925, it was clear to Peignot that the day of Art Nouveau had passed and the machine age called for a sharp and clean line of modern fonts, to rectify the excesses of Art Nouveau. It was at this point that the printer made contact with Cassandre and asked for an Art Deco font. And so the long winding road brought Balzac and Cassandre together in an improbable association in the firm Deberny et Peignot.

In the next post, the modern fonts of Cassandre will be discussed.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.