12 (More) Overlooked & Underappreciated Typefaces

[Call for Entries: The International Design Awards]

Six years ago I wrote a column for Print on 12 underappreciated typefaces, my response to those ubiquitous beginning-of-the-year lists. Longstanding reader interest prompted the magazine to seek out another dozen typefaces that are available digitally, and that, from an American perspective, deserve greater attention. Here, presented in the order in which they were originally designed, are 12 faces that merit a much closer look than they have been given in the design world.

Fournier by Pierre-Simon Fournier le Jeune

c. 1740s–1760s

Updates: Monotype Fournier, PS Fournier by Stéphane Elbaz (Typofonderie)

Pierre-Simon Fournier le Jeune (1712–1768) is one of the most important figures in the history of type for a variety of reasons. He was among the earliest advocates of a point system for measuring type (1737) and, in the two volumes of his Manuel Typographique (1764 and 1766), he provided the first detailed description of the process of typefounding, among other things. He was a pioneer in designing scripts and ornamented types, and was famous for his rococo fleurons and vignettes. Most importantly for this article, his romans and italics, influenced by the Romain du Roi, broke from oldstyle conventions. They are transitional in nature, hovering between the oldstyle types of Garamont and the neoclassical ones of Firmin Didot. As such they have been unjustly overshadowed in the Anglo-American world by the types of Fournier’s contemporary John Baskerville.

Until recently, the only modern revival of Fournier’s roman and italic available digitally was Monotype Fournier, designed in the 1920s as part of Stanley Morison’s type revival program. However, it was not the design he wanted. At Morison’s request, the company cut two slightly different versions of Fournier’s types (numbered 178 and 185) to see which would be the better one. While Morison was abroad, the latter, named Fournier, was chosen for release by the company. Morison thought 178 (subsequently named Barbou) was the better recutting and had it issued, though only in one size, in 1926. Although this story has been well known for decades, Barbou has never been digitized.

Fortunately, an even better version of Fournier’s types than Barbou now exists. PS Fournier, designed by Stéphane Elbaz for Typofonderie, has a family of seven weights (Light, Regular, Book, Demi, Bold, Heavy and Black) with matching italics, all of which have been made in three optical sizes: Petit, Regular and Grand. The Petit version is the closest in color to the text sizes of Fournier’s original types and is intended for small text and caption purposes. The strong thick/thin contrast of the Grand version positions the design closer to neoclassical types than expected. Intended for display, it promises to be a fresh look for those searching for an alternative to the Bodoni/Didot duopoly. Meanwhile, the Regular version is flexible enough to be used for both text and display. This typeface should finally give Fournier le Jeune his proper due in England and America.

Erbar-Grotesk by Jakob Erbar

(Ludwig & Mayer, 1926–1930)

Updates: URW Erbar (URW++), Dunbar by CJ Dunn (CJ Type)

Most designers are familiar with Futura by Paul Renner, but few know of the enormous impact it had when it was released in 1927. It was a juggernaut long before Helvetica was even a thought. Virtually every type foundry and composing machine manufacturer in Europe and America felt compelled to either make a near-copy or invent a credible alternative such as Gill Sans or Metro. Yet, as was pointed out by its designer at the time, Futura was not the first typeface to explore the geometric sans serif realm. Erbar-Grotesk by Jakob Erbar got there a year earlier. But it was not as rigorously Euclidean in its forms, and like other Futura wannabe rivals (e.g., Metro), it eventually succumbed to the pressure to add Futura-like alternates to its character set.

Although it was a popular typeface in Europe, Erbar began to be forgotten when Helvetica and Univers pushed out the geometric sans serifs in the late 1950s. Now that there is an interest in less purist geometric sans serif types such as Avenir, Gotham and Proxima Nova, it seems time to remind designers of Erbar’s existence. Ignore the variant offered by Linotype since it consists solely of two weights of a condensed version, and head either for URW Erbar or Dunbar.

URW Erbar has both original letters and some of the Futura-like alternates (e.g., both double-story and single-story ‘a’; ‘M’ with both vertical legs and with splayed legs). It comes in five weights (Light, Book, Medium, Semibold and Bold) but only the Book and Bold have italic counterparts. Dunbar by CJ Dunn—the name being a conflation of the creator’s surname and that of Erbar—is not a strict revival but it seems to capture more of the original Erbar flavor. Dunn has created both Tall and Low versions (the difference is in the x-height, not the ascenders) with the latter aimed at text uses. The result—with its various alternate characters—is a typeface that can look one moment like a Futura clone, the next like an Art Deco alphabet, and after that like a 1970s neo–Art Deco design.

Golden Cockerel by Eric Gill

(The Golden Cockerel Press, 1929)

Update: ITC Golden Cockerel by Dave Farey and Richard Dawson (ITC)

Eric Gill (1882–1940) designed more typefaces than the eponymous Gill Sans that is so familiar to designers. One of the least-known is Golden Cockerel, which was created for Robert Gibbings of the Golden Cockerel Press, a private house specializing in books illustrated with woodcuts by the best English artists of the time. The most famous of those books is The Four Gospels (1931), a monumental masterpiece that is all Gill, featuring numerous illustrations and lettering by him, and set in his Golden Cockerel type. Despite this showcase, the typeface remained generally unknown among designers because it was never publicly available. That is, until Dave Farey and Richard Dawson of House-Style created a digital version for ITC in 1996.

ITC Golden Cockerel is a respectful revival. The family consists of Regular with Italic, Titling and the oddly named Initial Ornaments. There are no weights. The roman is dark in the tradition of Jenson’s type, which might explain why ITC Golden Cockerel has not gained much traction with designers since its release. But it is that rich color that makes it worth reconsideration today rather than so many of the classic typefaces whose digital incarnations are weak and febrile (e.g., Perpetua by Gill).

The italic is not as pleasing as the roman. In place of exit strokes there are angled serifs, which give it a choppy feel. It also has Gill’s trademark closed-loop ‘g’ and calligraphic overshoots at the top of ‘B,’ ‘D,’ ‘P’ and ‘R.’ The titling face is a strong design that can be used on its own. The capitals have the sturdiness of Caslon. The Initial Ornaments part of the Golden Cockerel family combines versal-like initials with an odd melange of ornaments, such as sprightly cockerels (roosters), curly fringed leaves and several Christian symbols (crosses, angels, doves and a chalice).

Photina by José Mendoza y Almeida

(Monotype, 1971)

José Mendoza y Almeida (born 1926) has designed only a handful of typefaces in his multi-decade career, but a few of them have been significant, and none more so than Photina. It was the third and most important typeface designed specifically for the Monophoto, Monotype’s first successful foray into photocomposition. While frequently used in the 1970s and the early 1980s in England, it never seemed to gain the widespread popularity it deserved in the United States. And with the advent of digital type, Photina faded further from view.

The typeface was released in four weights (Roman, Semibold, Bold and Ultrabold) with matching italics. Although there is an OT Pro version available today, nothing much has changed other than the inclusion of extended Latin characters and the folding-in of small caps and oldstyle figures that had appeared in a separate expert set in the PostScript era. The f-ligatures are limited and there are no stylistic alternates. Yet it is still a typeface to be reckoned with.

Photina is a transitional face, but that description fails to do justice to it. It looks nothing like Baskerville, the typeface most commonly held up as the exemplar of the transitional category. But it is in a category that, by name, cannot be described other than that its members are somehow caught between oldstyle types like Garamond and Caslon and neoclassical ones like Bodoni and Didot. And that clearly describes Photina. It has a broad-shouldered ‘a,’ ‘h,’ ‘m,’ ‘n’ group, enabling clarity at text sizes. The horizontal serifs in ‘C,’ ‘G’ and ‘S’ are oversized, possibly—like the detached tail of ‘Q’—in response to the effects of photocomposition. Overall, Photina is a sturdy design that still maintains a sense of elegance, which is a difficult balancing act.

Poppl Laudatio by Friedrich Poppl

(Berthold, 1982)

Update: Laudatio BQ (H. Berthold Typefoundry)

Friedrich Poppl (1923–1982) was overshadowed during his lifetime by Hermann Zapf, his German compatriot. But he was an outstanding calligrapher and a good type designer. His type creations were all made in the phototype era for Berthold Gmbh, and thus few American designers are aware of them. They all qualify as overlooked, but the one I want to single out here is Poppl Laudatio, a sans serif that superficially resembles Optima by Zapf. Both are marked by subtly curved strokes, but in the post-metal era I would suggest that Poppl Laudatio is the more successful face since it was designed for non-impression printing from the beginning.

Poppl Laudatio has a taller x-height than Optima—a byproduct of the 1970s, when such things were in vogue, thanks to ITC—and also a lower stroke contrast. It is the latter that makes it less elegant and more broadly pragmatic. Poppl Laudatio has been described by MyFonts as calligraphic, which is completely misleading. It is more accurate to say that it has glyphic qualities in the manner of Albertus without being as rigid. Poppl Laudatio has a beautifully smooth italic with true chancery features such as the descending ‘f’; it also has a series of weights (Light, Regular, Medium and Bold) that successfully maintain the design’s character without becoming cartoonish. That is no small feat for a humanist sans serif. It achieves that by its low stroke contrast and its narrow proportions.

Jaeger-Antiqua (and Osiris) by Gustav Jaeger

(Berthold, 1984)

Update: Jaeger-Antiqua (and Osiris) BQ (H. Berthold Typefoundry)

Gustav Jaeger (1925–2010) is not a household name among designers, though most will recognize his typeface Catull since it was used for many years as the Google logo. Admittedly, that typeface was a poor choice for the logo of a Silicon Valley corporation. Yet it is a design that shows Jaeger’s willingness to challenge familiar letterform expectations—in this case, Carolingian minuscules. That same attitude is behind what I consider to be his best typeface, the eponymous Jaeger-Antiqua.

Jaeger-Antiqua is a neoclassical face with strong thick/thin contrast, hairline serifs and a vertical axis—yet it looks nothing like a Bodoni or a Didot. Or even a Walbaum. It is as idiosyncratic as Tyfa but less overtly weird. And it has a calligraphic sensibility, but much less pronounced than in Kepler. Trying to generalize about Jaeger-Antiqua is incredibly difficult.

Jaeger-Antiqua is characterized by numerous distinctive characters, yet the typeface manages to hang together. These characters reflect a diverse array of influences. The ‘A,’ ‘M’ and ‘N’ have double serifs at the apex (with the ‘A’ being reminiscent of Charlemagne, Rockwell or Stymie; and the ‘M’ and ‘N’ being similar to Nicolas Jenson’s roman). The ‘g’ has an abruptly shaped link between the bowl and loop in the manner of Melior, the form and size of the bowl of ‘a’ is similar to that of Candida, and the dagger-like legs of ‘K,’ ‘R’ and ‘k’ bring to mind Trump Medieval. Finally, the bent head serifs of the lowercase stems seem inspired by the romans of Fournier. All in all, Jaeger-Antiqua is in the grand German tradition of pre–World War II schriftkunstler types.

What is most surprising about Jaeger-Antiqua is how well the design holds up throughout the family, which includes Light, Regular, Medium and Bold, with matching italics. The latter are very energetic—almost jazzy—like ITC Veljovic, a typeface designed at nearly the same time. This may be too much for many type users, especially book designers. But Jaeger-Antiqua is clearly a typeface for ephemera and advertising rather than books.

Osiris, a humanist slab serif also designed by Jaeger in 1984, has many of the same individual letterform structures itemized above in Jaeger-Antiqua. Especially nice in the Light and Regular weights, it is an excellent alternative to Serifa or PMN Caecilia.

Amerigo by Gerard Unger

(Bitstream, 1987)

Update: Amerigo BT (Bitstream)

Gerard Unger (born 1942) is one of the giants of contemporary type design, though he’s not as well known in the United States as he should be. At the dawn of the digital type era when the first laser printers had a resolution of 300 dpi, he was asked by Bitstream to design a subtly tapered typeface like Optima. He resisted the idea and instead created a typeface influenced by wedge serifs in the manner of the Latins so popular in 19th-century France. The result was Amerigo.

“Optima is broad, soft and round,” Unger has written, “whereas Amerigo is narrower and sharper, with terminals that end wider and a bigger contrast between thick and thin.” The sharpness is especially noticeable in the stroke junctions. Amerigo is a superior design to Matrix, which was also created to accommodate low-resolution printers. It is simultaneously more elegant and more practical, and is especially legible at small sizes.

Amerigo is available in three weights (Regular, Medium and Bold) with matching italics—true italics, not sloped romans, though I am less keen on them than on the romans.

Ellington and Strayhorn by Michael Harvey

(Monotype, 1990 and 1995)

Update: Ellington Pro and Strayhorn Pro (Monotype)

Michael Harvey (1931–2013) was a stonecutter, book jacket designer and type designer. His second typeface was Ellington, a condensed serif derived from lettering he had been using for years to squeeze long titles onto book jackets while maintaining a large size. It is thus a very practical typeface—especially since it comes in four weights (Light, Regular, Bold and Extrabold), all with companion italics.

But Ellington also exudes a lot of character that can work against its functionality. It has a large x-height, pronounced serifs and a ‘g’ with a jaunty ear. This strong personality may explain why the typeface has been overlooked. Despite the Pro designation it now sports, the only key extras in the glyph palette are small caps, oldstyle figures (only in the Light and Regular weights, though) and extended Latin characters. There are no new bells and whistles, but on the other hand, none are needed.

In the 1980s and early 1990s the notion of a superfamily of matching serif and sans serif typefaces first became common. Alongside Lucida, ITC Stone, Rotis, Scala and Thesis as pioneers of this new typographic genre, there was Ellington—but with a hitch. Its sans serif companion was not called Ellington Sans but Strayhorn. The name was an inside reference by Harvey, an inveterate jazz fan, to the close working relationship of bandleader Duke Ellington and songwriter Billy Strayhorn. Strayhorn is even more overlooked than Ellington because of its different name, but it is the perfect alternative for those desiring a condensed typeface who might find Ellington too busy. It has the same weights and italics.

Strayhorn is marked by subtle curvature to its strokes in the manner of Optima, but it is much more rugged and no-nonsense. Yet, because it shares the same structure of Ellington (including the ‘g’ with the jaunty ear) it still retains some personality.

DTL Documenta and DTL Documenta Sans by Frank Blokland

(Dutch Type Library, 1993 and 1997)

Gerrit Noordzij’s teachings at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague (generally known by its Dutch acronym KABK) in the 1980s are legendary. His theory of the stroke approach to letterforms has increasingly influenced type designers in the past few decades. But even when it was not widely known, it had already supplied the framework for a remarkable eruption of original typefaces at the cusp of the 1990s from young Dutch designers, many of whom began their designs as Noordzij’s students. The list includes PMN Caecilia, Thesis, Scala, Beowolf and Documenta. The only one of these typefaces not to gain widespread fame outside of the Netherlands was Documenta by Frank Blokland (born 1959).

Documenta began in 1986 as a bitmapped design, but was not released as a PostScript font until 1993. It is an unassuming design, easy to overlook. Other than its distinctive ‘a,’ it has no characters that call attention to themselves. (The italic however, does have a surprisingly fussy ampersand.) This is what makes it so good for lengthy text use. It is quiet, readable and legible—but not dull. Think of Documenta as a meal of a simple grilled steak with a perfectly baked potato.

Originally Documenta had a family limited to Regular (with italic), Medium and Bold, but last year italics for the latter two weights were finally designed after the typeface was chosen for a new edition of the Luther Bibel by the Evangelische Kirche in Germany. However, there are still separate fonts for small caps instead of mega OT glyph sets.

Schneider Libretto by Werner Schneider

(Berthold, 1995)

Update: Schneider Libretto BQ (H. Berthold Typefoundry)

Werner Schneider (born 1935), an outstanding German calligrapher, has designed several typefaces—all of them excellent but overlooked. Schneider Libretto is the least calligraphic of them, which makes it the most versatile. It is a soft interpretation of a neoclassical typeface, but not as much so as Kepler. It is not as elegant as Didot or Bauer Bodoni, which is good as it is far better than either of those faces for text purposes. This is because its stroke contrast is not extreme.

bSchneider Libretto comes in four weights (Light, Regular, Medium and Bold), all with companion italics. There are the necessary small caps and oldstyle figures but not much more. The f-ligatures are limited. The italic is unobtrusive yet pleasant. All in all Schneider Libretto would make a great text companion to use in conjunction with a Didot, Bodoni or Walbaum for display.

Chaparral by Carol Twombly

(Adobe, 1997)

Update: Chaparral Pro (Adobe)

Carol Twombly (born 1959) is best known as the designer of Adobe Caslon and the Modern Ancients series of titling faces comprising Lithos, Trajan and Charlemagne. But her most original design—and perhaps her best—is Chaparral, with roots as a Multiple Master face that effortlessly integrates humanist bookhand features into a slab serif. Although there are a handful of other humanist slab serifs such as Osiris and PMN Caecilia, Chaparral stands alone. In fact, it may be its uniqueness that has caused many designers to overlook its strengths.

I discovered Chaparral through the design writer and book designer John D. Berry, who has been touting its qualities as a book face for many years. Chaparral has more energy than PMN Caecilia due to its faceted strokes, but is not restless at small sizes. The energy comes through more in the heavier weights and in larger sizes where that can be a plus. There are four weights (Light, Regular, Semibold and Bold) with matching italics, and the latter have clear chancery cursive roots but are not overtly calligraphic. They are worth discovering in their own right.

Although Adobe abandoned the Multiple Master technology in 2003, Chaparral Pro still has vestiges of it. The family includes four optical masters (Caption, Regular, Subhead and Display) that allow designers to optimize its color and legibility for a range of sizes. Finally, the glyph palette includes some unique ornaments reminiscent of patterns on Hopi and Navajo blankets.

Kingfisher by Jeremy Tankard

(Jeremy Tankard Typography, 2005)

If there is a recurring theme to this list of underappreciated typefaces, it is types for extended text use. Kingfisher continues that theme with a vengeance. It was created by Jeremy Tankard (born 1969) with the specific intention of working as a text face for the humble paperback. In a terrific PDF booklet made to accompany the typeface, Tankard chronicles his search for secrets of the elusive quality of the text faces of the letterpress era. For his roman he closely examined the Doves Roman, Bembo, Ehrhardt and Barbou; and for his italic he investigated why Romulus failed but Joanna succeeded in applying Stanley Morison’s theory of an italic designed as a sloped roman. The result of this research is not an historical revival of any of these metal typefaces, but a digital face that succeeds in recreating the feel of such types when set in mass at small sizes. Seeing Kingfisher set as a page of text reminds me of the Penguin paperbacks of the 1960s and 1970s, whose typography was overseen by the perfectionist Hans Schmoller.

What makes Kingfisher successful seems to be two things: the introduction of small disturbances into the design of the letters (such as a slight inclination to the stems) that keep the eye from becoming bored, and the narrowness of its characters. During development of the typeface, Tankard did more than make the usual laser-print proofs. He had a book designer test it out. The result is a no-nonsense face that still has a sense of style.

Kingfisher has a family of three weights (Regular, Bold, Heavy) with matching italics. They are optimized for text use, but the Regular weight and its italic are also available in display versions.