Bauhaus Letterforms + Kenyan Design = A Very Mod Mashup

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Birgit Palma, an Austrian illustrator/lettering artist based in Barcelona, collaborates with Daniel Triendl on modular color fonts. In 2017, the pair hosted live workshops called Modular Lettering Jam sessions at Typo Berlin and Forward Festivals in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The pair created signature alphabets for workshops in each different city, influenced by the language, architecture, and illustration/design style of the area.

This led to an exploration of Kenyan design as applied to their Bauhaus-inspired letterforms, with some interesting results. Why Kenya? “African visual language differs from traditional European design. The colors are vibrant and bold, and we were impressed by the strong use of patterns in ancient art pieces, jewelry and fabrics,” Palma says. “Combining the rigidness of a modular type system and the boldness of Kenyan design appealed to us.”

The 2017 workshops were based upon collaborative work: Participants created alphabets using Fontself in Adobe Illustrator and a modular raster-preset prepared by the artists. Implementation and graphic interpretation of the geometric elements became an essential part of the design process—each letter becomes unique due to the different patterns and colors chosen by the workshop participants to fill the modular shapes. In other words, an ‘A’ is not designed by a single person but by many, each assigned a small piece of the letter. The alphabet updates in real time on a shared screen as it develops. The Kenyan project was a collaboration between Palma and Triendl, working from their studios in separate countries in a similar process of real-time updates.

During the early years of the 20th century, African art greatly influenced the work of Picasso and other Cubists, but in general this was not reflected in any of the typefaces coming from the Bauhaus. Asked how they made the connection between the seemingly disparate elements of their project, Palma says, “Geometry is the same all over the world, but different cultures use it differently. The base of our modular typeface was inspired by Josef Albers. During his lifetime he explored geometry and visual effects that could be achieved through color and spatial relationships. We wanted to view African art under the spotlight of Albers.”

The modular typeface currently consists of the basic Latin alphabet and a selection of key glyphs. As yet, there is no language support for Swahili, the main language spoken in Kenya. The designers say they would love to dig deeper into the topic and create all the characters needed, so Kenyan designers can use a typeface that pays homage to their country’s art and throw a little Bauhaus into their work at the same time.