Cassandre’s Most Eclectic Typeface
AM Cassandre was the master of French advertising design. He was also an experimental type design par excellence. In 1929, Charles Peignot, director of the French type foundry Deberny & Peignot, sponsored Cassandre’s experimental new display typeface called Bifur. Its complex mélange of fat and thin lines and crossbars was a shock to the typographic world. “There were no new or innovative typefaces which existed at the time,” wrote Peignot later. “Bifur created a real scandal… at least in the small world of publishing and printing.” P22 just reissued its own version of Bifur. I asked Richard Kegler, the proprietor of the P22 foundry, to discuss his re-release and its new additions.
You’ve designed and produced many revivals. What took you so long to get around to making the Cassandre Bifur?
The P22 version of Bifur was first released in 2004. This was at the 10 year mark for P22. Our new push for the set is on the heels of a new Wood Type version of the P22 version of the type made by Petrescu Press in Romania. Since 2019 is our 25th anniversary, we will be rolling out some gems that may have slipped by the first time by offering limited edition prints as well as fonts.
Bifur is a fascinating exercise in excess. It is more sculptural than not. It is not the easiest face to use. It represents by virtue of its time frame a decorative/moderne sensibility. What makes it applicable for today?
The excess of Bifur can work well in Maximalist design as well as Art Deco. It is generally recognizable as an icon of its time and in terms of typography, it defies conventions for the proper things one would attend to in fine typography. So much of the landscape of the fonts available today still falls into the category of novelty. Bifur has the ability to be a great starting point for digital design with its striking shapes begging to interact with a more complex design palette.
Deberny & Peignot, which produced Bifur, was known for taking chances. Historically speaking, what were the chances they took with this?
What I found incredible is that there were two versions of Bifur released commercially. The ‘regular’ version included the fine parallel lines integrated with the solid strokes that define each letterform, but the two part version included a solid, and by itself unrecognizable, tone layer in place of the fine lines so that the two parts together could be printed in two colors. This would present a real challenge for a typesetter to assemble and use in an efficient way. The end result is striking and the Bifur specimens produced to originally promote the metal faces are absolutely gorgeous. The color gel overlays play with color perception in a way that no other type specimen had ever done and even the layouts saying “This is not the way to use Bifur” present a nod to the contrarian Dada and Surrealist artist of the era.
How have you altered Bifur to make it conform to current technology?
The P22 version was approached with some thought on how it might be used. The secondary color shapes by themselves would be almost useless on their own, so one change from the metal version was to expand the area of the second color to (in some cases) create letterform silhouettes rather than just the counter areas that were originally designed for the metal version. This way the caps could be readable for some words with just the secondary layer being used. The P22 version offers two “resolutions” of the parallel line layer. At smaller sizes the tight lines start to collapse (especially on screen) so an alternate version of this layer was created. Those two along with the solid are made to trap under the top layer and recreate the true look of the original in either a one or two-color option. All layers can be combined in other ways that the metal never could, but I have not seen as much experimentation as I had hope I might see in that regard.
The other addition to the original design with the P22 version was the lower case. There was no lower case in the original Bifur.
I saw a presentation from a young designer about Bifur and they mentioned in their talk that they did not like the P22 version, but later in the talk that they were inspired by Cassandre’s lower case designs.
Do you believe that revivals or reinterpretations such as this have more than a commercial value and motive?
In this case and with many of our other revivals, the commercial value and salability is considered, but the motive of acknowledging the past is fairly upfront. We always try to cite the sources rather than simply borrow the designs and pass them off as “historically inspired” designs. There is no doubt that many historical designs can and have been improved on over generations of type designers to technically be better typefaces, but the idea of a graphic designer using the exact design created by Cassandre or other iconic lettering artists presents a unique way to interact with history. It is a bit of a conspicuous postmodern conceit to use deStijl lettering in electronic music posters or Art Nouveau co-opted as Psychedelia. So many of these lettering styles are a true branding of their time, but new contemporary interaction can bring interesting mash-ups…somethings inappropriate, sometimes wonderful and weird.
What is your favorite characteristic in this face?
I think I am most impressed that it was brought to market at all in the first place. It was pretty brave venture by Deberny.