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Reading Pile: Adrian Frutiger – Typefaces: The Complete Works

September 30, 2015 by Yves Peters

In early 2009 John L. Walters asked me to review Adrian Frutiger – Typefaces: The Complete Works for Eye, the international review of graphic design. It was originally published in Eye 71, the Spring 2009 issue. I am republishing my review in respectful memory of, and with gratitude for Adrian Frutiger, considered by many to be the most important type designer of the twentieth century, who passed away three weeks ago.

Fold-out reproducing the India ink drawing of an early sans serif, dated February 1950, complete with penciled annotations and corrections.
Fold-out reproducing the India ink drawing of an early sans serif, dated February 1950, complete with penciled annotations and corrections.

His Univers® typeface family was the first rationalised type system; his OCR-B broke new grounds in automatic character recognition; and his alphabet for the Paris Roissy airport is a milestone of contemporary type design. This book, compiled in close collaboration with Frutiger himself, retraces Adrian Frutiger’s life through his typeface creations in chronological order. As Frutiger’s career spans all the different typesetting technologies – from lead composition to the current OpenType digital font format – it also is a unique document of the practice of type creation from the 1950s to the present day.

As an object the book is quite impressive. The oversized, heavy tome – casebound in a hard cover covered with red cloth, with a stylishly understated uncoated dust jacket – rests nicely in one’s lap. It is beautifully designed by Feinherb, Visuelle Gestaltung (a.k.a. its editors Stamm and Osterer). The functional layout combines its parallel narratives and the extensive image captions into one coherent flow.

The quality of the content is amazing. After an initial section focusing on Frutiger’s early life and education, each chapter is dedicated to a typeface – ranging from established classics over lesser-known releases to so-far-unpublished projects. Each typeface is critically assessed in interviews with Frutiger and placed within its context. The typefaces are comprehensively documented, including creation history, technical specifications and measurements, design details, comparisons with similar or related typefaces, release history, and so on.

With 1000-plus illustrations there is plenty to look at. The images are exceptional and beautifully reproduced. They include some real gems – sources of inspiration, early sketches and production drawings, reproductions of vintage advertisements and original specimens, photographs of typefaces in use, and numerous sample settings. Reading the book is very much like uncovering a long-lost treasure, as a significant number of them are previously unpublished. Seeing for the first time the fold-out reproducing the India ink drawing of an early sans serif, dated February 1950, complete with penciled annotations and corrections, sent shivers down my spine.

When approaching a highly specialist area such as type design one could easily end up with an obtuse and hermetic volume. Yet the editors have succeeded in making it both accessible for graphic designers and enthusiasts with only a cursory knowledge of typography, and relevant and insightful for experienced typographers. They managed this by inserting short technical sections that offer background information on the relationship between the design and production of typefaces, to help non-experts follow the more technical discussion of type design and production in the main chapters. The book also showcases Frutiger’s logos, which are gathered on separate pages in between the other chapters. The end pages feature comprehensive notes and lists.

Yet it is not just the quality of content that makes this a remarkable document. The main text has been distilled from monthly conversations the editors had with Adrian Frutiger over a two-year period. They also carried out extensive research in specialist magazines, archives, libraries, museums and collections in several countries. They could have combined these two elements into one text, but instead opted for a parallel structure, with the interviews in the main column and their academic research in a narrow column alongside.

Keeping these conversations pretty much unchanged was nothing short of a stroke of genius. Apart from minor edits – ‘transforming the transcripts into proper German’, as Frutiger explains it – these are his own words you are reading (here rendered into English by a team of four translators). It genuinely feels as if you are listening to the master himself talking; not in an auditorium but at his kitchen table, at home. He relives his creations, putting his design decisions into context and explaining the rationale behind them, criticising the recent tampering with his work, pointing out significant details and bringing up anecdotes involving household names such as A.M. Cassandre, Jan Tschichold, Akira Kobayashi and the like. The reader is irrevocably drawn into the story, and it makes for an engrossing read.

I cannot overstate how valuable and important this book is, both for type novices and typographic aficionados. Thoroughly researched, and extensively documented and illustrated, this weighty volume offers an unprecedented insight into the creative mind of one of the giants of twentieth-century type design.

Not only is this arguably the most important type-related book of the past decade(s), it also considerably raises the bar for future publications in the area. This celebration of the life and career of Adrian Frutiger is a glorious achievement, and a definite must-have.

My review A life in parallel columns was originally published in the Uncoated section of Eye 71, Spring 2009.

All photos are of my battle-worn copy of the first edition of the book. My apologies for not being able to show the book in mint condition.
All photos are of my battle-worn copy of the first edition of the book. My apologies for not being able to show the book in mint condition.

Adrian Frutiger – Typefaces. The Complete Works
Editors: Heidrun Osterer, Philipp Stamm, Schweizerische Stiftung Schrift und Typographie
Now available as a study edition, with an index to make Frutiger’s achievements even more accessible.

Available in English, French & German
462 pages, with 430 colour and 620 black-and-white illustrations
24,5 × 31 cm / 9.6" × 12.2"
Adrian Frutiger – Typefaces. The Complete Works ISBN 978-3-03821-526-4 (English)
Adrian Frutiger – Caractères. L’œuvre complète ISBN 978-3-7643-8582-8 (French)
Adrian Frutiger – Schriften. Das Gesamtwerk ISBN 978-3-7643-8576-7 (German)

Trademark attribution notice
Univers is a trademark of Monotype GmbH registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and may be registered in certain other jurisdictions.