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Reading Pile: The Curly Letter of Amsterdam

July 16, 2015 by Yves Peters

As you could have gathered from my review of Verena Gerlach and Fritz Grögel’s excellent Karbid, Berlin – From lette­ring to type design I am fascinated by type design as a means to practice typographic archaeology. Even more so if the resulting typeface helps document a lettering style that is in danger of disappearing, thus preserving it from extinction. This is exactly what Ramiro Espinoza did for the intricately graceful “krulletters” with his Krul font and the book The Curly Letter of Amsterdam. The curly script letters that used to grace so many typical bars in Amsterdam are now in danger of fading away into oblivion. But there is hope in a new generation of local signpainters learning the trade.

Original work drawing for the “Bridge letters”, and lettering on the Hennetjesbrug over the Jacob van Lennepkade in Amsterdam.

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Maybe it is the fact that Ramiro Espinoza is a foreigner living in The Netherlands that makes him particularly sensitive to vernacular Dutch typographic expressions. What comes across as familiar, even banal to the locals, looks quaint and surprising to the Argentinian designer. Ramiro became interested in type design during his studies at the Universidad Nacional del Litoral in Santa Fe, Argentina. After a stint teaching Typography under the direction of Silvia Gonzalez at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, he moved to The Netherlands to study at the Type & Media post-graduate course in 2003-2004. His first foray in vernacular Dutch lettering was an investigation into the typical cast iron letters found on the bridges in Amsterdam. Kurversbrug became the first type family released through his own foundry ReType, back in 2007. As it was very well-received from the onset – even the Amsterdam municipality started using Kurversbrug in a new series of bridge nameplates – the family was recently revamped and expanded. The new Kurversbrug was re-released last year with the addition of four new weights and alternate character shapes for ‘W’ and ‘Y’ that are faithful to the historical source of inspiration for the design.

Bar window of Café “Hegeraad”, Noordermarkt 34 in Amsterdam.

But Ramiro Espinoza’s fascination with the vernacular lettering of Amsterdam didn’t end there. Walking the streets of Amsterdam, Ramiro noticed beautiful, intricately curly letters on many windows of the traditional “brown” bars in the older neighbourhoods. This led to an almost decade-long quest, searching for the origins of these mysterious letters and documenting the still-existent examples. This quest resulted in the publication of The Curly Letter of Amsterdam.

Spread in the chapter “A little-known bit of history”.

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In the first part of the book Ramiro does a great job narrating his research, taking the reader along on his investigation. After coming across the first cursory mentions of the Krulletters in trade literature, like a true detective he tracks down who created the lettering style, where those typical shapes came from, what the link is to existing calligraphic styles, and discovers who continued propagating the Krulletters after its originator passed. Ramiro finally assesses the current situation – the gradual disappearance of the lovely letters on bar windows, one by one being replaced by vinyl lettering, and his efforts to keep the style alive by creating a template for the lettering style as well as a digital adaptation Krul.

Model with a full alphabet in Krulletters, including some alternates and the numerals.
Model with a full alphabet in Krulletters, including some alternates and the numerals.

The centerpiece of the book is a foldout page showing a complete alphabet in the Krulletters style, including a number of alternates, the numerals and a test sentence. The letters were referenced from the best existing signs Ramiro could find. This model offers a guide to those who wish to to continue the tradition. It serves as a virtual divider between the first and second part of the book – a lavish photo section meticulously reproducing the gorgeous images by Rob Becker. He photographed all the known examples of Krulletters in Amsterdam, but also in Maastricht and in my hometown Gent, Belgium. In a short essay concluding the photo section Rob explains how he went about making the photo series. The appendices include a list of all the addresses where one can find the remaining examples of Krulletters, with an indication of how well they have been preserved (“Acceptably preserved Krulletters” and “Best preserved Krulletters”). I would be remiss not to mention the lovely preface by Jan Middendorp who introduces Ramiro Espinoza and his work, and sets up the context for the book.

Spread in the photo section.

This book – part documentary and part photo book – is another great addition to any library of typographic books. Discovering step by step this little-known piece of Dutch lettering history was quite exciting. Then, seeing the Krulletters photographed in all their black-and-white splendour added a tinge of nostalgic sadness to my delight, as I realised I was witnessing the remaining examples of a slowly disappearing form of lettering art. The form of the book is consistent with its content. Stitch-bound with a red cloth hard cover and the title embossed in white Krulletters, dust jacket and bookmark ribbon, its high production values do the text and images justice. Ramiro’s elegant typography in Lyon by Kai Bernau serves the bilingual text well – English on the left pages and Dutch on the right – with many photographs and lettering samples illustrating the content.

Taking off the dust jacket reveals the beautifully lettered red cloth cover.

The publication of both the Krul typeface and this book have had repercussions beyond their original purpose – together with the positive reviews of the book they also caused a renewed interest in the Krulletter lettering style. Recently a number of new young sign painters have founded the Amsterdam Signpainters group, and they are training to acquire the Krulletter lettering technique. Ramiro received a couple of commissions for Krulletters lettering work, which he then passes on to people from this group. Even though the lettering could hypothetically be produced in vinyl with modern plotters thanks to the digital Krul font (now that would be ironic), Ramiro wants to encourage painters to work in the old school way. The new generation of sign painters might not yet have acquired the skills of the old guys so far, yet they are definitely heading in the right direction. Even though the typical contrast from the Golden Age’s calligraphy is difficult to master and some of the tricky swirls are still a little rough around the edges, the general shapes are already there. Ramiro is planning to give them a workshop on Krulletter drawing in the near future. Also, in the coming weeks a series of Ramiro’s Krulletters lettering will be painted inside the Amsterdam design agency Design Bridge and the process will be documented photographically. It is encouraging to see how this project has already had such a positive impact on the preservation of those wondrous, wonderful curly letters.

For more on Ramiro Espinoza, his ReType foundry and the Krulletter project, listen to Talking Types#6, my interview with Ramiro at ATypI 2013 “Point Counter Point” in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

De Amsterdamse Krulletter – The Curly Letter of Amsterdam
Author : Ramiro Espinoza
Photography : Rob Becker

Bilingual Dutch-English publication
212 pages colour and black & white hardcover with dust jacket
170 × 240 mm
ISBN 978-94-6226-117-4