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Interview with Christopher Burke

We publish an interview with Christopher Burke, conducted and introduced by Andreu Balius and Juan J. Arrausi, graphic designers in Barcelona. This is the original English text of the interview published in Spanish in the magazine ‘GRRR’ (no. 8, 2001). The discussion opens with a consideration of the work of Paul Renner, and especially his typeface Futura, then moves on to Christopher Burke’s own work as a type designer.

A few months ago we had the pleasure of meeting Christopher Burke. We knew his typeface FF Celeste and had read his book Paul Renner: the art of typography, published by Hyphen Press, and which has recently been translated into Spanish by Campgràfic. It was a rare opportunity to do an interview for GRRR, and, in this way, to discuss at first hand some aspects of his research about the typographer Paul Renner. Christopher studied in the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication at the University of Reading (England), and between 1996 and 2001 he taught in the same Department. He worked briefly at Monotype Typography and has contributed to numerous publications in our field. He has designed two typefaces: Celeste (available from FontShop International) and Pragma (now available from Neufville Digital). Both can be viewed at Hibernia Type.

GRRR: Why did you choose to study Paul Renner?

CB: In the final year of my BA course, I did research into German typography of the twentieth century; more specifically on the figure of Peter Behrens, pioneer of corporate identity design as we know it today. My interest in Renner stemmed from this study. I knew about his typeface Futura, naturally, but during my research I also saw his earlier book, Typografie als Kunst, which was typeset in gothic type, in a traditional style. This did not fit with the conventional idea of a designer working in a narrow modernist idiom, which is what you might have expected of Renner if you only knew about Futura. So, it seemed to me that there must have been an interesting development in Renner’s work. Also, I felt that not much was really known about him, certainly not outside of Germany, compared to his contemporary Jan Tschichold, or some of the Bauhaus designers, for example. So, I thought there was a story to be told there.

GRRR: What significance does Renner have in twentieth-century type history? What are his main contributions, in your view?

CB: Well, of course, he will rightly be remembered for Futura, which is a design classic. But, in my book, I wanted to bring together some of the critical views that he expressed in his writings about typography and modern design in general. He was a reflective thinker about design, and was able to take a step back from himself and see modern trends, in which he himself was involved, from a longer historical perspective. The interwar years were a very interesting period for Germany from all points of view – culturally, politically, socially – and a defining period for modernism. What is valuable about Renner’s perspective on the development of modern ideas in design was that he was not a young revolutionary, like some of the Bauhaus designers, for example. Having tried to reform typography from within the traditionalist idiom, he was open to the New Typography, but cautious, and sensitive to the balance between innovation and continuity. Some historical accounts of the modern movement in art and design take it for granted that the radical modernist views were prevalent and inherently progressive, whereas there were some people who disagreed at that time. Renner gives a slightly different point of view.

GRRR: Futura was very successful when it was first issued. What was the key to its success? What was its ‘raison d’ètre’? Is the ‘spirit’ of Futura still with us today (given that Futura continues to be a commercial success)?

CB: Futura certainly struck a nerve when it was first released: the idea of geometric form was in the air in 1920s Europe, and Futura was the best realization of a geometric sanserif. Not all modernist typographers liked or used it – some preferred the anonymous nineteenth-century grotesque types – but it was widely used and commercially successful. Renner certainly tried to give a certain ‘spirit’ to Futura; he described it as the typeface appropriate for the modern era, for the age of machines and technology. But some of his statements about it are somewhat contradictory. He described how the typeface is not purely geometric, but full of subtle features, yet he also believed that it succeeded due to the purity of the idea behind it. It is obviously a product of its time, reflecting the preoccupations of modernist design in the 1920s, but it also has a timeless quality. I believe that when Renner and the Bauer typefoundry called Futura ‘the typeface of our time’ they did not restrict their view to that one decade: rather I think that they meant to create something with timeless appeal. In his later writings Renner often talked of creating typography that was timeless, although he also commented that it is difficult to guess what will eventually be considered as such. After experiencing some years of Futura’s success, he felt that, with some luck, they had managed to make something with such a classic quality. The fact that Futura is still so successful and widely used today is proof of this. Whether the ‘spirit’ intended by designers or producers is carried forward in their work beyond their time, I am not sure. Designers who choose to use Futura today probably do not think about the original ideas behind the typeface, or even necessarily know when it was designed (certainly most readers will not know this); for many of them it still simply looks modern. This is, in fact, the definition of a timeless quality – that something always looks modern. In this respect the idea behind Futura is still with us.

GRRR: In reading your book, one gets the impression that Renner was a ‘balanced’ personality. Although I think that, as the years passed, he lost some of his ‘radicality’ as a designer. Do you think he had to adapt to historical circumstances? To what degree did this influence his work?

CB: I don’t think that he was ever a ‘radical’ in general. He disliked ‘isms’, as such, because they mostly threw out tradition without thinking. As a typographer, he rarely used the most innovative idioms of modernism, such as setting type diagonally, which is emblematic of much of the New Typography, at least in advertising. He mostly stuck to designing books. Futura could be seen as radical in some respects, perhaps in the way that the traditional form of lowercase was not adopted; Renner felt himself to be reinventing the lowercase with an idea of geometric construction. But in another way, this can be seen as quite a classical intention also. He was trying to align the lowercase with the form of the capitals, which he based very firmly on classical models. The great achievement in Futura was the consolidation of radical ideas in a pragmatic form which was widely adaptable. So in some ways it has a conservative aspect to it. Renner stated later in his life that Futura had proven to be the last original genre of letterform that could be made. This was perhaps putting it too strongly, but there is some truth in it, I think. His attempts at designing a serifed roman and a gothic type in the 1930s should not be seen as less radical, in my view. Less original perhaps, but both his Renner-Antiqua and his gothic type, Ballade, aim to provide fresh twists on their respective traditions, but in quite a subtle way. It is natural for a type designer to want to interact with the basic historical genres of type, and try to create new variations. If you mean to ask whether by designing a gothic type he was aligning with the official stylistic ideas of the Third Reich, I think the answer is no. Like many German typographers, Renner’s attachment to the gothic tradition went back much further than Hitler; if anything, his gothic type is an attempt to reclaim a kind of humanist tradition in that style of letterform, which went against the common Nazi style of gothic. Perhaps the 1930s were more favourable than the 1920s for having new gothic types produced, partly due to the Nazis’ initial promotion of gothic, but that is a different matter.

GRRR: What is the importance of design history, and in particular type-design history, for a graphic designer, even if he or she is still a student?

CB: Speaking personally, I think it is very important. One is always led back to history, even in areas which are notionally theoretical: take typeface classification, for example – you find that in studying existing systems of classification, that many have a historical basis to them and that incidentally, by studying type classification, you learn about type history. It’s especially important to introduce graphic design students to the history of their subject. I believe it makes you a better designer if you know about the history of your craft. In printing and typography, technological changes have not always caused changes in the visual aspect of design, and so it is unjustifiable to say, for instance, that new media demand entirely new visual idioms. I guess I’m talking principally about typography: while we still read in basically the same way that we have for quite some time, it seems inadvisable to innovate thoughtlessly in typographic design. Graphic design, as a larger area of practice, is naturally more fluid and adaptable; although the profession of graphic design as we know it is less than a century old; so, to understand its history shouldn’t be that difficult. In any case, if you are a busy designer, it may well be useful for you to know how something has been done well in the past, or how it was done in a certain way under particular historical circumstances. It could save you valuable time to have some knowledge of conventions. I’m not saying that history books should merely be regarded as visual source material – mimicry doesn’t work, except for pastiche – but picking up ideas and reinventing them for new situations, that’s what most of us do a lot of the time. It is possible to take the view that you should design pragmatically for each new situation without the baggage of the past, but it would be difficult for an individual to invent a whole graphic vocabulary and the idioms of use for themselves. Some knowledge of tradition is essential, if only in order to reject it. This was Otl Aicher’s view: that design is a game, which can only be played properly if you observe some basic rules. In any case, studying history is so interesting, and it is an exercise in humility, as you find out that most of your own great original ideas have been had before. I notice that even you guys at Typerware, who started out as kind of typographic anarchists, are being led towards adapting classical forms by your own interests in history.

GRRR: How can tradition and type history influence the process of typeface design?

CB: Eric Gill famously said something like: Trajan is OK in the museum, but one must forget about it in the workshop. He’s right of course, but there are levels of forgetting. If you have looked very closely at type and understood the history of stylistic development in typeforms, this will naturally influence what you do, and perhaps help in giving you an idea for a new typeface. To me it seems that a good knowledge of type history, in terms of what has been done, and what is perhaps left to do, is essential.

GRRR: Do you think there any recipes for typeface design? If not, are there any principles or rules that are still important and need to be taken into account?

CB: No recipes that I know of. Apart from: take 26 letters, one big and small of each, some numbers, punctuation and other assorted ingredients, add some spice, and stir well! I’m only half joking here: the conventional forms of the alphabet (whichever one you are using) provide such a strong conventional structure for typeface design that it seems perverse to depart too much from them. If you are interested in typeface design for legible text, as I am, then this is the case. I have too much respect for words and the meaning of them to depart radically from convention. When trying to judge a typeface of mine during the process of designing it, I try to forget that it is mine, and put myself in the position of a reader who really only cares about the meaning of the words. But I can’t forget who I am, and I remain a visually sensitive reader. And if one of my letters distracts me, or draws too much attention to its own form, then I think it must be wrong and I rework it. I don’t want that to happen to somebody when they are reading something that is important to them, which is set in my typeface. It seems to me a kind of bad manners to want to disturb them. This is perhaps a very British view! Some people will argue that, if readers, who generally have very little consciousness of typefaces, want to read something, they will read it even if it is in a strange typeface; so why not make experimental typefaces – there are enough conventional ones? But the problem is that proving for sure what is easily readable (or is pleasant to read), and what is not, is difficult. So, it seems to me that typeface design ends up as a strange kind of activity: on the one hand, it approaches art, in that the designer (at least nowadays) usually has complete control over the most detailed aspects of form; on the other hand, it is a task of pure design, which should, in my view, take into account a potentially unlimited set of users and readers. I think that is the issue – I don’t see designers as the end users of typefaces, but readers.

Of course, between these two extremes, artistic expression, and pure design, there is scope for many different approaches in typeface design. I think that they got the balance right with Futura, in which Renner’s preferred, more experimental letters were moderated by the typefoundry’s pragmatic influence. But that was in a different era, when typefaces were not usually made entirely by one person, as they can be today. In terms of working within the traditions of text typefaces, as I mostly do, there is perhaps 5 or 10 per cent of play left for the designer to be original without making a typeface quirky and unusable. But within this small area there is some scope for invention, albeit subtle. This is something I’ve talked about with Gerard Unger, who has a similar view. Great type designers, such as W.A. Dwiggins, spent many years exploring the subtle innovations that could be made in the clothing of traditional letters.

GRRR: What are the main objectives to take into account when designing a typeface? What were your intentions in FF Celeste and Pragma?

CB: It depends on the intended use of the typeface. If your aim is purely to innovate and make something strikingly different, then your aims are different than if you want your typeface to be legible in a conventional sense while fitting some other criteria. Many of the text typefaces used today are classic types that were revived almost a century ago, when printing processes were different, and some of them have never been adapted properly for current technology. There is scope for original typeface designs in a somewhat classical tradition which are made with digital and lithographic processes in mind. Of all the thousands of new typefaces made in the last fifteen years, few of them are intelligently made new typefaces for text – ‘bread and butter typefaces’ as the Germans used to call them.
In designing Celeste, I started off with some innovative ideas, but realized that I was only innovating for the sake of it, and that I didn’t really have an idea for a whole new category of typeface. So I drew some letters broadly in the modern-face tradition, with a vertical stress in them, but maintained some asymmetry in the letter structure, some vestiges of calligraphic form. This happened to make a typeface that you could perhaps retrospectively put in the ‘transitional’ typeface category. But, in fact, it falls between the cracks of categories in conventional typeface classification; in a way, this kind of intention has often been at the back of my mind – to defy classification. This is perhaps not the most honourable intention, but it gives me a small feeling of satisfaction. I think that one modest stylistic idea is actually almost enough to justify the existence of a new typeface, but to give Celeste more justification, I avoided any really thin parts, which are a problem in some versions of, for example, Baskerville and Bodoni when printed today, as they no longer benefit from the natural thickening of ink spread in letterpress printing.

In designing Pragma, which is a sanserif, the task was more difficult. Differences between sanserifs are smaller, or at least harder for most people to perceive, and also there seems less room for originality for the type designer, if only because you have less material: no serifs, of course. I wanted to make a readable sanserif, again, which could be used for text, and had some basis in the humanist tradition. I admired Gill Sans and H.E. Meier’s Syntax, and some of the newer sanserifs by German and Dutch designers. But none of them offered everything that I wanted myself, as a typographer, in a typeface, and so I designed my own. In the end, I adopted quite a strict historical basis for the process – to base the capitals on the classic forms of Roman capitals, to have some calligraphic structure in the lowercase, and a proper, cursive italic, not a sloped version of the roman. But this was just a basis: there is much scope for originality in the details and proportions. The main quality I wanted to give to it was a ruggedness – to make some of its curves a bit lumpy. This is unconventional in sanserifs, which are generally quite modular and smooth. But you can go too far in this direction, so the difficulty was getting the balance right. I’m not sure that I fully succeeded, but it was an attempt. Also I added small capitals (uncommon in sanserif) and non-ranging figures for all the weights of the type, as I wanted it to be as adaptable as possible. That is really why I design typefaces: so that they are potentially usable, and useful, for many people in many different circumstances.