Letterform Column for Grafik

British design magazine Grafik asked me to contribute the April 2010 edition of their monthly “Letterform Column,” in which a guest writer discusses one letterform from one design. I chose to write about my work on the first of Ruzicka’s Studies, since I’ve been thoroughly immersed in that project. Read the full article after the jump.

Many thanks to Robb Ogle & Paul Shaw for their editorial help on this piece.

g comparison

From left: Ruzicka's 'g', my digital interpretation.

This ‘g’ encapsulates the understated elegance and idiosyncrasies that first captivated me in Rudolph Ruzicka’s masterful designs. Yet I struggled with this particular letterform as it stubbornly resisted my attempts to integrate it into a functional typeface.

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Studies Become Typefaces

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The beginnings of my digital font based on Study 1, in FontLab.

I’ve often wondered why the design concepts from Ruzicka’s Studies in Type Design have never been completed as fully-functional typefaces, but instead have lain dormant through metal type (in its last years of prominence), phototype, and a series of digital type manufacture technologies. There are few Ruzicka-designed faces available to graphic designers, and several of the studies are begging to be put to work.

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Tracing Ruzicka's Study 1 'e' in FontLab.

I mentioned this to my colleague Peter Bain when he visited my studio last summer, and he suggested that I contact the book’s publisher to see whether I might be permitted to undertake the task myself. In short order I was in touch with Ruzicka’s heir, who actually holds ownership of this intellectual property. His response was more enthusiastic and encouraging than I could have hoped. What had been a whim was quickly becoming a plan.

As you can see here, I’m hard at work on the one of the families, based on the book’s first plate. You can read more about my early experiences in the project in my article for Grafik, and more behind-the-scenes posts are forthcoming.

I’m delighted to have this opportunity to extend the typographic legacy of one of my favorite typeface designers, and I only hope I can do right by him.

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Studies in Type Design

Edward C. Lathem and Rudolph Ruzicka

From left: Edward Connery Lathem and Rudolph Ruzicka with a copy of Studies in Type Design. (Inland Printer/American Lithographer magazine, 1968.)

I first became aware of Rudolph Ruzicka’s work about ten years ago. I was a graphic design undergraduate at Rhode Island School of Design, aimlessly browsing the Z250-oversize section of the school library, when the imposing capitals on a tall spine caught my eye: STUDIES IN TYPE DESIGN.

Studies in Type Design was published in 1968, when Ruzicka was 85, more than a decade after Primer, his last completed typeface, was released. The book offers ten typeface concepts, drawn between 1960 and 1967. Ruzicka explains his intent in a brief introduction:

The temptation to clothe the twenty-six leaden soldiers in new array is irresistible. This is the only apology offered for suggesting still further additions to the seemingly infinite variety of existent typefaces.

A perceptive critic will see at once the eclectic character of some of these studies in the ancient forms & can readily point out their stylistic anomalies. More serious would be the technical problems involyed in translating the designs into type: the mechanical problems of fitting and of kerns, vital in metal though perhaps immaterial in the rapidly developing photoelectronic processes. For one concerned with legibility, there would remain the task of relating stem, hairline, counter and serif to each other and to the weight of the larger mass—it is a far cry from design to type face. But it is a pleasure to watch and hopefully march in the parade.

Perusing the Studies is a calm tactile experience. The cloth-bound slipcase houses a portfolio of 11×13¾-inch loose-leaf plates, each protected by a folded cover page. The presentation is at once sumptuous and spare. Each plate shows a simple composition of alphabet and text examples, meticulously drawn by hand. The portfolio makes restrained use of seven ink colors and two paper stocks.

No text is actually typeset—each letterform is rendered by hand. The meticulously drawn plates are the main attraction, but careful attention was paid to other elements. Display lettering for the front matter is drawn similarly to the alphabets within, and introductory text is written in a distinctive humanist calligraphic hand.

To me the book is the culmination of Ruzicka’s work as a book designer, lettering artist, and typeface designer. Working on this project late in his career, at last he answered to no one but himself and his publisher (and close friend) Edward Connery Lathem, a librarian at Dartmouth College. The design of both the book and the alphabets within express Ruzicka’s voice in purest form.

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Ruzicka Revisited

Ruzicka Exhibition Engraving

Ruzicka's wood engraving for the front cover of "An Exhibition of the Work of Rudolph Ruzicka," incorporating examples from his previous work (AIGA, New York, 1935). (Click for larger image.)

The grace, acuity, and modesty of Rudolph Ruzicka’s work was paralleled by the same qualities in the man, himself, from what I’ve read. Though humble and often shy in presenting himself publicly, he worked masterfully in many capacities: as an engraver, a book designer, a calligrapher, a letterer, and a typeface designer.

His work in those last two areas interests me most, since I work in their digital equivalents. I’m an independent typeface & lettering designer—you can see more of my work on my portfolio website, jesseragan.com. My impetus for creating this blog is to discuss and publicize my work in bringing some of Ruzicka’s dormant typeface designs to digital form. But I hope that this blog—and, eventually, a full-fledged website in this domain—will grow to serve as a more general tribute to Ruzicka and a celebration of the full breadth of his prolific career. He deserves more attention than he receives.

Many thanks to Richard Ruane & Oka Tai-Lee for their technical help with the blog.

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