David Březina—multilingual typography & typeface design

Maiola—experience the czechness

Veronika Burian is a successful, cosmopolitan type designer. She was born in Prague, but together with her family, she fled to Germany where she later studied industrial design. She had lived in Austria, Italy (she assisted with the Italic 1.0 exhibition), and England—where she studied typeface design at the University of Reading and worked for London-based typefoundry Dalton Maag. In 2006, together with an Argentinian type designer (another Reading graduate) José Scaglione, she set up an independent foundry TypeTogether. Currently, she works for TypeTogether and lectures around the world.

Typefaces by Veronika Burian are world-acclaimed and received numerous awards. By far the most successful of all her typefaces is Maiola, a typeface conceived during her Reading studies. Maiola was originally released through FontFont typefoundry in 2005 (note: it was moved to TypeTogether in 2010), received the prestigious TDC award, and it counts among the most successful typefaces of the past ten years. The typeface is particularly important for Czech typography, as it stylistically follows the local historic sources and develops them freely into a contemporary and useful work.

Preissig & Menhart

If it makes any sense to talk about a national voice in typeface design at all, then in case of Czechia (that is short for Czech Republic), this would be relatively simple. At the beginning of the 20th century, Czech type designers were systematically trying to express their nationality in their typefaces. Unfortunately, due to insufficient typographic and technical skills, mostly clumsy and imperfect typefaces were made during this period. Exception among the aforementioned designers was the graphic artist and typographer Vojtěch Preissig. His Antikva (old-style) excelled thanks to its timeless and original character and (eventually) also by the quality of its production. The modulation of Preissig’s Antikva is derived from the linocut technique (similarly to display types by Rudolf Koch)—Preissig was well-aware of the fact that the angular contours soften when printed (in this respect, he outrun W. A. Dwiggins and his M-formula), so he was able to apply them systematically onto a text type. Besides, the typeface is built on a system of wedge-shaped elements laid out in a web-like scheme. Thus, in addition to the atypical modulation, Preissig also used an extraordinary approach to its distribution on the letter skeletons, only remotely related to the calligraphic principles. Maybe it was this unconventional approach which resulted in a lower usability of this otherwise highly-acclaimed typeface.

Preissigova Antikva

Vojtěch Preissig’s Antikva regular (1924)
From: František Muzika, Krásné písmo II. Praha, 1958.

Nevertheless, Preissig was a visionary who set an inspirational source for the generations of (not only Czech) type designers to come. Among his followers, his legacy is most clear in the work of Oldřich Menhart, namely in his typefaces Manuscript and Figural. In places where Preissig’s drawing appears distracted and disturbing, Menhart applies mastered calligraphy to control it. This way, his typefaces acquired a naturally balanced look, free of any intellectual idiosyncrasies. Manuscript is a thoroughly calligraphic typeface, including its serifs. Its strong character springs from the use of an unconventional writing tool. Figural is a serif text face which has a significantly calmer nature in the regular weight. The angularity and unusual strokes reveal themselves modestly and do not disturb reading. However, in the italic, which Menhart created few-years later, the regular characteristics are amplified and fully expose the calligraphic origin of the typeface. In its expression and in relation to the regular weight the italic is not dissimilar to the italic of Manuscript.

It is worth noting that in the course of his career, Menhart abandoned Preissig’s way of treating accents. He would not connect them to the letters any longer, letting them float above the letters instead.

Manuscript Regular Manuscript Italic

Oldřich Menhart’s Manuscript regular (1944) and italic (1946)
From: René Murat, Oldřich Menhart : výbor z díla. Praha 1956.

Figural Regular Figural Italic

Oldřich Menhart’s Figural regular (1940/1949) and italic (1949)
From: René Murat, Oldřich Menhart : výbor z díla. Praha 1956.

Maiola

Preissig’s Antikva and Menhart’s typefaces in particular served as a source of inspiration for Veronika Burian when she created her own text typeface. Yet, Maiola is not simply a copy or a direct transcription. It is an independent interpretation of the aforementioned typefaces, and their principles. It is the sensitive comprehension and elaboration that makes Maiola exceptional.

Moreover, Burian incorporates minor irregularities, she softens the straight lines and curves almost invisible details, thus livening up the whole design. The aesthetic qualities of some of the magnified curves can bear the comparison with abstract art.

Maiola Regular

Maiola Regular

From Figural, Maiola borrowed its thin serifs, calligraphic terminals and subtle incurvation of the stems. In contrast, it does not feature the bent ascenders. Even though it maintains the same impression, the stroke modulation is significantly different as well. The contrast is modest, rather low. Its characteristic sharpness is best seen in junctions with the arches in letters such as m, n, p, in curved transitions from thin to thick strokes of c, o, g, s, in the slanted bar of e and in the diagonally-cut serifs. The default serif shape is slightly curved with a minor bracketing. The top serifs of m, n, p, r are bent leftwards. The letters a, c, f, r have calligraphic terminals, while s makes use of vertical serifs. The outstrokes’ direction in a, d, u is not turned upwards rigidly; it corresponds to the outstrokes of c, e, t. Distinctive is the use of half-serifs in lettters v, w, x, y (the left ones are significantly shorter) and varying serifs in the letter u.

Vertical proportions are conventional, with long-enough extenders. Slightly lower capitals use a modulation and serifs related to the lowercase. A, B, E, Y do not follow the general width proportions (they are either too broad or too narrow). A bar is higher than appropriate. Similarly the bar in F could have been lower to compensate for the empty bottom space. The bars in E and F terminate with a thin serif. A, M, V have blunt apices (cut differently at the top than at the bottom). The diagonals in K do not connect to the stem (see k as well); likewise, the bowl in P is not closed. The W diagonals cross and the middle serifs form a peculiar shape. Notable is also the use of oblique serifs in the top parts of E, F, T, and Z.

Maiola proportions

Proportions of Maiola Regular (incl. small caps, Greek, old-style, and lining figures) and Italic

It is apparent that the old-style numerals were designed to fit the lowercase. They are lighter (maybe a bit too much) and structurally different from the titling numerals. Bowls of 6 and 9 are not closed (the bowls in the titling 6 and 9 are closed though). Figures 3, 5, 6, 8, 9 lean slightly rightwards. Amongst the titling numerals, which do not reach the height of the capitals, the figure 3 is the most interesting; also note the calligraphic terminals in 3 and 5. Both figure sets are accompanied by common monetary and other symbols (#, %, ). Besides superiors, inferiors and precomposed fractions, the typeface also supports automatically-composed fractions (via OpenType feature). Unfortunately, these sometimes result in unseemly collisions.

Arithmetic and relational operators (+, -, ±, ×, >, < etc.) bear traces of calligraphic modulation, which is not very common (mathematical symbols are usually geometrically monolinear), but it allows for their natural use in a continuous text.

Maiola character set

Character set of Maiola Regular and Italic

The form of the punctuation is also derived from the shape of the pen—period and colon are both angular. Light slashes and brackets look rather fragile and tend to disappear in the text. Small capitals appear a touch lighter than the lowercase; they are a direct adaptation of the capitals. Possibly the only difference is the struturally modified w which does not have serifs (the peculiar shape would definitely suffer here). Unfortunately, the typeface does not include small-cap figures.

Italic & bolds

With Maiola, it seems to be the case that the italic is the dominant and the regular is the secondary variant. What was hidden in the regular sounds aloud in the italic. The strokes are expressive, and the forms are untamed. Yet another resemblance of Figural. But again, it is not just a contemporary copy of an existing model. The author’s personal contribution is clearly visible, as well as the use of more conventional forms, and inspiration by old masters (Robert Granjon in particular). The character and liveliness does not aid the legibility, hence the italic works better when emphasising shorter texts.

Maiola Italic

Maiola Italic

The junctions with rounded strokes are deep and steep; steep are also the outstrokes, actively used to balance the spacing in the italic. The instrokes, however, have various angles: they are horizontal on the ascenders, but bent downwards in the x-height area. Therefore v and w show, thanks to the inward-oriented outstroke, two different angles next to each other. This does not repeat in y with respect to handwriting; and for the same reason the outstroke in the middle of w seems inappropriate. The less common cursive forms of certain letters (k, p, y) enliven the text even more.

The whole type family consists of four weights: regular, italic, bold and bold italic (note: recently book and book italic have been added). The bold weights serve well when it comes to highlighting individual words as well as longer runs of text.

Maiola text samples (Czech)

Samples od Maiola Regular, Italic, and Bold in continuous text setting (Czech)

Diacritics

Applying calligraphic principles to accents is always quite risky for a type designer (generally, it is safer to use conventional, symmetrical accents). However, Veronika Burian managed to do so excellently. Only a few fussy comments follow. The asymmetrical caron differs from the circumflex (č, ĉ)—this is most apparent in Slovak texts. The capital caron is weak and the vertical caron (ť, ľ, Ľ) looks to similar to the apostrophe. Dots and dieresis show the traces of the pen. The italic ring has a more distinct, not entirely closed shape (reminiscent of Preissig’s accents), in the capital and small-cap Ů, ů it is embedded into the letter in a manner of Preissig’s Antikva or Manuscript (Å , å use the contemporary shape). Such treatment is obviously disturbing, but, on the other hand, for type enthusiasts, it comes as a pleasant surprise. Polish diacritics are well done, apart from the ogonek in Ę, ę which should be placed more to the right. The slash in Ø, ø is quite thin (compare it with the slashes or $).

Maiola diacritics & punctuation

Maiola diacritics & punctuation

Greek (& Cyrillic)

Maiola contains basic Cyrillic and Greek character set (it does not support polytonic Greek). Unfortunately, we are not capable of experienced insight into the Cyrillic. However, Irene Vlachou comments on the Greek: “Maiola Greek retains all the principles of a contemporary Greek text font. It can be said that it follows the ‘tradition’ of typefaces, such as Minion, Warnock or Arno from Adobe. The stress axis is not based on the oldstyle Greek penstroke (-45˚); instead, it follows the humanist style. This results in a more contemporary appearance, more related to the Latin and Cyrillic.

Maiola text samples (Greek)

Samples od Maiola Regular and Italic in continuous text setting (Greek)

Although Cyrillic, Greek and Latin are basically independent from each other, it is apparent how they come, thanks to the use of similar principles, closer. They are fully compatible, consistent and faithful to their tradition, without the need to use identical design features. In Greek lowercase, the Latin serifs were replaced by equally angular and determined outstrokes and terminals. Special care has been taken when designing the Greek monotonic accents. Their angle and size are different from the Latin accents. They are well defined and pronounced, and function excellently in small sizes.

Creating a real, distinct Greek italic might be tricky sometimes, because of the cursive nature of the Greek script. Maiola achieves the differentiation by transferring the Latin italic modulation to the Greek letters skeleton while actually creating new forms, instead of just sloping the regular. In addition to that, there is an attempt to match the typeface with Greek handwriting; Maiola italic differentiates the shape of β, θ, φ (beta, theta, phi) and replaces them with their respective handwritten forms.”

Conclusion

Since the delicate modulation has high demands on printing technology used, the typeface is particularly suitable for magazines, catalogues, and generally publications with better print quality. When used in books, one has to remember that Maiola is more expressive than ordinary book typefaces and can be distracting in longer texts. It is, however, well suited for short fiction or poetry. For Veronika Burian, Maiola was a type experiment exploring the notion of “czechness”, but in the end, a successful typeface with international qualities was born.