A Quiet Revolution: Cassandre's Views on Typography

In the majority of my posts on this blog I try to be fun and offer the reader some little known fact or tidbit, or an observation that many of us have overlooked but has been sitting right in front of our noses. But this next post may not neatly fit any of these categories – I guess you could say that it’s straying a little off my beaten path. It’s something that anyone sincerely interested in type history probably already knows, but it’s both an overview and an in-depth analysis of one designer’s views that I felt I needed to share with the public. That designer is none other than the great A.M. Cassandre.

Cassandre contributed much during the growth of modern design. You may have seen his posters of boats, railroads, wines, and phonographs before: you can recognize them by their clean yet painterly quality and strict sense of geometry. Compared to the poster designs of previous decades, his designs were a fresh rethinking of how to approach the graphic representation of elements on a two-dimensional surface. From his sketches we can see the methods by which he constructed his compositions, guided by circles, diagonals and straight lines, and pyramids. However, while I could go on and on about his brilliant methods of poster design, what I primarily wish to discuss is one of his typefaces. Just as he was opinionated and innovative in the realm of design, so he also was in the realm of typography.

 

(Just one example of Cassandre's extensive use of geometry to construct his posters.)

Since the middle ages, the construction of letters has been guided by calligraphy in illuminated manuscripts. When metal type started to appear, typographers naturally wanted their letterforms to draw upon tradition, but with a fresh twist. Owing much to the trends of the Renaissance, typographers looked to Roman capitals and incorporated them as the upper case letters of their new alphabets. For the lower case letters, they used Carolingian miniscule as their model, believing them to be close to Roman letters when in fact Carolingian miniscule was very medieval. All fonts they created had serifs, and these serifs were the artifacts of the stopping, starting, and changing position of the pen on paper. This may simply be a refresher for many readers, but this background was key to Cassandre’s rethinking of typography. When he looked at typography’s extensive history, he saw this continual influence of calligraphy on all (especially lowercase) letter forms, and wanted to draw on that history. However, he felt that the true calligraphic nature of type had been obscured beneath centuries of alterations and flourishes. He wanted to return to the forms of miniscule and Roman letters. Later, upon further soul-searching (as it can sometimes feel like), Cassandre decided that lowercase letters, as they had come down to typographers, did not fit his standards of beauty, and also believed their forms to have been simple shorthand, so to speak, for the scribes who used them. He rebelled against traditional proportions of lower case letters, and wanted to do away with them entirely. With that groundwork, Cassandre set out to create what he felt was the perfect typeface.

What he created has been called both a triumph and a failure. Constructed using primarily uppercase letters, Peignot, Cassandre’s “perfect” typeface, was intended to be revolutionary. Uppercase letters were fairly standard in construction with no major modifications, but the lowercase letters were in fact modified capitals. The lowercase “i” looks very standard: a straight line with a dot at the end. But take a closer look at many of the letters and you’ll find a capital “H” but with an ascending left side, or a “G” with a descending bar on the right. These were not simply capital letters scaled down, but a hybrid of upper and lower case, and was, in Cassandre’s view, an ideal blending of the best of both worlds. Blending can not only be seen in the modification of upper case letters for lower case, but also the gracefully changing weight of the strokes. The letters are a beautiful hybrid of serifs and the grotesques in Cassandre's day - he brought the flair of the pen to a sans serif font resulting in a unique blending.

Sadly, this font was never used as Cassandre had intended it to be. He saw it as an ideal alternative to fonts currently used in book printing, but Peignot ended up being used in posters and print ads instead of books. It didn't take into account psychology and the fact that people desired to use lower case and upper case letters, not just one. Cassandre's ideas were so revolutionary and forward-thinking that he killed the font which he viewed as being the future of typography. However, it can't be ignored that this experiment was the innovative and creative use of type.