From the Alps to the Andes, type foundry Altiplano merges Swiss design with its founder’s South American heritage
Raphaël Verona’s sources of inspiration overlap the erudite and the vernacular in this multifaceted design practice.
- Jyni Ong
- 11 February 2021
When working on previous projects, Raphaël Verona was always looking for new fonts, often dissatisfied with the ones offered on the market. Ending up designing his own typefaces “in order to find the right tone for each project,” as well as “to offer the client a kind of expressiveness,” this, in a manner of speaking, is how Altiplano began. A Swiss type foundry releasing retail and custom typefaces, Altiplano is responsible for a host of type families with bags of personality. Its roster includes Atlantique Bermuda Display, Monaako, Nirvana and Atlantique Miami, just to name a few, and each design is as characterful as the next.
Now based in Lausanne, Raphaël was born and raised in France before studying visual communication at the prestigious design school ECAL. He’s always kept close links with his South American heritage, and when it was much easier to travel around the world Raphaël operated his practice between Lausanne and La Paz, Bolivia. Several of his projects are linked to Bolivia, which is also the place where he met his wife, and more broadly, the designer intertwines his work with the cultural contexts of his clients. Recently, for example, he extended his character sets for the Vietnamese written language, Tiếng Việt.
It was a great interest in literature and a curiosity for language which first attracted Raphaël to the medium. “I have always been fascinated by the link between the world as we perceive it and the attempts to identify and describe it with language,” he adds. From a formal perspective however, and like many other type designers, Raphaël always loved drawing letters. He recalls a childhood interest in calligraphy (even though his handwriting was not particularly legible) and was always fascinated by the shapes formed by certain words. As he puts it, with “rigour and an eye for detail,” type can bring new rhythms to life, “just like a musical arrangement.”
Altiplano’s typographic outputs work in tandem with Raphaël’s graphic design practice. In the Swiss creative vein, his work calls for specific typographic purposes and can often “indicate gaps in the market for existing typefaces.” He doesn’t use common classifications of typefaces like Vox-Atypi but rather, takes on a Jan Solpera-like attitude in his classification systems, which helps him to delve into unexplored regions of the medium. For instance, back in 2013, Swatch Group commissioned Raphaël to design a series of watches. Initially, he wanted to an English-inspired script font, something like Calligraphy by G Bickham The Elder, but he wasn’t convinced by what was available. In turn, he started to design a script which would later become the current Millionaire Script. A script true to its historic atmosphere but updated with a contemporary dimension to include rhythm, endings, more extravagant ligatures or removal of certain others.
This mixing of past and present is a staple in Altiplano’s process. Coming from a mix of cultures, Raphaël likes to merge heterogeneous sources and references to nod to his family’s mixed heritage. “Creolisation is finally at the heart of my concerns,” he says of his theory-laden typefaces. Crossing time and space, his sources of inspiration overlap the erudite and the vernacular. Though his work is ultimately grounded in historical references, this base allows Raphaël to add layers of spontaneity or contemporary flair to the work in turn.
Nirvana is Altiplano’s most typical example of how varying sources of inspiration converge into one font. Starting out as a digitisation of a typeface found in a specimen Charles R Ashbee’s Essex House Psalter from 1902, Raphaël sought to apply geometric solutions to the digitisation in order to rationalise the design. Keen to maintain the “medieval rhythm” of the alphabet the designer had an idea to make each upper case letter an illustration in its own right. Drawing inspiration from Karl Gestner’s Designing Programmes, eventually, he found a way to create satisfactorily contemporary solutions, even managing to incorporate an alternative capital “I” based on his daughter’s handwriting at the time. “At the end,” he says of Nirvana’s creation, “I obtained a homogenous and if I dare say, out-of-norm result.”
Raphaël tells us about another one of his creations, another script font which, he admits, he has a penchant for designing; George Bickham The Elder being somewhat of a type hero to Raphaël having admired the calligrapher and engraver since his student days. Atlantique Bermuda was released in 2020, just one year after Millionaire Italic, and in the type designer’s words, it is its “implicit sequel.” Fundamentally, he embarked on the project to find a way for a flourished language and modular solutions to coexist in the same font. “I wanted to produce a bold typeface for titling with a maximum of contrasts,” he adds.
The designer always keeps a purpose in mind when creating a font. And during the process for Atlantique Bermuda, he thought about the fashion industry and fashion magazines. Specifically the work of Kiyeol Kim, current art director of GQ Korea. As experimentation unfolded, Raphaël decided to borrow solutions from the monospace typeface process, “many aspects of this typeface derived from its interpretation,” which eventually, saw Atlantique Bermuda become a monospace typeface overall. Its fixed widths allowed it to work as calligraphy, resulting in Atlantique Bermuda becoming a wholly unique “Script Mono Display Bold typeface” that we can appreciate today.
2021 is set to be another busy year for Altiplano with the release of its first variable typeface, Atlantic Miami and, to top it all off, Raphaël says: “I plan to publish several other variable typefaces this year.” In what promises to be a pretty busy year (never mind the pandemic) Raphaël also hopes to continue a subject of interest that he started during his bachelor’s degree at ECAL, an exploration of historical type engraving which will inform another typeface. Then, once travel restrictions have lifted and he’s able to spend more time in South America, the type designer aims to work on a type project centring on decolonisation. Adapting the structure of the Latin alphabet for the written language of Aymara – an indigenous nation in the Andes and Altiplano regions of South America – he hopes to work will linguistic experts in the area to create fonts for Andean cultures.
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Altiplano: Nirvana Bold (Copyright © Altiplano, 2020)
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.