The Art of Letters looks beyond the function of type to “realise the beautiful art form within the system”
In a newly published 800-page volume, Klim joins forces with Formist in an experimental dissection of how language systems come together through typography.
- Jyni Ong
- 15 September 2021
You’ll be hard pressed to find a type designer or type lover who doesn’t know about Klim. The New Zealand type foundry has contributed an impressive roster of type families to the contemporary design canon. Calibre, Domaine, Financier, Founders Grotesk, Maelstrom and National 2 are just a few of its beautifully designed works to date and in the past, we’ve been lucky enough to delve into a few of these typefaces in a behind-the-scenes sneak peek with Klim co-founder Kris Sowersby. Along with these highly popular commercial fonts, Klim is also known for designing custom typefaces for the likes of The Financial Times, Paypal and National Geographic. Along the way, he’s been recognised by some of the highest accolades in type design including a Certificate of Excellence from the New York Type Directors Club and was named an art laureate by The Arts Foundation for his continuing contribution to New Zealand art and design.
Today however, we’re here to talk about a project of a different ilk. It’s titled The Art of Letters and is a newly published 800-page publication expressing the intersection of art, function and form in type design. An examination of Kris’ long standing letter drawing practice, it showcases the absurdist delights that come with creating multiple expressions of predetermined alphabets, and incorporates a sprinkling of type theory and aesthetic nuance along the way. Edited by Mark Gowing and Dave Foster and designed by Formist, the publication sheds light on Kris’ deep relationship with type (something all type designers will know something about) and challenges our conscious perception of letterforms as they surround us ubiquitously.
“While a typeface is a well considered set of elements,” explains Mark, “if one removed the context of language systems and alphabets, each character may be viewed as a singular abstract drawing, as art in its own right. As presented in this book, it allows us to re-see, or to see for the first time, their individual form and function.” For the renowned type designers, there is no definitive form of the alphabet. Instead, adds Kris, “the alphabet is a concept made concrete through countless written and designed letterforms; the alphabet is not defined by a single typeface but expressed through all of them.” Though letterforms are devised through a set of rules, they are largely unwritten rules, and the relationship between form and function is ever-changing and subject to style.
In turn, The Art of Letters explores exactly this. The book is finished with black-edged pages and features gold foil-stamped typography, designed in a compendium by the Mark Gowing-run studio, Formist. He tells It’s Nice That about the unique venture which acts as type foundry, publisher and design studio combined. Led by cultural expression, the studio stands out as it is led by feeling and, Mark says, “everything we do is intended to be embedded with intuitive understanding.” Designing tactile experiences which bring together content and expression, Formist’s approach to typography is similar to Klim’s in the way it ties language with physical and cultural meaning.
Mark and Dave embarked on the project together when they started talking about the “wonderfully absurd” body of work that belongs to a type designer. Mark continues, “we were talking about the process of drawing thousands of letters and accents and commas and inevitably began discussing Kris’ vast output as a great example of that beautiful absurdity.” By the end of that conversation, the premise of the book was decided and in time, they went about designing the publication. Curating a concise set of glyphs from a mass of 250,000, the two designers set about painstakingly reviewing the entire set. Eventually, they whittled down the selection using their design intuition honed after years of experience.
Kris handed over his collection to designers Mark and Dave and at first, the set came down to 1,400 glyphs which then came down to a final 756. Mark adds on this received autonomy: “I think this external perspective is a large part of what makes the publication work,” he says. And with the help of author Paul McNeil, they then endeavoured to build the book together, a unique combination of experimentation and traditional experience which bridges the boundary between artistry and utility. After several iterations, Formist finally began to feel happy with the size and feel of the publication, and to top off the overall experience, Mark and Kris collaborates on a custom typeface for the book; something he does for all his published volumes.
“I feel that creating type around specific ideas can help to bind the visual and written content together,” says Mark. Though he was hesitant to follow through with this tradition for Kris’ book, Kris exclaimed at the suggestion: “Like hell you’re not!” which decided the collaboration. As two fans of blackletter, they got talking about rotundas and quickly decided to create a contemporary version of of the medieval script. Once they got drawing, Kris seemed to respond to Mark’s letters by drawing the opposite; “it was more like a call and response than a shared refinement,” he recalls. And naturally, the collaborators began to deconstruct the forms, eventually removing all curves from the rotunda. To top it off, they decided to call it Brotunda as the two are friends, after all. Kris, on the other hand, remarks on the new creation where he played Wim Crouwel: “Bridging five centuries of typographic development leading to many dead ends, we got there in the end. A minimal, modular blackletter built with only 90 degrees and 45 degrees lines.”
Overall, The Art of Letters presents more questions than it does answers. It attempts to avoid the traditional typographic tropes and position type design in a different light. It’s not just a book about the precision and technical prowess of type design, rather, it asks readers to see “beyond the function of type and realise the beautiful art form within the system,” as Mark puts it. “Type is an expressive art that can embody complex concepts and social meanings,” and the publication is a documentation of how these processes come to life. As a final note, Kris reminds us that: “each letterform is painstakingly drawn. It simultaneously has to function on its own and with others. Typography is language made concrete, and typefaces are the material from which it is made.”
GalleryKris Sowersby and Formist: The Art of Letters (Copyright © Kris Sowersby and Formist, 2021)
Kris Sowersby and Formist: The Art of Letters (Copyright © Kris Sowersby and Formist, 2021)
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. Feel free to drop Jyni a note if you have an exciting story for the site.