The Cyrillic fonts of Kyiv Type Foundry are a homage to its favourite city

The design duo draw inspiration from Soviet-era modernism and Kyiv’s bountiful yet largely ignored typographic heritage.

2 December 2021


The conception of Kyiv Type Foundry (KTF) began in Berlin during a meeting between designers Yevgeniy Anfalov and Oles Gergun, who bonded over their shared love for Cyrillic type design heritage, vernacular typography, and their understanding of the design culture in Kyiv, the former’s hometown and the latter’s adopted home. “We realised that design practice in Ukraine is narcissistic rather than critical,” explains Oles. The duo formed KTF as a response to this realisation, seeking a “critical approach to local visuality” that would pay due respect to the country and city’s rich history. “[KTF] is a psychological program if you like, to treat local design complexes: we have to accept ourselves as we are, with all the visual trash and the past we went through. To me, studying the local context is way more pleasing than scrolling.”

Naturally, the foundry’s main output is Cyrillic fonts. These are based on long periods of research, taking place both locally, in their surrounding area, and in the pages of books they find in flea markets and libraries. “Quite often, I hear complaints from my peers about the lack of good Cyrillic fonts, but in fact, this is not the case if you look back at uncovered fields, and that’s what we want to explore” explains Yevgeniy. “Our motto is: Cyrillic First. Meaning, we’re treating the overlooked, overshadowed first.” So far, these have come in the form of Soviet legacy fonts, based on typefaces dating back to the simultaneous rise of the USSR and modernist design. “In general, I have always been interested in the paradoxical nature of modernism, with its obsession for creating the ideal world,” says Oles.

One such font, KTF Jermilov, which was released this year, is a modular display font following the typographical practice of Kharkiv avant-garde artist and designer Vasyl Jermilov. “This typographic style started in the 1920s as a modernist attempt at creating a universal typeface that could be easily reproduced and used by everyone with no previous experience,” explains Oles. “It was also a follow-up to the elementary idea of a ‘square as a key module of art’ (Malevich's suprematist manifesto), with its heralds El Lissitsky, Herbert Beyer, Joost Schmidt, and Jan Tschichold, among others.” The font itself consists of “two utilitarian principles”: uppercase letters composed of limited geometric elements based on a 3x5 square grid, and a lowercase signature “a”. It grew in popularity during the Soviet era, eventually outlasting the state itself and finding its place on entrance signs, navigation, bus stops, and painted letterings that can still be seen today.


Copyright © Kyiv Type Foundry, 2021

Along with KTF Jermilov, the foundry also put out two other fonts as part of its method of batch releases: KTF Rublena and KTF Compact. The former is a black grotesk that Yevgeniy introduces as the “most used black grotesk in the USSR”. Originating at the end of the 19th century in the then German city of Danzig (now the Polish city of Gdańsk) as Zeitungs-Grotesque, this metal type was eventually copied and distributed all around the globe in a broad variety of names and versions. Predating the 1876 Copyright Act for the German Empire, it was destined to be repeatedly bootlegged and can now be found frequently in Soviet-era books. “Knowing of Rublena since childhood and being convinced of its everlasting visual strength, we aimed to re-evaluate it and produce a modern titling font,” says Yevgeniy of the reworking. “Rublena is not a revival of any particular source, but rather a free and reduced interpretation of an old protype. It takes the best from our research, covering all possible artefacts – from metal and phototype sources to hand-painted posters and even “Nu Pogodi” cartoon – and shining at you in a new build, ready for digital use in 2021.”

Finally, KTF Compact is a display typeface that takes inspiration from a rare movie poster designed for the 1983 Russian film Love By Request and issued by Reklamizdat. The typeface is truly unique, as further use cases of the lettering have never been found. “It exists on the edge of readability,” says Oles. “Its shapes are mostly made of vertically set narrow rectangles of the same width, slightly rounded, and spaced most tightly.” He goes on to metaphorise it as a typographic Roland 909 – “you type it, and a sequence comes into being. It takes the space and inverts it, becoming a surface. All the life then happens in black on white, or between the letters, depending on the usage.”

With new releases already in the works, including one titled KTF Ekran which is based on the Cyrillic alphabet, it’s clear that KTF are staying true to their motto. In doing so, they are introducing a new audience to a world of untapped potential. Drawing influence from the rich history of the writing system itself, as well as its specific applications in Kyiv, KTF’s practice is both an educational endeavour and a long-term tribute to their home. “It is important for KTF to give our peers an entry point into our microworld of discoveries and adventurous thoughts – from a series of images, a T-shirt, a zine, or text” reflects Yevgeniy. “Kyiv Type Foundry is more than just drawing fonts, it's also a homage to our favourite city.”

GalleryAll images copyright © Kyiv Type Foundry, 2021

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Copyright © Kyiv Type Foundry, 2021

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About the Author

Daniel Milroy Maher

Daniel joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in February 2019 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. He graduated from Kingston University with a degree in Journalism in 2015. He is also co-founder and editor of SWIM, an annual art and photography publication.

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