Referenz Grotesk by Open2Type is a typeface grounded in years of research

Stefanie Schwarz and Dirk Wachowiak, the founders of the typographic research lab, spent four years in archives before creating their typeface, which pays homage to the design heritage of the Stuttgart State Academy of Art and Design.

14 May 2020


Type designers outside Germany would be forgiven for not knowing the full influence that the Stuttgart State Academy of Art and Design has had on their craft. Yet the university has an extraordinarily rich heritage when it comes to typography, and it’s a history that few understand as well as Stefanie Schwarz and Dirk Wachowiak.

The pair are the founders of the typographic research lab Open2Type, based out of Stuttgart’s Weissenhofsiedlung. They both studied in Germany and the US, before Dirk received his MFA in Graphic Design from Yale and Stefanie her MA in Communication Design from Central Saint Martins. As a collective, they say they’re particularly interested in “creating conceptual typefaces and using type as a medium to tell stories”.

The duo was approached in 2016 by the Academy’s director to create a new corporate font for the university. After four years of detailed research and hard graft, the result is Referenz Grotesk, a typeface that manages to distil the Academy’s long and rich type-design heritage into one family. “We just wanted to bring all these wonderful shapes into the present time and let them interact with contemporary forms and technologies,” says Stefanie. “We also considered this process an experiment to see if it’s possible to outline the Academy’s history of type and typography by means of the medium itself: a typeface.”

Looking back at the 20th century, it’s clear to see the influence the so-called “Stuttgart School” has had on modern design, both within and outside Germany. Kurt Weidemann (who designed the typeface Corporate for Daimler Benz in the 1980s and worked on several corporate identities, including Porsche and Deutsche Bahn) studied at the Academy in the 1950s and later returned to teach for almost two decades. F.H. Ernst Schneidler (who created around 20 typefaces, including the still-popular Stempel Schneidler), was one of the key figures who taught in Stuttgart from 1920 for almost 30 years and educated several generations of influential designers.

Stefanie and Dirk’s research phase saw them diving into all the “special corners and nooks” of the Academy, says Stefanie, including the university’s typesetting workshop, where Schneidler taught and worked, and the archive where the majority of Weidemann’s estate is housed. “It was particularly exciting to wander through the archive facilities and search there for typographic treasures on its shelves and in its drawers,” says Stefanie, who says she felt “a bit like Sherlock Holmes” (albeit of the typographic variety).

GalleryOpen2Type: Referenz Grotesk type specimen

Referenz Grotesk brings together all of these different discoveries, taking inspiration from the pair’s detailed research and encapsulating a lively dialogue between past and present. “The plan was to design a clean, functional body text type that simultaneously works as a display font that can also be used for more playful and experimental contexts, like posters or signage,” says Dirk, adding that it was a bit challenging to bring these two aspirations together. “For the final fonts we’ve decided to integrate the historic references only in a subtle manner for the regular text fonts. Whereas several alternative glyphs pick up more expressive forms to open up a broader range of visual expressions.”

The typeface has just been released by Sudtipos, a type foundry in Buenos Aires, almost four years since the duo was first approached. This collaboration was “pretty vigorous in a positive sense”, says Dirk, “because we started at the end of January 2020 and planned to release Referenz Grotesk in March. We all agreed to extend the family by some more glyphs and two more weights (Medium and Extra Bold), plus italics.” This led to a mass of trans-Atlantic emails that “sometimes felt like a ping-pong match”, he says.

“Towards the end it was also a joy to design a publication about the new type family,” says Stefanie, referring to the type specimen the pair created. “For us, this is always an important part of a type-design project, to work with the tool we’ve created and outline its concept and background in order to make it accessible to others.” Despite the detailed, complicated, not to mention lengthy process behind Referenz Grotesk, the founders of Open2Type have managed to communicate their concept in an approachable way, capturing the heritage of the Stuttgart State Academy of Art and Design and breathing new life into it.

GalleryOpen2Type: Referenz Grotesk

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Matt Alagiah

Matt joined It’s Nice That as editor in October 2018 and became editor-in-chief in September 2020. He was previously executive editor at Monocle magazine. Drop him a line with ideas and suggestions, or simply to say hello.

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