Marlon Ilg talks us through turning a found typeface into a variable font with a modular grid

Marlon often draws on the rich history of Swiss type design in his work, and his latest project is no different.

4 August 2021


Typographer Marlon Ilg spends much of his time in libraries, looking at old prints and historical type specimens. “I find it much more revealing than looking at contemporary design,” he tells It’s Nice That. “Looking into the history of one’s own profession is more exciting than comparing it with contemporary positions.” Based in Zurich and having studied in Lucerne and Bern, Marlon has been surrounded by a particularly rich history when it comes to typography, providing the investigative designer with ample material to mine for inspiration.

On one of his library trips, he discovered several prints encased in a folder made in 1907 by Gerrit Schreuders which became the foundation for one of Marlon’s most recent projects. G. Schreuders was a type manufacturing company and the folder Marlon stumbled upon was titled Letterboek voor den teekenaar en ambachtsman (Books of types for the painter and craftsman). Made up of 54 loose sheets, each features a lettering sample based on the work of Dutch artist and furniture designer Klaas Van Leeuwen. Crucially the “letterbook” makes a distinction between typography and what G. Schreuders refers to as “drawn letters” ie “lettering”. The distinction is defined through the characters featured in Letterboek voor den teekenaar en ambachtsman which appear drawn on a grid and were intended to provide instructions to those who needed to draw letters as part of their profession. Using a compass and ruler, they could in turn be painted onto buildings and the like. “Lettering of this kind can still be found on architecture from 1900-1920, notably by Dutch architects like K.P.C. de Bazel and J.L.M. Lauweriks (who were friends with Van Leeuwen),” Marlon explains.

GalleryKlaas Van Leeuwen: Letterboek voor den Teekenaar en Ambachtsman (Copyright © G. Schreuders Amsterdam, 1907)

Fascinated by this staunch distinction between typography and lettering, Marlon set out to update one particular alphabet from the “book” using similar techniques (primarily a grid) and has since released Grid Fraktur Font, a variable in which the grid becomes part of the typeface itself. The fraktur style typeface was once a contentious one, Marlon explains, for its connotations with Nazi Germany. But it has since become a favourite among discerning graphic designers and has featured on covers for musicians like Beyonce, Kanye West and Taylor Swift. Understanding the history and context of what he’s working with, in this sense, is important to Marlon so that he can sensitively work with or against any pre-existing connotations. With the addition of the grid, Marlon further modernises the fraktur style, moving it away from its original Gothic context. “It becomes a modular, figurative font and is no longer reminiscent of old, medieval books or similar,” he adds.

More broadly, Marlon is interested in the possibilities that open up when working to digitise historic fonts. “In recent years, many typefaces from the pre-digital era have been transferred to the digital age. This is important work to ensure that older designs are not lost and forgotten,” he explains. As many other typographers are also interested in this field, finding a typeface that has not yet been digitised is a rare occurrence and so the discovery of the “letterbook” was too good an opportunity to pass up. “Besides this idea of ‘digital transfer’, I simply fell in love with the formal language of the sticky grid on the fraktur letters,” he tells us.

Marlon hopes to see other designers utilise his variable in the fields of music, photography or fashion, noting how seeing the font embroidered on textiles would be particularly exciting. Then, as to what’s next for his practice, he concludes: “I think a functioning slanted and back-slanted version of the typeface could be interesting.”

GalleryStudio Marlon Ilg: VanLeeuwen (Copyright © Studio Marlon Ilg, 2021)

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Studio Marlon Ilg: VanLeeuwen (Copyright © Studio Marlon Ilg, 2021)

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About the Author

Ruby Boddington

Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.

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