“Typefaces speak of where culture is, its priorities and aspirations,” says the Wellington-based Klim Type Foundry. When we first came across Klim’s landing page, we were immediately struck by its sculptural type animations (you need to visit its website for the full experience). And despite the fact that the work hails from the other side of the world to where we are now, Klim does not hold back in the quality of its typefaces nor in its playful yet thoughtful approach to design.
In conversation with It’s Nice That, Klim’s leading type designer and company director Kris Sowersby tells us about the unique design scene in New Zealand and the pros and cons of its cultural landscape. He remarks on the importance of design in reflecting the collective expression of a country and as a result, how Klim is creating work like no one else in any part of the world.
It’s Nice That: Does Klim have an overall design ethos?
Kris Sowersby: The Klim Type Foundry (Klim) was founded in 2005. Our foundational ethos is “a thing well made” and our typefaces combine historical knowledge with rigorous contemporary workmanship. We believe 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. Typefaces speak of where culture is, its priorities and aspirations. This is why we want and need new typefaces.
What is the design scene like in New Zealand? How does your design scene differ from the rest of the world?
KS: Despite being a small country on a rock in the middle of the ocean, we’re relatively progressive. We were the first to climb Everest, split the atom and give the vote to women. We used to think of ourselves as culturally isolated. One of our poets described it as like being in a small room with a large window. As late as the 1990s we suffered from the notion of “cultural cringe” – not having confidence in our own cultures. For example, things “designed in Europe” were more highly regarded than things designed here. But that’s not true any more. We’re well-travelled and multi-cultural. Our design scene is small, but well informed, confident and very good. We don’t get a lot of attention internationally, but that’s okay. We know what’s going on out there in the US, UK, Europe and elsewhere, but they don’t tend to know what’s going on here. It’s a good position to be in.
INT: Please can you tell us about your typeface Maelstrom?
KS: Maelstrom and Maelstrom Sans are reversed-stress typefaces. They belong to a genre destined to be a perpetual typographic outsider – never fashionable yet never abandoned. The idea is simply to reverse the thick and thin strokes of a letter, inverting the usual method of construction. The letterforms are “perverse” to be sure, but that’s exactly their charm. It’s not a new idea. Reversed-stress types were once known as “Italians”. Nicolette Gray wrote about the Caslon Italian in her book _Nineteenth Century Ornamented Types and Title Pages_. She said: “The only semi-ornamental type of this decade (1821) is the much, and quite rightly, abused Italian. The Italian is an Egyptian typeface with a horizontal stress and extra serifs reversed and joined to the letter by the point; a crude expression of the idea of perversity.”
It’s hard to know exactly what Gray finds perverse, it could be the mere concept of the reversed stress or the actual execution. Her attitude is typical of most typographers throughout the ages; oscillating between loathing and mirth. Alternatively, Maelstrom pushes the reverse-stress construction to the extreme. The razor-thin side bearings and serif counters are striking, with narrow strips of light sparkling through the black mass. To amplify the contrast, the hairlines are just as thin, allowing me to cram in as much fine detail as possible. Maelstrom and Maelstrom Sans favour graphic mass over legibility.
INT: Please can you tell us about your typeface National 2?
KS: National 2 is a complete overhaul of our popular sans, National. Ten years in the making, every single letter is re-drawn and re-mastered. The weight distribution is better, the curve quality is refined and there are three new widths: narrow, condensed and compressed. A total of 64 fonts over four widths, National 2 is a comprehensive expansion of National’s original aesthetic concept.
Aesthetically, National was a reaction against Helvetica. Conceptually, it was an early manifestation of Klim’s founding purpose: to make local typefaces for local designers – typefaces that could speak in our accent. The British have Gill Sans, the French have Garamond, the Italians have Bodoni and the Swiss, Helvetica. We explored whether there is a relationship between a typeface and place? Can a typeface have a regional accent?
Typefaces give form to the alphabet. They function as carriers of information, selected and circulated through labour, capital and culture. We encounter letterforms daily, but most of the time we are oblivious to their origins or craft. While typefaces have personas and create atmosphere, their characteristics seldom point back to their place of origin or their maker. Yet it is through the typeface’s personality that it becomes meaningful to people, and not just to designers. When a typeface is used intensively within a community of practice, over time it can become a signal for that community’s values.