“Our friendship began over our mutual love for the history and contemporary design practice of South Asian type design,” say Gunnar Vilhjálmsson and Kalapi Gajjar of Universal Thirst when we catch up with the type foundry responsible some seriously exciting developments in Indic scripts. Fresh from designing the Bangla typeface for Dhaka Art Summit 2020 plus a revival of Linotype Gujarati for Monotype, the studio has also created some stunning Latin type for The Gourmand, not to mention Frieze’s new typeface, Frieze Sans.
Based in both Bangalore and Reykjavik, Universal Thirst was formally founded in 2016, bringing together Gunnar and Kalapi’s contrasting visual heritage. But the idea actually began some time before, when Kalapi and Gunnar were working in London. The duo met during an MA at the University of Reading and after graduating, Gunnar began working for Monotype on big projects for global brands, while Kalapi was at DaltonMaag as a font engineer on complex multi-script projects. “We knew there was little innovation in Indian type design, and we became increasingly interested in creating a platform for the design of different writing systems,” the pair tell It’s Nice That. When they first started talking about Universal Thirst, it was about making an online journal on multi-script typography, not a full-scale type foundry, but when both Gunnar and Kalapi left their jobs in London at similar times, it seemed an opportunity too good to miss. Universal Thirst was born.
The foundry’s name itself comes from one specimens the pair found on one of their initial research quests – a Telugu specimen from the Swadesi foundry in Madras, dated 1937. “The foundry director expresses his concern regarding the lack of well-designed font families by talking about a ‘universal thirst’ for high quality typefaces which support multiple scripts in a harmonious way,” Gunna and Kalapi say. “That sums up our mission quite well.” Now a team of seven, with four based out of the small Bangalore and Reykjavík’s studios and another three working remotely across cities in India and Europe, the studio also brings in specialist contractors on a project basis, who add valuable insights on specific writing systems. “We spend a lot of time on Google Hangouts and Slack,” the pair say.
Since starting the foundry they’ve worked on a range of type projects from lettering jobs for small art events to multi-script typeface families for major tech brands. “That’s the variety in scale we like having in our projects,” they explain. One of Universal Thirst’s first collaborative projects was with David Lane and The Gourmand, developing a revival in extreme styles of the popular Cheltenham typeface, Thin Ultra Condensed and Black Extended, to “expand the typographic palette of the magazine, and give them access to some more expressive versions of the style." Another initial project was creating a new version of Linotype Gujarati for Monotype, an “immensely popular” typeface that appeared across newspapers and books when it was first released in India in the 1980s. “We maintained a reference to the original version of the typeface, retaining all the elements that made it so successful but updating them and extending to match modern design standards.”
More recently the studio was commissioned by Fraser Muggeridge Studio to create a Bangla companion to the Latin script it had designed as part of its identity for the Dhaka Art Summit 2020 in Bangladesh. Creating a typeface that complimented the “beautifully shaky letterforms” of Fraser’s typeface (inspired by the summit’s theme of Seismic Movements), Universal Thirst created three versions of the fully monolinear outlines that can be animated to “get things shaking and shifting properly,” the duo say.
Another collaboration was working with Amy Preston on a new bespoke typeface for Frieze Art Fair, a “robust sans serif,” called Frieze Sans. The typeface is actually a customised version of a versatile neo-grotesque font family that Universal Thirst has been developing for its own font library, which is soon to launch. “These new fonts will represent the essence of our foundry and the role we want to play in building a platform for high quality Indic and Latin typefaces. We’ve been exploring a variety of designs, from robust type families for everyday use to highly experimental ones that push the boundaries of what is possible.” We can’t wait to see more.