Amsterdam Typography

A version of this article was published in Le Monde d’Hermès in Autumn 2010


A train takes me from Amsterdam Centraal through saturated lands where the water table is so high that the smallest depression in a field soon forms a pond.  Text is everywhere on the train – “Stilte” or “Silence” reads the sign, to travelers already asleep in their seats – but I see only the words, the meaning, and not the form the letters take; the typeface is invisible to me, like the window I look through to see the countryside pass by.  Then, arrival in Zwolle, a car to a quiet, forested area in Hattem, and there at a white gate stands Gerrit Noordzij, a legendary type designer who will show me how to see what I have just looked through.

He takes me into an office littered with letters and I propose, by way of introduction, that an author writes his story using letters and ask him to tell me the story told by the shape and weight of the letters themselves.  He considers the question but does not reply; instead, he retreats to a long wall filled floor to ceiling with books, searching for a source text, a related idea, a wild digression.  He returns with a binder containing the original specimens for the typeface Ruse that he began designing in the 1970s: large, clear letters on graph paper with faint marks at the curves to signal the transitions.  He explains that type was once crafted of metal and is now constructed on computer, a progression toward industry and the impersonal.  But the great philosophical insight that animates him is the belief that even in the computer age good type design remains profoundly human, founded on the stroke of a pen; to make something contemporary, then, you must go back to the roots of calligraphy.  He consults the bookshelf again, laying before me an oversized sheaf of pages four centuries old that is an original edition of Jan van de Velde’s manuscript on calligraphy from 1605.  “Type is nothing more than handwriting with the accidentals removed,” he says, “which eliminates variation and improves legibility.  But it is formed of strokes, the way it has always been.”  I look again at the Ruse specimen book on the table before me but the smooth, perfect shapes of the letters deceive me.  He sighs.  I have not followed him.  So he takes up a nib pen, dabbing it in the ink, and begins the alphabet in Ruse precisely as it appears in the specimen book, his hand flowing easily through the letters.  He indicates where the stroke thins and tells me that for the type designer these choices cannot be arbitrary but, instead, are dictated by the angle of the nib as it’s held in the hand.  On a computer it is possible, of course, to make the thick parts thin and the thin parts thick, but the result will feel unbalanced and its legibility degraded; the eye understands intuitively how the hand should move.  He draws another letter and I watch the variation of thick and thin trailing behind his pen, the logic of the design evident from the process of creation.

I understand now, I say, but his glance tells me that I do not yet.  I am seeing only one part of the design but still looking through the other as if it’s invisible: I see the black ink of the stroke but not the white of the space it encloses.  This space is not residual; it is an equal partner to the design.  He retreats once more to the bookshelf, searches, and returns with a Dutch-language Bible written in Burgundica, another typeface he designed, and a copy of Letterletter, the idiosyncratic rumination on type that he edited for many years, opening it to a discussion about spacing.  The story of a culture can be seen in its spacing: the Germans traditionally worked in a compact, tightly-spaced Gothic script, Italians like the legendary 18th century typographer Giambattista Bodoni favored a looser, open design.  Burgundica is more in the German style and the Bible before me appears as dense blocks of text on pages of wide, white margins.  “It looks archaic,” I say.  He nods: the Italians won.  Two centuries later, it is the typeface Bodoni designed that looks conspicuously modern to us.


Click here to see all of Sean’s blog posts about arttypography or Europe.


Sean also shot the photographs for this article. Click images below to view the tear sheets or here to see more of Sean’s photographs of the Netherlands.