A Typographic Utopia
4th May, 2009 by Brita Frost
The phenomenon is called Utypia. It’s typography developed by idealists and dreamers, typography that acts as an expression of ideals and more generally, of the culture in which we live. A term coined by Stephen Banham, it forms the basis of his new publication, Utopia Oblique released to coincide with the launch of Letterbox’s new typeface League. Last week Stephen took me through this, the most recent of his type samplers and showed me just how typography acts an expression of our culture and our place in history, and as such, how typography can express the optimism and the pessimism of the times as well. Here’s some of what he had to say:
Ultimately this is what I have been arguing for years: people don’t see the connection between typography and its impact on society. No one understands that type is just as much a valid form of social expression as buildings, cars, dresses all that sort of stuff.
What we are saying is that if typefaces can actually express a period, like Helvetica does, Futura does, then can they also express either optimism or pessimism.
So I thought, who’s actually done this before, who’s actually created an entire language based around their idea of an ideal society? I started looking at the history of Utopias and of course it goes right back. One of the most significant players was Thomas More. In 1516 Thomas More wrote a book about an island called Utopia and on the island were these extraordinary social conditions. Of course 1516 was not a particularly pleasant time to be around. So in effect what he was doing was trying to use the example of the island to bring home some of the political truths of the day. It was a really clever way of saying ‘Hey, the world should be like this,’ but then it was also just fiction. Unfortunately, his beliefs had him incarcerated for much of his life. Thomas More also created an entire alphabet for his island, a very geometric typeface called Utopian. This was the first instance of someone actually creating a visual language for an imagined society.
Edward Cole is another example. Edward Cole ran Coles Book Arcade in Melbourne at the end of the 19th Century. He’s a very interesting fellow because despite the fact that he was first and foremost a bookseller, he was actually using his book arcade, as a front for his much larger ideals on what life should be. He was a firm believer in everybody being educated and everybody being able to read. That the future of the world lay in education. Which I’ve got to say is still a pretty sound idea as far as I’m concerned. He would firmly encourage people to come into his book arcade. Sit there. And read a book. They wouldn’t even have to buy it.
Cole was into the idea of the world operating under a single form of government, having one religion and importantly, having one language. He thought everybody in the world should speak the one language as a way of overcoming wars and conflict and so forth. Which again, is a beautiful idea. He said that by the year 2000 we would be operating under one government, one religion, one language. Of course, that hasn’t happened. But what’s interesting is that at the same time he was doing this somebody else on the other side of the world was creating a language based on the exact same idea. And this was Esperanto.
Esperanto is probably the most successful auxiliary language ever produced. Esperanto is a modified Latin alphabet. It’s based on Latin forms. It has 28 letters and it is quite easy to learn. In Esperanto the letters Q, W, X, Y don’t figure. The reason people don’t like Esperanto is they say it comes from no specific place and from no specific culture. They also say that there is not one country in the world that has actually adopted Esperanto as its national language.
I did some research and there was one nation that was created in 1968 off the coast of Italy that had Esperanto as its national language. It’s a place called Rose Island. George Rosa, an Italian engineer, built this platform, dragged it a couple of kilometres off the coast, stuck it on nine pylons and declared it an independent nation. On this new micro-nation he had a bar, a restaurant, and a post office. He created his own stamps. Rosa decided that Esperanto was going to be the national language. So it was called Esperanta Republica Rose Island. Eventually the Italian authorities, the police and tax inspectors boarded Rose Island and they shut the whole thing down. They got everybody off the island and then they instructed the Italian navy to blow it up. Because they suspected it was just a tax dodge. And it probably was a tax dodge.
Typography is a product of human creation and an expression of the times in the same way that architecture is. Utopia Oblique is an extension of the realisation that type can express the spirit of the times. And we do have a particular spirit of the times at the moment. I think League expresses this. We’re marketing it as a very bold, confident striking typeface. Which is the exact antithesis to the times we are experiencing at the moment, where everybody is timid and withdrawn and hiding under the rock. Utopia Oblique is part promotion of the fonts, but we are also trying to create a culture around the fonts. Rather than just saying here’s the font. I want to connect it in with something that’s a lot more fulfilling and a lot more interesting.
You can purchase Utopia Oblique from Letterbox.
So I’m off to agIdeas, will keep you posted!
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