Danish Centre for Design Research

Type design - a Part of Danish design tradition

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At The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture, Associate Professor, architect and graphic designer Steen Ejlers is engaged in a research project and major book project to document a hitherto somewhat overlooked part of the Danish design tradition: type design and its development in the 20th century.

By Mads Nygaard Folkmann

Normally, the Danish design tradition is associated with the movement Danish Modern, which from the 1950s and on put Denmark on the international map of design, especially with furniture but also with objects for everyday use. However, the 20th century also saw the development of a specifically danish tradition of type design.

The typeface for street signs in Gentofte City (1925-27) made Knud V. Engelhardt (1882-1931) one of the best known figures in this part of the Danish design tradition. For example, his life’s work is included in the Canon of Danish Design and Handicrafts established by the Danish Ministry of Culture. Granted, Engelhardt is unique, but he is not alone; others before him and many more after him have contributed to the specifically Danish tradition of type design.

Gunnar Biilmann Petersen’s poster “Deensche Kunst”, 1934. The typeface has clear references back to Knud V. Engelhardt’s alphabets.

The line of development that Steen Ejlers is documenting begins with Thorvald Bindesbøll (1846-1908) – whose life’s work is also included in the Canon – and continues through Engelhardt to Gunnar Biilmann Petersen (1897-1968), Naur Klint (1920-1978) and Claus Achton Friis (1917-1999) and on to contemporary graphic designers including Ole Søndergaard (born 1937) and Bo Linnemann (born 1953), the latter of the design and consultancy firm Kontrapunkt.

An Architectural Tradition

This tradition is rooted in one specific educational setting: the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture.
“The unique feature of Danish type design is its intimate link with the architectural discipline,” Steen Ejlers explains.
“It is at the Royal Academy, in 1951, that the School for Industrial Art is established with Biilmann Petersen as the professor, and he continues as head of the department of graphic design that is established in 1959. This is also where the culture of apprentice-master relationships develops that comes to characterise developments during the second half of the 20th century. Biilmann Petersen is the first professor of the discipline, and he was also Klint’s teacher, who was later my teacher. At the same time, it’s not possible to understand Biilmann Petersen without considering the influences he received from Engelhardt; he was an employee of Engelhardt’s in the 1920s.”

Steen Ejlers points to the key role that Engelhardt played in the development of a specifically Danish tradition of type design.
“Engelhardt is the first architect in Denmark to specifically address type design, and he proved, especially with his project for Københavns Sporveje (Copenhagen Railway Company) in 1910, that he was a sort of ideal designer, capable of designing both in two and three dimensions, thus embracing both graphic and industrial design. And Engelhardt in turn is very difficult to understand without considering the influences he received from Bindesbøll, who despite his background as an architect also moved into – and made a name for himself in – the field of applied art. He experimented with expanding his field of expression in the direction of craft & design and graphic design – just think of the logo he designed for Carlsberg in 1904,” says Steen Ejlers.

Knud V. Engelhardt: Skandinavisk Musikforlag, 1910. This is a typical example of Engelhardt’s use of letter ligatures, that is, two letters combined into one. Engelhardt’s type design later became an important source of inspiration for Biilmann Petersen and Naur Klint.

The Danish Characteristic

It is also with Bindesbøll that many of the characteristics of Danish type design in the 20th century emerge – and it is his work that makes it possible to speak of a typically Danish tradition of type design.
“It’s characteristic of Danish type design that it developed within a relatively small environment,” says Steen Ejlers.
“It’s not like in The Netherlands, Britain or Germany where there’s a longstanding tradition for typefaces that date back to the Renaissance. Danish is a small language area, and to a great extent we have imported typefaces, especially from Germany. We have no tradition of designing our own typefaces in Denmark, and the ornate German Gothic types are actually dominant well into the 19th century. With Bindesbøll, then, finally something new happens. His work is characterised by powerful and organic expressions, which often seem coarse, and which use a fantastic and experimental idiom. He is a contemporary of French Art Nouveau and Germany Jugend style, yet manages to find his own style, known in Danish as Skønvirke.”

It is in this field of tension between art and design that type design develops. At the same time, it is an essential feature that the typefaces that are developed are not exclusively intended for printing.

“Printing in Denmark dates back to the 15th century, but we have no tradition for carving and developing our own types, that is, we import them, mainly from Germany. Characteristically, the typefaces developed in the 20th century are job or display types, that is, types designed for signs, labels, folders, headlines, etc. They are not designed as text types, that is, as types that come in different point sizes, and which exist in a variety of styles including italics etc. and can be used for books. There are typefaces that only exist as capitals and numbers, or that don’t include all the letters in the alphabet, simply because they weren’t needed,” says Steen Ejlers.

Detail from Thorvald Bindesbøll’s poster “Saltvands Badeanstalten Gamma” (Gamma saltwater baths), circa 1904, with an interesting example of a free and decorative use of text. Note the ø, where the slash stays within the boundaries of the o-shape.

The Two Tracks of the Research Project

In order to draw as accurate an image of Danish type design as possible Steen Ejlers has chosen two angles of approach for his project. “The project has two points of view; one is diachronic, the other is synchronic. The diachronic point of view follows the chronological line from Bindesbøll on; here I seek to document and present the rich wealth of type design that took place, and which has also been handed over as tacit knowledge in almost osmotic study environments here at the School of Architecture,” he explains.

It is important for Steen Ejlers to illustrate the full scope of the individual designers’ work. He has dug deep in the archives at the Danish Museum of Art & Design but has yet to make the final selection.
“It’s interesting, for example, to bring out the full scope of Engelhardt’s work. In Ellegaard Frederiksen’s famous book on Engelhardt from 1965, Knud V. Engelhardt: Arkitekt og bogtrykker (Knud V. Engelhardt: Architect and printer), he clearly focuses on the ‘functionalist’ part of Engelhardt’s work, while his lesser known work has other, more radical parts that point explicitly back to Bindesbøll,” says Steen Ejlers.

Thorvald Bindesbøll: “Automaten”, draft of logo for Automatcaféen (Automat Cafe). Elements in the A are repeated as ornamentation.

The other point of view involves a series of synchronic cross-sections in relation to contemporary developments in graphic design in other countries, particularly in Britain and Germany. The synchronic views involve three time periods: circa 1900, 1925 and the 1960s.
“These are periods that are characterised by clear international trends and prominent Danish examples. Thus, the assessment of the specifically ‘Danish’ is considered in light of international developments at the time. Here it’s remarkable how little discernible influence there is. Bauhaus plays a role in Denmark, for example in relation to the poster artist Ib Andersen, but it plays no role for Engelhardt and Biilmann Petersen. At this point, the development in Denmark is isolated. But what I’m doing here is looking for similarities and differences, which may be evident without any direct influence from one country to another,” says Steen Ejlers.

Project Perspectives

The overall aim with the project is to bring out type design as a part of the Danish design tradition. At the same time, Steen Ejlers’ future monograph will address the fundamental task of making material accessible that so far has mainly been available only in archives – although some of it is already presented in other books by Steen Ejlers.

“Privat” (Private) by Claus Achton Friis. Wide bold sans serif typeface from the 1950s. Again, note the closed ’ø’ – a characteristic that begins with Bindesbøll, and which can be followed all the way to Ole Søndergaard.

“I want to make a sort of parallel design history for type design, but I also want to demonstrate that typefaces don’t spring from some ahistoric environment but are in fact a part of a professional development. Here, I have restricted myself to the branch of development that has to do with the architectural and craft-based part of type design, that is, typefaces designed by analogue rather than digital means,” Steen Ejlers explains.

The past always has something to teach us. The German Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schlegel described the historian as a sort of reverse prophet, moving into the future with history as his luggage.
“I hope to increase the knowledge of the specifically Danish tradition of type design – it may be difficult to put the aesthetic aspect of design into words, but this is design on a very high level, which springs from a unique, local tradition. Danish type design in the 20th century was a tradition with a high degree of artistic integrity and strong ethics. That is something we might learn from today, I think,” says Steen Ejlers.

A selection of books by Steen Ejlers

  • Arkitekten & grafikeren Gunnar Biilmann Petersen 1897-1968, Arkitektens Forlag, Copenhagen 2002
  • The Hunt for Authentic Tradition – or How Irish Applied Arts were Conceived in Copenhagen, in: Scandinavian Journal of Design History, Vol 10, 2000.
  • Architects in Danish Graphic Design, in: Scandinavian Journal of Design History, Vol 7, 1997.
  • Claus Achton Friis - skrift & brugsgrafik, Arkitektens Forlag, Copenhagen 1996.
  • Ib Andersens brugsgrafik, Forening for Boghaandværk/Christian Ejlers Forlag, Copenhagen 1980.

Mind Design #4, 2007

Edited and published by the Danish Centre for Design Research

Reproduction allowed and encouraged with indication of source