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Stéphane Elbaz is graphic and type designer working in New York and Paris. In 2009 he was awarded the Certificate of Excellence in Type Design from the Type Directors Club of New York for his type family Geneo, recently published by Typofonderie. He is the first typeface designer from outside the foundry to be published by Typofonderie.

How do you define yourself?

I am a designer. I intend to solve problems with aesthetic solutions, but at the same time develop a personal expression. It’s this gap that I find interesting.

My taste for letters appeared really early in my life, during my teenage years. At that time it wasn’t properly an interest in type, but certainly a taste for letters as plastic shapes. Going to the Arts Décoratifs school in Paris led me to discover classic typography. How could one not to be nostalgic when contemplating those school years? It’s very important for me because of how much I learned during these years. Classes with Rudi Meyer and Jean François Porchez gave me the context and the latitude to look at the subject with a more experimental way of thinking.

It was during the type design courses lead by Jean François Porchez that I was involved in the creation of the Caffeine and Cooker Black typefaces. This was clearly an important starting point for me; I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to involve myself in rigorous typographic projects without this first step. Thus letters for me became the dominant element of my graphic design. Type design is a discipline that requires a taste for abstraction plus a systematic mind — two things that fit well with my professional mindset.

You do both web design and type design, which is pretty rare. How does this affect how you work?

Concerning my web design skills, it’s a question I should ask of my colleagues. I don’t know if working with headlines devoid of kerning, or the inability to set a nicely ragged left paragraph is more difficult for me to live with than it is for others. I do, however, have good reasons to be optimistic. Things are evolving more quickly and always improving. The future will bring with it more and more screens and resolutions, and it is important that the typographic quality on these devices improves accordingly.

I think what has occurred on the Internet for some years is a perfect illustration of the importance of typography in graphic design. The capacity to use a large font palette, in comparison to the three or four standards that were used for dynamic texts, changes everything, and permits designers to express different identities.

Beyond the technical constraints of various screens, I don’t think there is any fundamental difference between the content presented on a screen or on paper — in much the same way as I don’t think that twitter or text messages radically changes our language. After all, it’s the graphic designer that has to choose the typefaces appropriate to the subject, and deal with technical constraints with a broader focus than just the screen or the piece of paper.

Why did you leave France to live and work in New York? From there, what can you say about type design in the United States and in France?

I like the charm of tiny cities. Seriously though, the United States is a big country and therefore has a great diversity of expression. There is certainly a tone in American graphic design that is quite different; the references are not exactly the same as in France. It seems, for instance, that the idea of tradition and the images associated with it are not the same in Paris and New York. The shapes and the imaginative world of tradition are an important foundation upon which type designers work, thus there are going to be differences in the type aesthetic.

What is the genesis of your typeface, Geneo?

Geneo was a personal project that I began without thinking of a context or a specific use. I was attracted to slab serifs and began drawing a really thin weight, a little like a typewriter character, but with some kind of Renaissance spirit. I think that I was trying to find an anachronistic mix that actually worked. I was also fond of the brush-made flourish shapes of the Art Nouveau period, and I was particularly inspired by them. All of these elements combined could feel a bit heavy, but my idea was to make a contemporary character where the shapes had to be synthetic while at the same time retaining some flesh, some of the organic.

Geneo won the TDC prize back in 2009, and today it is distributed by Typofonderie, although it’s not exactly the same typeface. Its original identity remains intact, but it had to evolve to conform with the foundry’s standards. This meant a lot of work, but I benefitted from the guidance and exceptional eye of Jean François Porchez. We worked together on both the design of each particular glyph’s details as well as the weight scale of the entire family. Time was also spent designing dingbats and alternative glyphs.

I believe that this new typeface family permits a great diversity of uses. The lighter weights used in headlines can convey both a delicatessen or a piece of literature. The intermediate weights can be used to set body text in an academic journal or in the logo of a new social network. We imagine the heavier weights being used on posters or in editorial design. The family as a whole can also be used in works needing a complex typographic hierarchy. Also, I think that in the context of a rational and minimal text layout, Geneo can add a connotative dimension, a level of contrast. For me, an even more exciting prospect is to see my typeface appear in ways that I couldn’t have envisaged. It’s from other graphic designers’ creations that I am waiting to see new and interesting interpretations.

Can you share something about the new typefaces you are working on?

I have a few things in progress, which I think is often the case with type designers; having several typeface ideas in the back of their minds. What determines if a typeface will one day be completed and released or not is the relevancy of its shapes and its identity. Some others will never be finished because they are shaky in their concept or just not original. I currently have a sans-serif project that I would like to finish. Unfortunately, it’s a category that already appears saturated and therefore is particularly challenging, but nonetheless stimulating.

Interview by Jérémy Landes-Nones.

Graphic and type designer Stephane Elbaz holds degrees in Visual Communication (2003) and Interactive Research (2004) from the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs. In 2009 he was awarded the Certificate of Excellence in Type Design from the Type Directors Club of New York for his type family Geneo (published by Typofonderie). He works in New York and Paris.

Sponsored by H&FJ.

An Interview with Stéphane Elbaz

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As China's population and economy continue to grow, the country is scrambling to solve challenges in housing, elder care, cultural and political institutions, the environment, and other areas of everyday life. Today's collection, a recent gathering of images from across the nation, covers a range of subjects from wheelchair dancers to bear bile farms, a monkey-controlled robot arm to a Tibetan exile protester who set himself on fire earlier today, and much more. [41 photos]

A woman and her son sit inside the capsule of an electric tricycle as they drive along a main road in central Beijing, on March 15, 2012. (Reuters/David Gray)

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French photojournalist Rémi Ochlik, who was killed Wednesday in Homs, Syria, won first place in the General News category for the 2012 World Press Photo competition for his photo story, “Battle for Libya.” Take a look back over his photography from Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake there. (All images credit Rémi Ochlik/Imago/Zuma Press unless specified. All images taken in November 2010 unless specified.)

A view of the Aviation refugee camp in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in November 2010, as cholera raged throughout refugee camps across the country.

A young person is cared for at a cholera-treatment center in Haiti.

A woman prays in a cholera treatment camp.

A child plays in Port-au-Prince’s Cite Soleil slum.

Cyclists in Cap Hatien pass burning tires set ablaze by locals angry at U.N. peacekeepers, whom they blame for the outbreak of cholera.

Roadblocks are set up around Cap Hatien by angry protesters.

People gather in the street of Cap Hatien to protest the U.N. presence.

A coffin in the streets of Cap Hatien.

At sunrise in Aviation Refugee Camp, a child emerges from a makeshift shower in an abandoned helicopter.

Brazilian soldiers with the United Nations peacekeeping force patrol the Cite Soleil slum.

A view of U.N. peacekeepers on patrol in Cite Soleil.

Supporters of presidential candidate Jude Celestin rally at the Carrefour airport.

Presidential candidate Michal Martelly rallies supporters in Port-au-Prince.

Police arrest two men they say were involved in a knife fight on the sidelines of a political rally.

Another view of the arrests at the political rally.

Martelly supporters at a rally in Port-au-Prince.

Supporters of Mirlande Manigat, the only female candidate in the Haitian presidential election, attend a musical rally in Port-au-Prince.

Manigat supporters shout their approval.

Haitian police check bystanders for weapons during a patrol around the Cite Soleil slum and Aviation refugee camp in December 2010.

A woman suffering from cholera arrives via wheelbarrow at a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Port-au-Prince in November 2010.

Rémi Ochlik in an undated photo. (Lucas Mebrouk Dolega/AFP/Getty Images)

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OUTSIDE IN is a celebratory and historical look at street art through the lens of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s groundbreaking exhibition Art in the Streets. The film features renowned artists Shepard Fairey, Lee Quiñones, Swoon, Futura, Mister Cartoon, Revok, Martha Cooper, Invader to name a few. Director Alex Stapleton (Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel) documents the artist’s creative process, their pitfalls with the law, the poetic impermanence of their craft and the artists’ evolution from the back seat of a cop car to the walls of a well-respected institution.

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Over the weekend, more than 45 buildings across Athens were set ablaze by violent protesters. The fires began as the Greek Parliament passed a strict package of austerity measures, in an effort to meet demands by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. The measures, which were prerequisites for a $170 billion bailout, included steep public-sector job cuts and a 20 percent reduction in the minimum wage. More than 80,000 Greeks reportedly demonstrated in the streets of Athens -- among them, a small, violent group that hurled firebombs at riot police and set dozens of fires. More than 120 police and protesters were injured. The next step for the new austerity measures is implementation, and that may face strong opposition as well. Collected here are scenes from a weekend of unrest in Athens. [36 photos]

Riot policemen stand guard as petrol bombs explode in front of them during clashes with protesters outside the Greek parliament in Athens, Greece, on February 12, 2012. Greek police fired tear gas at petrol bomb-throwing protesters outside parliament, where tens of thousands had massed in a rally against austerity plans being debated by lawmakers. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)

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An Indonesian ethnic Chinese man prays during the Chinese Lunar New Year celebration at Dharma Bakti temple in Chinatown in Jakarta, Indonesia, Monday, Jan. 23, 2012. Divers of the Nucleo Operatori Subacquei Guardia Costiera conduct a search and rescue operation that led to the discovery of the body of a woman inside of the ship [...]

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By Ivo Gabrowitsch & Christoph Koeberlin

After more than 10 years, Verena Gerlach has revised and extended her FF Karbid super family, an interpretation of German storefront lettering from the early 1900s. The new FF Karbid is a harmonized redesign of the original typeface. Rounder and less narrow letters lend the shapes more space and balance. Although the contrast was reduced to obtain a harmonious monolinear typeface (without losing its liveliness) it was increased in the bolder weights to improve legibility and achieve a certain elegance. FF Karbid Display is the most obvious spin-off of the original family. More than merely having been assimilated, the letterforms were revised according to a new concept.

From top to bottom: FF Karbid Text, FF Karbid Display, FF Karbid Slab, FF Karbid.

The FF Karbid family has been augmented with two entirely new sub-families. The first one, the Text version, is intended for body copy in small sizes. The eccentric, serif-like swashes in select letters have been abandoned, while the friendly, lively forms of l, y, z and Z show the close relationship to the FF Karbid family. The other new sub-family is a Slab version. It has a sober, journalistic character, inspired by the typography in magazines of the 1920s (see Memphis, etc.). The strong serifs lend the typeface footing and an air of reliability. To improve legibility and balance the contrast was increased in comparison to the sans serif version. FontFont’s Christoph Koeberlin and Ivo Gabrowitsch recently had the opportunity to talk with Verena Gerlach about her diverse super family.

1. Verena, please tell us a bit about your professional background.

I studied Communication Design at Kunsthochschule Berlin Weißensee from 1993 to 1998 with a focus on typography. Right after my graduation in 1998, I started to work as a freelancer, mainly in graphic design for cultural organizations.

Since then I have been busy in classic graphic design as well as type design, art direction for pop music videos, advertising and exhibition design. At the moment I am focusing on book design.

Since 2003 I have been teaching typography, design and type design in Germany as well as abroad; for example, in Algeria, Jordan, Sweden, and USA. Additionally, I have been giving lectures in several other countries.

Verena Gerlach.

2. Was the step of designing your own typefaces foreseeable due to your work as a graphic designer specializing in book design?

I did both simultaneously. Actually, I started with type design and later got involved in book design. Now, I find it extremely important for my work that I am doing both. When designing books I can do a better job of choosing the right typefaces and make better use of the chosen typefaces. Conversely, when designing typefaces I have a better understanding of type as text and as a part of an overall design.

3. What do you like the most about the type design process?

I like to have a finger in every pie, from drawing the single letters to programming the font. I most like the first drawings, which I do rather quickly; but I also enjoy the zen-like fine tuning of all the curves. I’m very happy when other designers use my typefaces and when beautiful things are designed with them.

FF Karbid has grown from 2 families with 5 styles to 4 families with 40 styles.

4. On the other hand, what’s the biggest challenge in this regard?

The clear decisions you have to make. There is only form and counter-form, that as single characters and combinations must add up to a balanced overall picture. There is only yes or no — no maybe. You are moving within very narrow borders and you must achieve the best possible result. There are also those moments when you change a form, spacing or kerning, and then the whole system no longer works and again you must change something, and so on. Finding the exact moment when you consider the font complete is very difficult because you are never really content.

5. How do you go through the process of a new type design? Are there any certain steps that you follow during the process?

My fonts are always conceived from scribbles on paper. I always start with a hand-drawn sketch, followed by drawing in a font program.

6. We know that FF Karbid was inspired by German storefront lettering from the 1930s. What made you so interested in this theme that you chose it as the inspiration for your digital typeface?

I’m in the lucky situation to have witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, and the happiness of the following years. To preserve the impressions and the excitement of this time in this city with its story, I collected a lot of visual material. Between 1991 and 1998, I documented the old shop lettering that was painted directly onto the façades in the former East Berlin – mostly in Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte. This lettering had not just survived WW II, but the more than 45 subsequent years of the post-war period. The reason why these traces from the early twentieth century could survive was the poor economy of the GDR. The whole political system was living on the leftovers of the ‘glory days’. I was fascinated when I got access to these massive resources of the suffering originals.  Because the old structures in the East were in very bad condition, the city started with the widely planned reconstruction of most of the façades, as soon as their ownership was discovered. The only way not to lose all of this beautiful lettering and the stories behind them was to record them in photographs and try to find a way of showing them later on in another context. Therefore, I took pictures of the lettering, ‘portraits’ of individual characters, and even the spaces in between. I call this method ‘search, find, and rescue’:

Berlin façades now and then:
Most of the lettering has gone.

To show how the old shop lettering was disappearing over the past 15 years, in 2005 I returned to the same places where I’d taken so many photographs. I took new pictures, trying to get to exactly the same position, and keeping the same angles as the first shots. This was not easy, partly because so many cars are parked on the streets these days, compared to the relatively car-free days of the GDR. The thing I found out is that more than 98% of the old lettering has vanished forever. Just a handful of building owners cared about these old traces and conserved the originals on the façades by painting the new color around them.

To transfer the characters into a new mission, I examined the distinctive appearances of individual letters and tried to find out about their origins in old type specimen books. Old techniques for printmaking and reproduction and contemporary innovations, together with the everyday life in the early twentieth century are all very well reflected in the shapes of the letters. In the FF Karbid family the results of this research process come together in a new typeface, to be used in a new time and new media. In this way, the old lettering can live again.

The shapes of FF Karbid Display stick quite closely to the found originals, while FF Karbid Text shows its historical background less obviously. The typeface has been trimmed down to the bare essentials of a text face, which makes it eminently readable, especially at small point sizes. Despite this back-to-basics reduction, FF Karbid Text is a font that captivates through its sheer liveliness. The sweeps that replace the serifs and link the characters create a flowing movement.

Here are some examples for the process behind FF Karbid Display’s design:

At the turn of the last century it was very popular to design typefaces whose lowercase ‘a’ sits with its full weight on the baseline. This is a kind of reference to the organic shapes used in Art Nouveau.

Due to technical limitations of the time and the German standard baseline specification of 1905, foundries started to truncate the descenders of roman faces so that they could be combined with blackletter faces in the same line. While it was easy to amputate the descenders of letters like ‘p’ and ‘q’, the ‘g’ provided a much harder challenge for the type designer to play with its short tail. The strangest shapes suddenly appeared in the ‘modern’ typefaces, whose unique look was applied to façade lettering as well, although there was technically no need for this.

Some of FF Karbid Display’s letters directly link to storefront lettering.

A reflection of the speed of modern times in a busy city like Berlin are the rally stripes of A, E, F and H. The shapes of these characters are taken directly from the found lettering.

One very important graphic and type designer of this time was Lucian Bernhard (1883–1972), who created the typefaces, Extrafette Bernhard Kursiv and Bernhard Antiqua. The sweeps of ‘n’ and ‘m’ in FF Karbid are taken from Bernhard Antiqua, as if it has been enlarged by a photocopier. These shapes replace the serifs and link the characters to create a flowing movement.

FF Karbid’s terminals and serifs are irregular: as if they have fallen off, as actually happened to the originals when the plaster fell off the old façades in the East.

7. Why did you decide to redesign FF Karbid after all these years?

I acquired more knowledge in all the years since designing the original FF Karbid, by designing typefaces and using them in book design. I found the forms of the old FF Karbid rather unsuitable for body text, and there are some other things that I have a different view on now. An Italic/Oblique was missing, and I thought a matching Text and Slab version would be great. The weights were not balanced and a Light was missing. You could say that the new FF Karbid Pro is like Berlin: it evolved during this time; it has grown up and has become serious despite all the party hype. Many different people have moved to Berlin and perhaps FF Karbid Pro is the gentrified version of the old FF Karbid.

8. Where does the name ‘Karbid’ come from?

The working title was Kabinett as a reference to the curiosity cabinets of the turn of the century. I eventually found this name too kitschy and thought it should be based on the lettering found on the facades of the workshops and stores of that time in the neighborhoods around Hackesche Höfe and Pappelallee. The numerous signposts of coal stores (Kohlehandlungen) supplied me with a nice collection of ‘Ko’ lettering, but also the idea for the name of the typeface, Karbid, the German word for Carbide, a carbon compound. Carbide is not only the main ingredient of the extremely bright carbide lamps (used for cinema projectors at the time) but also highly explosive which I found very appropriate.

9. What are the special features of FF Karbid? Why should a designer use it in his/her work?

The features consist mainly of alternate characters – by using them you can strikingly change the appearance of the typeface. These alternate letters have forms reminiscent of the Art Déco without being obtrusive: the higher or lower waists of the capitals in SS01 and SS02, or the almost circular forms of C, E, G and O. There is also a non-diagonal, rounded upwards A in SS03. And the several styles of the fonts enable ambitious graphic design with many different text hierarchies. For example, the new FF Karbid Text Pro is a softer version of the FF Karbid Pro without those serif-like terminals to enable discreet but lively body copy. In this sober version the references to the store lettering are just visible as a little friendly salute.

Low-waist alternates of Stylistic Set 1 and high-waist alternates of Stylistic Set 2 (SS02), contained in FF Karbid, FF Karbid Text and FF Karbid Slab.

The Slab is a stronger, louder variant which combines perfectly with the other more prosaic styles.

10. Could the family unfold its glory only through the OpenType format?

I could have made separate fonts from all those features, but this would be redundant and confusing in these OpenType times. By clicking on the features you can play with the font and choose the most suitable features. You will need a bit of intuition but that’s something every designer loves to be challenged by, right?

Many hidden gems to be found in FF Karbid’s Stylistic Sets: Single-storey a and g in Set 5, alternative ampersand in Set 7, rounded A in Set 3 and circular letters in Set 4.

11. With FF Karbid Slab you added to the superfamily a completely new variant. What inspired you for this?

I always liked Memphis which was suitable only to a limited extent for body copy. When used with justification, for example, you get bad gaps in shorter lines. So, I looked for a narrower Egyptienne and then I had the idea to just apply square-edged serifs to FF Karbid and to raise the contrast. Thanks to the new font program, Glyphs by Georg Seifert, this was done quickly.

What I transferred from the original Memphis is the upright-standing rounded upwards ‘A’ which I then also used for the other weights, and which was already part of the FF Karbid Display variant. I had taken it from lettering in a Bauhaus version, but the idea for this form, for a Text capital ‘A’, came from Memphis.

FF Karbid Slab used in ‘The Murder of Crows’ (Hatje Cantz, 2011).

12. How does a historically influenced super-family like FF Karbid make sense in the new webfont environment?

I find it appropriate to transfer the lettering onto the web. The point with webfonts is that they must be well hinted and readable on screen. Of course, it’s up to the designer to select the right font for the right purpose and use it accordingly (size, colour, contrast, space, etc.). It’s a bonus if all the beautiful lost letterforms of the reconstructed façades in Berlin can live on on the web.

13. Compared to the other variants, FF Karbid Text differs from FF Karbid only slightly. Why did you decide for such a separate family instead of a stylistic set extension?

I see the problem in marketing the stylistic sets. This version is very different from the normal FF Karbid Pro but you can just see it in text. The individual letters are partly the same, but the new FF Karbid Text Pro is a softer version of FF Karbid Pro without those serif-like terminals to enable discreet but lively body copy. In this sober version the references to the store lettering are just visible.

14. Since FF City Street Type, that you designed together with Ole Schäfer, as well as your typefaces Tephe and PTL Trafo are all based on type that you’ve explored in Berlin, would you see yourself as the prototype of a Berlin graphic designer? How does the city influence your work in general?

I see myself as a designer who observes her environment and finds inspiration in it. I can’t go through life without handling what I see in my graphic work. As I’ve lived in Berlin for many years, my inspiration is Berlin. And given the history of this place during the last 100 years it was so special that it has left many traces throughout the city. I had the same feeling in Algiers which is also a rich source for inspiration, as well as Damascus, and even Monaco. I would see myself rather as a prototype of a designer inspired by any environment.

15. Do you have plans for a new type design in the near future?

Yes, I have. But first I’d like to design using my typefaces. Some time, in the not too distant future, I will surely again design and publish a new typeface.

Links: FF Karbid | FontFont | @FontFont

Sponsored by H&FJ.

An Interview with Verena Gerlach

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