The Didot You Didn’t Know

Written by Stephen Coles on March 26, 2004

Swiss foundry Optimo releases Didot Elder, a family of typefaces unlike any digital revival of the style, which are mostly based on Firmin Didot’s designs. Didot Elder comes from the early work of Firmin’s brother Pierre. More history from designer François Rappo is below with printed samples of the original types.

This is a strict revival, attempting to reproduce all the features of Pierre Didot’s original, modern conventions be damned. Most apparent of its idiosyncrasies are the arrow serifs on the ‘G’ ‘C’ and ‘S’. No alternates to these glyphs are provided, which I think is a mistake, reducing the font’s usefulness in modern text settings. It’s a lovely thing, nonetheless. Didot scholar Jean François Porchez, whose Ambroise shares some of Didot Elder’s characteristics (see ‘g’ and ‘y’), is impressed.

From creator François Rappo:

The typeface was cut by the punchcutter Vibert under a ten year direction of Pierre Didot. It was first used by Pierre to launch a new collection of books in 1812. In the forward of the first volume (Petit Carême Jean-Baptiste Massillon, Paris, 1812) he exposes the design of his new typeface, specially cut for the collection:

“here are the principles of my new types, … I tried to link as far as I could the design of the lowercase with the design of the uppercase. … I tried to go back to the original design of the lowercase, which is the design of the uppercase. I found that the design of the ‘g’ was so corrupted that I took the risk to correct this type …”

As you can see (image below), in typesetting the word “Egypte”, Pierre Didot compared his types (new ‘g’, new ‘y’) with the types of his brother Firmin. Pierre developed his type until the release of his Specimen in 1819.

Following Pierre, these unusual features were used by many of the Didot punchcutters all along the XIXth century. Porchez’s design is based on a later (poster) version, circa 1838, from the Firmin Didot font foundry. All the existing digital Didot typefaces available today are revivals of Firmin’s typeface (Jonathan Hoefler, Adrian Frutiger for Linotype).

Didot Elder is the first revival ever made of Pierre’s historical font. I tried to translate as close as possible its original design. I followed very closely Pierre Didot’s original types details and features: the asymmetrical serifs and the arrow-like serifs which were present in all the type sizes (see second image below).

The punches are kept today in the Joh. Enschedé Museum in Haarlem, The Netherlands. Until now, there’s no published study about this font. I’m planning to write something about it.