Sometime, somewhere, during the last decades of the nineteenth century, the type designer slowly mutated into a ghost hunter. Faces of the past became sources of inspiration, some quite obvious, others forgotten; all acquired a mnemonic, almost “mediumnic” value. An aura.
It is heaven-sent, then, that the works of Jean Gabriel Bery were summoned and rescued from oblivion, thanks to the pioneering research work of Eric Kindel and Fred Smeijers on the history of stenciled letterforms. Those who visited the astonishing and stimulating exhibition the duo curated for the Catapult gallery in Antwerp last spring know what I’m talking about.
Bery was a stencil maker established in Paris in the 1780s, who sold a set of 400 brass plates to Benjamin Franklin. All these materials, along with a specimen sheet, are now archived in the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. They possibly represent the only survival of this craftsman’s remarkable work, and an opening towards an unexpected revival.
In creating Bery Roman, Script, and Tuscan, Smeijers cautiously transferred the brass-made designs into an astute combination of delicacy and strength. Bery and Smeijers’s dialog, a bridge built over a 230-year gap, allows designers to use three distinctive and complementary display fonts that can bring an enlightening flavor to our digital epoch.
Sébastien Morlighem teaches the history of graphic design and typography and is co-director of the post-graduate program “Typography and Language” at the École Supérieure d’Art et de Design in Amiens. He created and curates the Bibliothèque typographique collection for Ypsilon Éditeur and co-authored books about French type designers José Mendoza y Almeida and Roger Excoffon.