LL Blankenhorn fonts specimen

Typeface Review

LL Blankenhorn

Reviewed by Stephen Coles on January 19, 2021

Whenever I’m in Germany, I’m struck by the prevalence of hand-lettered book covers. The lettered jacket once thrived in the US, anchored by designers like Georg Salter and Philip Grushkin, but it faded by the late 1960s, when lettering was largely replaced by type.

German publishers also seem particularly unafraid of omitting imagery from their covers, letting the title sell the book. This works especially well when the title is rendered by expressive lettering, and there are few examples as effective as Fritz Blankenhorn’s for Deutscher Bücherbund. On these covers, the text is the image.

Three Blankenhorn book covers
Blankenhorn covers for Homo Faber, 1957 (Image: Lenwa); Alle Menschen werden Brüder, 1967 (Image: wepepa2012); and Im Frühling singt zum letzenmal die Lerche, 1990 (Image: Winnie’s Specials).

These books were very familiar to Florian Hardwig, who shares my 2019 typeface selection:

The Johannes Mario Simmel novels with their iconic covers were ubiquitous. In the 1970s and 1980s, you could spot at least one Simmel on the shelves of every West German living room. To this day, you can’t visit a flea market between Hamburg and Stuttgart without stumbling upon Blankenhorn’s work. The formula of big bold brush letters plus bright colors established an identity that is unrivaled in book cover lettering. In the 2000s, I once suggested a cover using big type set in Underware’s Bello, with alternating line colors. The design was immediately rejected: “No way, that looks like a Simmel!”

Lineto was bold enough to make type out of the Blankenhorn lettering, but it wasn’t an easy feat — something like conjuring a solid from a liquid. James Goggin, a designer with a keen eye who spearheaded Lineto’s Prismaset family, started the project, but it became clear that translating Blankenhorn’s free-flowing scripts into a typeface required a calligrapher. I can’t think of anyone better for the job than Tobias-David Albert, whose broad experience with brush and pen allowed him to see these shapes the way Blankenhorn did: as words rather than individual letters.

LL Blankenhorn is split into three font styles to reflect much of the range Blankenhorn produced over his four-decade career. The unpredictable, hand-lettered effect is achieved through scores of ligatures and contextual alternates that adjust letters to live comfortably and fluidly next to their neighbors. You can see this in action on Lineto’s website (revised in 2019 after fifteen years), where the specimen page demonstrates the improved combinations through type(writing) animations and an exhaustive glyph catalog. (Ligatures for Brush and Script aren’t shown, perhaps because they each have over two thousand!)

Herb Lubalin coined the term “typographics” to refer to illustrations made with words. He and his talented partners painted text pictures by painstakingly drawing letters, or modifying typefaces, and coaxing them into densely packed compositions. Blankenhorn did something similar, not by forging the outlines of letters, but by simply writing them. That Albert and Lineto were able to convert Blankenhorn’s strokes into a convincing typeface is a major achievement, and it’s a delight to use. These fonts give anyone the power to make images from text.

Stephen Coles is Editorial Director and Associate Curator at Letterform Archive in San Francisco, and copublisher of Fonts In Use and Typographica. Stephen wrote the book The Anatomy of Type and was previously a creative director at FontShop.

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