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Fraktur mon Amour

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Fraktur typefaces and me have a long but less-than-exciting history. There have always been a few books around - with the grandparents, say - that were set in broken type. And even a few books (I seem to remember at least the cover the Latin dictionary which my dad already used at school - but which thanks to the deadness of the language was still good enough a few decades later) I actually looked at used broken typefaces. That even seemed special and interesting to me back then. While it’s entirely possible to read Fraktur or blackletter style typefaces, I never found them particularly easy on the eye. They may look pretty at first but the way in which they cover a page in blackness and the way in which many glyphs look so similar that they are easy to confuse never let me really like their look.

I think the closest I came to loving Fraktur was back in the early 1990s. We had an Atari ST at home and it was running the Signum application. For the time and for that computer Signum was an amazing bit of software. It used proportional high resolution bitmap fonts and allowed rather fancy positioning right down to fractional spacing of letters. And you could even mix different fonts as you wished. Sounds trivial today, but it was mind-blowing back then. Well, perhaps not quite mind blowing but leading me to do many things I’d consider atrocious today.

When after a while the charme of playing around with gimmicky fonts like GROT3D (a boldish sans-serif with a 3D effect) or DATA70 wore off and the font I tried to create myself was mainly an angular mess, one of the few excitements that remained was using a Fraktur font. Not just because it looked fancy but also because it included both the Fraktur-style long s ‘ſ’ and the usual round s. At least in German Fraktur writing both of them have to be used and I even seem to remember that I needed to use the + key to get the alternate s shape on the Atari (little font geek…).

One could say that Fraktur exerts a certain bit of fascination on me, but that - these days - I hardly ever have the desire to actually use it. Furthermore the uses you see of Fraktur or blackletter typefaces today - on conservative newspapers, pub signs or, quite recently, fashion - aren’t usually in conjunction with things I approve of, thus rendering the broken typefaces even more towards being forgotten by me.

Until I recently flipped through that pretty book catalogue, that was. One volume they offer, Fraktur Mon Amour, combines three things I find somewhat unattractive or at least boring on their own: Broken typefaces, no text and pink. And yet the combination of those three seemed very appealing from the beginning.

On a technical level the book provides an overview of more than three hundred ‘broken’ fonts which are available today. A wide interpretation of the word ‘broken’ is taken and we get everything from Fraktur, to Schwabacher, to gothic letters, to decorative initials. The fonts are dated - both with the date of their original design and the date of their digitisation in case those differ - and their creators are named. Web addresses are given and, rather conveniently, many of the fonts which are freely available are included on a CD.

So far so boring. I doubt I would want a book like that. I hardly ever use broken typefaces after all. And many of them just don’t look that great or seem technically less than perfect (for example in many of the fonts, particularly the free ones, spacing after the ſ glyph seems to be too wide). Not much fun in seeing example alphabets for that, even when each of them is equipped with a slight variation of the same sentence to demonstrate the font’s look in a real sentence.

Example sentence to show off a font: Als der hysterische Konsul das Rathaus verließ, blickte das alberne Luxus-Geschöpf trotzig zum Seemann und verschlang flugs einen riesigen Bissen Heichzeitstorte.

But those examples only occupy the odd-numbered pages in the book. And it’s the even-numbered pages which really make it shine: On those there are graphics, printed in black and pink, made just from the glyphs of the font that is presented on the other page. And those aren’t just pretty but real eye-openers in some cases. While some of them manage to create a Far Eastern flair (p. 109) and others look a tad Arabic (p. 125), we also get other effects like brush strokes (p. 239, 279), church windows (p. 285), plants (p. 303), architecture (p. 479) or little elephants (p. 403). All just from cleverly combining glyphs of broken typefaces or by simply magnifying them enough to really see the details out of context. Amazing.

The majority of the graphics is based on symmetries. By cleverly repeating and rotating the glyphs, patterns are created. And it’s fun to try and find out which glyphs have been used for a graphic. Usually those are just a few. And usually you’ll find that it’s surprisingly easy to spot which ones are used even though they may have been mirrored or rotated. On the other hand, this also highlights how similar some of the glyphs like the S, G and C are in some of those typefaces and how tricky these can be to distinguish when they are on their own.

If you love typefaces and symmetries I can absolutely recommend this book. It’s a joy to look at all those graphics and you’ll even learn a bit about the peculiarities of the typefaces in there.

Bonus notes: Some of the free fonts I quite liked were Gotenburg (p. 97), Fette Trump Deutsch for a German touch (p. 103), Harrowgate for an English touch (p. 137), Yonkers (p.231), Mars Fraktur (p. 331) [direct download link - that page is a royal mess], Nordland because it contains an elk glyph (p. 443), Gutenberg’s Ghostypes which boldly goes to abstract territory (p. 497) and the ‘exclusive’ Erika Mono Fraktur, a monospaced Fraktur font which kicks ass in ASCII Projektor and gives a whole new flair to it.

Bonus links: the book’s website, a convenient type specimen sheet of all fonts included on the book’s CD and some photos of the book at flickr

Extra brownie points if you can name the fonts I used for the initials above.

Photo of the Fraktur Mon Amour book

[Buy at amazon .com, .uk, .de]

January 18, 2008, 1:07

Tagged as book, fraktur, graphics, judith schalansky, pink, typography, verlag hermann schmidt.


Comment by Dave2: User icon

Ah… another fan of the Atari ST era! I’m wondering how Signum compares to Calamus, because I’ve never heard of it before. I seem to use Fraktur faces in waves. Every once in a while it just seems to fit with a project, and then another and another until it gets worn out with me.

January 18, 2008, 3:02

Comment by ssp: User icon

I never actually used Calamus, but I think it was more advanced than Signum in the way that it tried to be more of a frame based layout application than a word processor. (But from Googling around it’s hard to find out how far advanced versions of both apps were ca 1990.)

January 18, 2008, 7:45

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