Poster House looks to the playful days of 90s digital type

A new exhibition considers two studios that experimented with type design following the invention of the Mac, and their echoes in a new generation of women type designers.

“It was that time when people were finding weird, weird things to do with their computers”, says Angelina Lippert, chief curator at Poster House in New York, of new exhibition: The revolution Will be Digitized: Typefaces from Emigre & Fuse.

Almost two decades on from when the first digital font, Digi Grotesk, was invented by Rudolf Hell in 1968, the two digital foundries featured in the exhibition were using the invention of the Macintosh Computer to experiment with type on either side of the Atlantic. While Emigre was established in Berkeley, California in 1984 by Rudy VanderLans and and Zuzana Licko, Fuse was set up a few years later by Neville Brody and Jon Wozencroft in the UK.

Dead History, 1994, Emigre. Type & poster design: P. Scott Makela. Poster House permanent collection.

Lippert explains that one of the museum’s first acquisitions was Emigre’s poster archive. “We had that archive for maybe five or six years, and when I was thinking about what I could do with Steven Heller, he said, ‘well if you’re going to do Emigre, you should talk about it with Fuse’”, she says.

Juxtaposing the two collections for the show, “it just became this dialogue between two digital foundries that were working concurrently”, she says.

WhatYouSee/WhatYouGet, 1994. Design by LettError (Erik van Blokland & Just van Rossum). Poster Houes permanent collection. 

“They had very different approaches, [but both had] really novel approaches to how you approach type design and the function of type”.

“Others were trying to square the circle”

Lippert explains that Emigre’s stood out from others grappling with the challenges of digital type in this era. “Rather than trying to retrofit a typeface that already existed to work on the computer and print out and look legible – which was difficult in the 80s and 90s – they started with the limitations of digital and they made typefaces that reflected those limitations”, she says.

Big Cheese, 1992. Type design: Eric Donelan & Bob Aufuldish. Poster House permanent collection.

“That makes sense to us now, but that was really different from how everyone else was approaching digital typefaces. [Others] were trying to square the circle and most people ended up with really crappy looking type design because of that”, she says.

The posters on show in the exhibition are forms of type specimen posters – a sometimes overlooked part of poster design history, Lippert suggests.

“Both of them were publishing essentially a magazine with these typefaces that were sent to interested parties”, Lippert says. “These were magazines that were also pushing the boundaries of what print was at the time – although they weren’t the only people doing it”, she adds.

Base-12/base-9, 1995. Type design by Zuzana Licko, poster design Rudy VanderLans. Poster House permanent collection.

“In Emigre, the way VanderLans would lay things out and incorporate Licko’s type designs and advertise other people’s type… it was part magazine, part punk rock display. You would find it very readable and of its era today, but at the time, it was like, well what is this?”, she says.

Meanwhile Fuse was a printed and digital publication, with the content on a floppy disk alongside a cardboard box containing five posters that showed and explained the featured typeface designs, Lippert explains.

“From trying to be a language to typefaces as Dada poetry”

Both foundries were experimental in their work in different ways. “Zuzana Licko, primarily with Emigre, was really thinking: ‘okay, what can I make type do that is interesting.”, Lippert says. The work was experimenting with questions of legibility, Lippert explains, raising questions of what legibility is: “Legibility is just familiarity with something. Anything can be legible if you see it often enough”, she says.

“Fuse on the other hand, was more like an experimental type lab”, Lippert says. “They’re not necessarily looking to have these typefaces used by people, because they’re not really usable. It was more about expanding how broad can the concept of type be?”, she says.

DearJohn, 1992. Design by Barbara Butterweck. On loan from Neville Brody.

In the show she highlights a typeface called “Dear John” designed by Barbara Butterweck in 1992. Depending on whether regular, italics or bold are selected, “you get a different stroke of the letter. So this letter A, one is this side, one is this side and one is the middle bar”, she explains. “To be building a letter based on keystrokes…nobody types like that.

“How much of an ‘A’ do you need to know its an ‘A’? How much of a ‘B’ do you need”, she says. “It’s just really interesting to think about the signifier and the signified within written language”.

“Then when you get further into the show, you see things where you’re not building an alphabet anymore; you’re building almost Dada poetry”, Lippert says.

A typeface called Microphone from 1995, was designed by Tobias Frere-Jones, who “went around with a tape recorder walking around Boston and he just took ambient eavesdropping’s of conversations”, she says.

Microphone, 1995, Tobias Frere-Jones. Poster House permanent collection.

“He randomly assigned portions of those conversations to different keystrokes, so if I press the letter A, we come out with a phrase that he heard that day”.

“And the different sizes of how that phrase would pop up, was based on the volume of that conversation, the gender of the person speaking that conversation… and you’re getting the different size of these clips of conversations that you’re mixing and matching by keystroke”.

Priori, 2003. Type design Jonathan Barnbrook & Marcus Leis Allion, psoter design Rudy VanderLans. Poster House permanent collection.

This end of things, Lippert describes as, “less functional and more just entertainment”.

“Like what can I do with this typeface? I can build a monster. Oh, if I’m in Adobe, this movable font can go from a standard letter to a Glyph of some kind that looks nothing like it” she adds.

“Curating the exhibition gave me such a deep appreciation for what I thought was insanity at first. But then there was this moment when I was working on it on my couch and suddenly everything clicked and it was like oh my god, these guys are geniuses… or doing lots of drugs… or both”, she says.

Mega Family 2, 1996. Design by David Crow. Poster House permanent collection.

Continuing their legacy today

A second exhibition, Advertising Type: Women in Digital Design, is a partnership with Type Directors Club, and is “kind of a coda” to the Émigré and Fuse exhibition, Lippert suggests.

In collaboration with Ksenya Samarskaya, who runs the TDC, Lippert explains, “we both talked about digital design and type specimen posters, and where that has gone today. “People don’t really think that typeface posters still exist, and they do”, she says.

Hako Hangul, 2022. Type & poster design: Tra Giang Nguyen. Gift of Gydient, Poster House permanent collection.

This exhibition has an “absolutely global” focus on women type designers today: “we have type designers from Taiwan, from Russia, from Brazil. It’s an incredibly international group of women type designers”, Lippert says.

“With Emigre, the main type designer was Zuzana Licko, so it started with a woman”, she says. “So bookending that with what we’re doing now, a lot of them look to her as the founder of that movement”, she adds.

While these designers are “absolutely not as experimental in the intellectual sense, they are still carrying on this legacy” Lippert suggests.

Typefesse, 2019. Type & Poster Design Océane Juvin.

“The contemporary typefaces that we’re featuring are much more commercially minded. I think that just speaks a lot about contemporary culture… you know, in a world where you could instantly do anything, we typeface designers are now even more bound by, okay, this has to make money”.

Examples include Typefesse, designed by Océane Juvin in 2019, which visually “looks like that 90s moment; it looks like the introduction to Nickelodeon cartoons”, Lippert says. “It’s just so joyful, and it’s just so fun to look at the majority of them”, she adds.

Many of the posters are notably abstract, which Lippert acknowledges: “As you enter the museum, you’re hit with these things that are very colourful and then you realise, what are they even advertising?”.

Dark Academia, 2022, with its “Swifty vibes”: Type design Celine Hurka, poster design Celine Hurka & Carmen Dusmet Carrasco.

“Often in the contemporary posters, what the poster says has nothing to do with [anything], it’s just showing the most attractive parts of the alphabet. So one of them there’s one by Celine Herka, and it’s basically a Taylor Swift song. She’s dealing with that kind of whimsical romance… she made the typeface first and realised it fit with those Swifty vibes”.

Across the two exhibitions, Lippert says, “the main key for me was emphasising the importance of type in posters”.

From the “legible to the completely unreadable”, these posters show how type can help you find your audience, she says.

Banner image: Exhibition view of The Revolution will be Digitized: Typefaces from Emigre and Fuse, photo by Stephanie Powell.


Start the discussionStart the discussion
  • Post a comment

Latest articles