Last Tuesday, Dutch graphic designer Anthon Beeke died at age 78 at his home in Amsterdam. Beeke is well known for his 1969 Naked Ladies typeface, as well as for many provocative posters for Eindhoven theater company Zuidelijk Toneel Globe, the repertory company Toneelgroep Amsterdam, the Holland Festival, the Amsterdam collective CompagnieTheater, and the KunstRai art fair. For this week’s Type Tuesday, we’re paying tribute to Beeke with a look back at his famed typographic celebration of sexual freedom and type as art form.
Name: Naked Ladies
Designer: Anthon Beeke
Release Date: 1969
Back story: It was this controversial alphabet that launched the career of Anthon Beeke. First published in the famous Kwadraadblad [Quadrat-Print] serie by Dutch designer Pieter Brattinga—a series of experiments in printing that covered design, literature, architecture, and music—Naked Ladies was a tongue-in-cheek response to Wim Crouwel’s New Alphabet, an experiment in nascent digital typography that employed only horizontal lines. Beeke’s response, by contrast, only used human bodies—naked women’s bodies to be precise. It was a ballsy protest against the supposedly “dehumanizing” mechanistic alphabets that also coincided with the sexual revolution of 1968 that hit the world over. In 1971, the alphabet got a boost when published in Ralph Ginzberg and Herb Lubalin’s cult magazine Avant Garde in full spreads under the headline “Belles Lettres Photo-Alphabet,” alluding to the idea of typography as an art form.
Why’s it called Naked Ladies? Because it consists entirely of naked ladies. The all-caps alphabet required a meticulous ensemble of participating women, sometimes up to 12 (for the ‘M’ and the ‘W,’ for instance). Bodies lay on top of each other, head to toe, sitting on shoulders for the top of the ‘N,’ languidly stretching out along the curves of the ‘S,’ and sitting up for the capped end of the ‘L.’ While such an assemblage would be seen as notably less progressive if created today—only women, only white, very femme—at the time it was a direct embrace of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, with a noticeable ethos of free love and not of exploitation.
What are its distinguishing characteristics? What sets it apart is obvious—typefaces these days are composed of pixels, not twisting human bodies. What’s more interesting is its relation to traditional type: Beeke’s alphabet is a meticulous reconstruction of the outlines of classic Roman capitals. His inspiration was Baskerville Old Face, including its thick and thin strokes and serifs.
As Jelle Bouwhuis writes in the 2003 Stedelijk Museum Bulletin, Beeke “certainly wanted to celebrate the sensual aspect of classical letters with their subtle curves and roundings and their perfect proportions, his nude alphabet is not explicitly erotic.”
What should I use it for? Definitely not for spelling out the symbol of luxury brand Louis Vuitton, as Italian artist Vanessa Beecroft did in 2007. After Beecroft a copped Beeke’s alphabet for Espace Louis Vuitton—a 4,300-square-foot space on top of the Champs-Elysées store—and featured them in a book, Beeke sued the brand for copyright infringement. A high profile snafu in the fashion world, Louis Vuitton ended up apologizing to the designer and ceased to use any of the images.
What other typefaces do you like to pair it with? Hm, tough to say. Might be best to admire it rather than to pair it. And to also revisit some of Beeke’s work in tribute (below).