When Walda Verbaenen, Michel Paré, and Lukas Schneider met as classmates among a diverse international group of six students at Antwerp’s Plantin Institute of Typography in 2015, they had no inkling that an intensive, multi-year typographical adventure lay ahead of them post-graduation. Their collaboration started when an in-class exercise led to a shared fascination with the typefaces of Jacques-François Rosart, one of the most important 18th-century punchcutters in the Netherlands.
Through a meticulous process of research, observation, and development, plus focus bordering on obsession (Schneider traveled eight hours a day by train from Germany to attend the Expert Class Type Design taught by Dr. Frank E. Blokland), the trio produced the Rosart Project, a type family they released last year. The extensive revival project encompasses text, display, ornaments, and flourished capitals plus a textura blackletter version. Like detectives, the designers traced Rosart’s life journey in their research through the proofs and specimens of his typefaces.
Their careful process reveals not only the value of primary research but the joy of connecting the dots over centuries to revive the work of a long-gone designer. Verbaenen, Paré, and Schneider recognized the great opportunity they had: the Plantin Institute is located upstairs from the Plantin Moretus Museum, the only one in the world on the Unesco World Heritage list. It contains, among other things, the two oldest printing presses on the planet, more than 20,000 lead punches, and about 25,000 works printed before 1800. Verbaenen says, “To look at the archival material, hold it in your hands and take pictures was the most fun part. It was like a gift.”
Schneider described reviewing 300-year-old printed material in the reading room, surrounded by the old printing presses, as like working in a time machine. The designers further immersed themselves in historical material at the Noord Hollands Archief in Haarlem, home to the entire Museum Enschedé collection, where Verbaenen gathered detailed images of punches, matrices, and type specimens.
Rosart, the person, was not exactly a surefire smash at first, even declaring bankruptcy and selling his workshop, but part of what kept the designers absorbed in his work was the chance to see how he improved over time and how this led to greater success later in life. They learned to love a flawed human by watching him mature as a designer. “When we were first given a type specimen by Rosart to redraw as a starting point, I didn’t like it at all,” says Paré. “The alphabet was confusing and inconsistent.” However, the group soon came to appreciate its beautiful details through close and careful study. They saw a way to keep the best and streamline the rest in their revival.
The wealth of original proofs, punches, and type specimens came with its own challenges, however. Printing in the 18th century was not as good as it is today in terms of the quality of paper, ink, and the press, meaning that printed material varies widely from the cut punches. Schneider, an experienced font designer who was responsible for the digital translation of Le Rosart Display and Text (awarded a Certificate of Typographic Excellence from the Type Director’s Club in New York City) as well as Le Rosart Textura says, “This was the hard part; we had so much reference material yet it was all slightly different. Rosart followed several models and changed his mind quite a bit. His letter shapes are all over the place. At a certain point, to make it contemporary we had to make decisions and winnow things out.”
As an example, the letter S had many minute variations depending on which specimen the designers consulted, forcing them to compare versions, synthesize, make decisions, and standardize the letters in a way that became a true expression of consistent form. Likewise, Paré and Verbaenen were amazed by the sheer quantity of typographic ornaments that Rosart drew. Reinterpreting them for modern technology required the designers to review multiple iterations in order to maintain consistency throughout the digital set of Rosart ornaments (Paré) and Flourished Capitals (Paré & Verbaenen).
Another challenge was to develop a heavier weight since there were no bold typefaces during Rosart’s lifetime. Schneider had to make many additional adjustments to the bold letters to keep their expressiveness; as the strokes became thicker, there was less room for flourishes and dropped terminals.
Over their long development process for the Rosart Project, the three designers realized the value of the efforts of all the people who produced the ancient material in the archives—people who cared about the same things they do. Verbaenen says, “We developed our love for Rosart once we got to know him as more than an uninteresting typecutter. We sensed his human presence and carried it forward into today via a typeface.” Schneider adds, “We are lucky to participate in the heritage of our culture.”