“Ange Degheest’s story is remarkable and a perfect illustration of the technical odyssey that took place throughout the twentieth century.” —From Reviving Ange Degheest, 2022
Who was type designer Ange Degheest (1928–2009)? Why have design historians ignored her long and illustrious career until now?
Her lack of recognition, it turns out, stems from a very good reason: she is imaginary, a sly construction for a year-long project by a class of eight design students at The European Academy of Art in Brittany (EESAB – Rennes). Her name is the first clue to her non-existence: Ange means angel—an evanescent thing—in French, and is also a gender-neutral name (adding a bit of ambiguity); Degheest is Dutch for “the ghost.”
The students, all of whom happen to be female, launched the exhibition Reviving Ange Degheest as part of the design festival Une saison graphique 2020, held in Le Havre. Using Degheest’s life and work to illustrate the arc of letterform design and technology in the 20th century, the class led by teacher Benjamin Gomez produced six typeface families described as revivals of Degheest’s fonts, and a range of artifacts based on documents stored in their school’s archive. France’s Velvetyne Foundry made the typefaces available as Open Source in March, 2022, and a pamphlet on the imaginary designer’s work, with an afterword by French independent type designer Alice Savoie, has been published by Poem editions.
The exhibit’s signage, posters, correspondence, brochures, neon signs, and more put forth an alternate version of history, layering the true story of typography onto a believable character since the students could not find a real person to honor. In our age of lies masquerading as truth and the abundance of Fake News, the students’ intent was not to deceive, but to call attention to a void. Ange Degheest, storytelling device, came into being partly as a response to a disparity in numbers that persists to this day—there are still far more male than female type designers.
Eugénie Bidaut, one of the former students, says, “Type design history is very masculine. In the history of midcentury French type design, there is only one woman, Lucette Girard, who collaborated with Adrian Frutiger and other male designers. We were searching for someone to identify with, and were not interested in doing a revival of the work of an old white man, so we decided to invent a person who was missing.”
Working in pairs, the students tackled different points in type’s developmental timeline (engraving, phototypesetting, etc.), allowing everyone in the class to research and design for a specific era. The exhibit also included items such as metal punches, typewriters, and screen terminals to further visualize the march of technological progress. The students developed Degheest’s life story according to the chronology of type production techniques and processes.
They imagined that the designer began her career in 1947 working on nautical charts that made use of engraved type, so her first typeface, Abordage, is based upon the style of engraved letterforms. For Degheest’s 1958 monospaced typewriter font Director, the students invented a husband, an engineer who helped her get the design commission, since it was unlikely that a woman would get such a job on her own during that era without a man’s recommendation. The class developed Louise, a 1972 script typeface for Mecanorma transfer lettering (the French equivalent of Letraset), and a 1988 10×8 grid pixel-based font for Minitel, an end-user service delivered over telephone lines to screen terminals that was the world’s most successful online service prior to the World Wide Web.
Piecing together Degheest’s rich, successful life was clearly great fun for the students. “To add credibility, we decided that part of her story was that she attended the same school as us and that’s how we acquired her archive,” says Bidaut. An older alum of the school sent along some photos from his time at the university, and the team selected images of one of the women to represent Degheest. They even created an Ange Degheest Wikipedia page, which stayed up for a year until a research scholar contacted Bibliothèque Forney in Paris, the library where the Degheest archives were supposedly kept. The researcher was so annoyed at being fooled that he filed a complaint with Wikipedia. The page, predictably, is no more.
The students’ elaborate ruse was so convincing that no one at the show picked up on the fact that Degheest wasn’t real. And who’s to say she MIGHT not, conceivably, have existed? Former student Camille Depalle says, “By the end, we all (except for our teacher Benjamin) felt she was real. During the launch event we were chatting with a philosophy teacher and eventually told him our story was fabricated, as he is used to discussing what’s real and what’s not, especially during the times we live in. We wanted to see his reaction! What’s funny is that he wasn’t shocked but interested in her fakeness; he felt the most important thing is that we invented her to tell a true story.”