Co.Design

Matthew Carter Helps Revive a Masterpiece of 16th-Century Type Design

Scott-Martin Kosofsky resurrects a 16th-century type for the 21st century, with some help from a digital-font master (and MacArthur genius).

The way it felt to read a book 400 years ago is almost gone today, and for more than reasons than the obvious ones. The swoops and rhythms of ancient typography have been all but lost in an age of modern digital fonts and utilitarian book design. But Scott-Martin Kosofsky and Matthew Carter have produced an astonishing corrective, in the form a fresh new type mined from the pages of a 16-century Hebrew tome.

[Read the accompanying story in Tablet magazine here]

The type is called Le Bé, and it's a lively and assured relic of the 1569 Plantin Polyglot Bible. Considered a masterwork of the age, it's rarely seen today in large part because it's spectacularly complex. Enter digital software. Building on groundwork laid by Carter -- the digital-font guru behind Bistream Inc. and a 2010 MacArthur genius -- Kosofsky used open-font software to resurrect the type for a new edition of The Selected Poems of Yehuda Halevi (Nextbook Press). The book, out this week, is a testament to the power of technology to revive key pieces of typographic history.

"Historical type is really my thing," says Kosofsky, interviewed from his typography studio in Lexington, Massachusetts. "It's the work of someone who was cutting Oriental types for about 35 years. The characters really show this kind of ease of form, a kind of vigor and a spirit that had never before appeared in a Hebrew typeface."

Kosofsky had known the type existed but rarely saw it used. "It wasn't until recently, until the advent of opentype technology, that you could add programming to fonts," he says. 'That -- the problem of all the diacriticals that go into biblical and liturgical Hebrew -- could be solved.' In other words, Hebrew, with all its vowel and accent signifiers and chanting cues, can amount to 2,000 combinations ? a typographic nightmare. The latest tech allows font designers to work digitally with languages that have large character sets (not uncommon in the non-Western world). Metal or early digital type had compromised the aesthetics of many of these older fonts, if they were attempted at all.

[Image courtesy of Plantin-Moretus Museum, Antwerp]

Le Bé's path to primetime was serendipitous. Carter first learned about the type as a young man from his historian father, Harry. It had survived in the printing house in Belgium where the Plantin Polyglot Bible was made. Much later, the younger Carter was asked by wood engraver Barry Moser to contribute some Hebrew characters to a lavish, illustrated reworking of the bible written in Galliard type. Carter looked for a type also from the 16th century and remembered Le Bé. He went to work digitizing a few of the larger characters, but since he didn't read Hebrew, he couldn't go further. "I handed them over to Scott and said, ?See if you have any use of these one day?," Carter says.

Kosovsky excitedly accepted the raw data, but didn't immediately do anything with it given the amount of work required to translate the characters. That means mapping out types for each character and size variable, not just shrinking one character down. (Kosofsky is fastidious about that.) A few years ago, he was tapped to produce a new Jewish high holidays prayer book for conservative congregations that included a budget to build a new font. "I thought this was the opportunity to really do it," he says. He and a rabbi friend managed to rejigger opentype software with 800 lines of code to essentially auto correct the Hebrew characters to create accurate diacritical marks in all possible combinations - an issue that usually stymied biblical and liturgical work. "I had very good bones [in Le Bé], it's not like starting from scratch," he says. All told, he completed what Carter had started in just about four months.

[Scott-Martin Kosofsky]

Admittedly, Kosovsky says this breakthrough will only impact Jews and those who read Hebrew, though there may be some additional benefit for digital foundries that work in Arabic or Persian, languages with script similar to Hebrew. In short, it'll allow readers to connect with ancient typefaces in a way that readers of Latin fonts have been able to do for years. (Think of typefaces like Bodoni and Garamond, which have been revived for modern society). Carter, who has revived several historical fonts himself, thinks reaching back in time is a worthy pursuit. "When I look back through history, and I see a typeface that has existed in the past and I like it, and I think it would work for contemporary use, I would want to revive it. I think it's a pity that it should die out."

It's worth noting that Le Bé's resurrection first appeares in an e-book, a medium that let Kosovsky -- a past president of the Society of Printers -- experiment in ways not possible with a physical book. For instance, he was able vary page lengths, depending on the size of each poem. A longer poem got a longer page, a shorter poem a shorter one.

It stands to reason that designers will be more inclined to select ancient or unorthodox fonts when the entire book layout has fewer restrictions. Does that mean that e-books will trigger an outpouring of revivalist typefaces? It's still too early to tell. But the freedom they afford must surely be welcome news for book designers. As for Kosofsky, Le Bé won't be his last Hebrew type revival. "These types are not just beautiful, they happen to be quite easy to read. They're beautiful and clear. And they give a pride of place."

[All images by Amanda Kowalski, unless otherwise noted]

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