Steven Heller | Essays

Charles Peignot: Man Behind the Faces

Peignot typeface designed by A.M. Cassandre for Deberny & Peignot

In 1929, Charles Peignot, director of the French type foundry Deberny & Peignot, sponsored A.M. Cassandre's experimental new display typeface called Bifur. Its complex mélange of fat and thin lines and crossbars was a shock to the typographic world. "There were no new or innovative typefaces which existed at the time,” wrote Peignot later. “Bifur created a real scandal... at least in the small world of publishing and printing.” Engraving this face took considerable effort and “Bifur was not a financial success.” It appears that printers and designers were reluctant to break so radically with tradition yet Peignot used every ounce of salesmanship to win the reticent over. An introductory ditty published in the Bifur specimen booklet typified his resolve: "a letter by itself is nothing... Bifur creates words/words that go bang/the most significant is to dare.''

Peignot admittedly challenged people’s tastes: "with Bifur we brought an era of type to an end, but at the same time we proved that ‘functionalism’ pushed graphically to its extreme limit could not effectively be a source of inspiration for the future of typography.'' What’s more “in those happy days one could afford to take a few risks.''

Specimen sheet of Bifur typeface designed by A.M. Cassandre for Deberny & Peignot 

This is but one example of Peignot’s influence on type and typography, which made his professional life so important to the history of design. Even though World War II interrupted the activities of Deberny & Peignot, Peignot remained committed to modernism and after the war he embarked on two significant landmark developments. One was to hire Adrian Frutiger, then a young apprentice, to design the 21 variations of Univers. "Univers is not exactly my favorite,'' explained Peignot, "it was an excellent treatment of an existing theme, but not really a creation in the true sense of the world; but I knew that it was a good character for the times and that it would be very successful. It was for me a commercial venture. In fact, it is with Univers that French typography regained its position in the international market.'' 

The second was Peignot's vision when it came to technology. Forecasting the demise of the metal foundry, he played an active role in finding American sponsors to, as type historian John Dreyfus said, "develop and market the radically new method of photo-typesetting devised during the war by two telephone engineers.'' His machine, known as Lumitype (renamed Photon in the United States) was exhibited in Paris in 1954 where Peignot won the right to construct the hardware and manufacture the typeface discs necessary for its operation. Univers, and later the Meridien typefaces, were perfectly suited for such filmsetting.

But Peignot's involvement did not end with these historical endeavors. He opposed typographic plagiarism, and believed that photo type would make theft by unscrupulous pirates easier. So he sought international legislation to protect type designs and understood the need to educate both the public and designers in typographical matters. In the 1960s, Peignot helped found the Alliance Typographique Internationale (ATypI), an advocacy organization that to this day includes many members of the typographic trades and arts. Because of his continued efforts, at a diplomatic conference in Vienna in 1973, eleven countries signed a treaty for the protection of typefaces. Although Peignot attended that conference, sadly he did not live to see it ratified.

Peignot took ill in 1983 and died shortly after. His contributions to France and the international community earned him his nation's highest award as a Commandeur of the Legion d'Honneur. Though Deberny & Peignot was demolished to make way for real estate developments, the catalogs, specimens and faces he created, as well as the technology he advanced, continue to influence today's practice. But perhaps the most inspirational gift he gave to his colleagues and friends was his willingness to change and be changed. This was typified by a remark he made in an interview only a few years before his death, when asked about Cassandre’s transitional sans-serif typeface, Peignot, which was named for Charles forty years after it was issued. He said: "I'm not entirely finished with it yet... I work on it because it still has the possibility of being a typeface of the future."

Divertissements Typographiques: Sample booklet for Deberny & Peignot, edited by Maximilien Vox, 1935

Divertissements Typographiques: Sample booklet for Deberny & Peignot edited, by Maximilien Vox, 1935

Posted in: Design History, Typography

Comments [10]

Amazing, how a type that caused such a disturbance over 70 years ago is now used as the spokesperson for a generation of Urban Outfitted progressive youths. Radical is always in style.

Cool poster, exclenet design of 20 century!

Thank you for this, Steve. Don't forget that one of Peignot's finest contributions to typography was the establishment of the "Prix Charles Peignot," an award bestowed every few years by the Association Typographique Internationale to recognize the achievements of a typeface designer under the age of 35.

In its early years, the award served as a vote of encouragement for designers who might not otherwise have further developed their talents in typography -- Claude Mediavilla and Petr van Blokland were early winners, along with the great Jovica Veljović (who has quietly left an indelible mark on typography of the past three decades.) The arrival of electronic publishing gave the award a different valence; by the time Adobe's Robert Slimbach and Carol Twombly received the Prix in the early nineties, both had already amassed considerable portfolios of enduring designs, and the award became something of a "promissory lifetime achievement award."

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Jonathan Hoefler

Interesting story about some truly different type faces and the designers behind them. I recall a designer I worked with years ago who used these fonts in simple direct mail pieces and posters. He introduced me to some of the most beautiful typefaces and explained the stories behind them (like the one posted here).

Sometime later I recall watching a tv show and was surprised to see Peignot being used for the opening credits. That show was The Mary Tyler Moore Show back in the 70's.
Check it out sometime in reruns.
chuck miller

Great post, very interesting read thanks Steven
creativedge - logo design

what about marcel jacno? he should get more attention. i got to know him a few years before he died. there's more to him that gauloises and he was a wonderful gentleman. i brought him some irises in paris,

the color, you know. he gave me a font,

he worked alone. have you written about him?


laurie r
laurie rosenwald

Definitely a favorite font of mine when I'm designing. Cheers
Jon Williams

great! thanks for intresting post...
Marko Kolar

I posted a type specimen booklet by Deberny & Peignot here. It includes the typeface "cristal" designed by Peignot.
dave Cuzner

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