Mark Lamster | Essays

Belgium: A Note on the Type

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When you think about national schools of typography, Belgium isn't the first country that comes to mind. There's Switzerland, birthplace of Helvetica and home to an indigenous school of gridded modern design. From Italy we have classicism, from France neoclassicism. Holland generally overshadows its southern neighbor in the design fields. Belgium, however, has a distinctive typographic identity that is both steeped in history and essentially optimistic, if not playful. Two fine examples: the "A" of Antwerp's city logo, with its blinking hash marks, and the bulbous "B" that is the ubiquitous symbol for the Belgian railway system. Both suggest the national obsession with the comic strip—Belgium, after all, is the country that has given us Tintin.

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Any discussion of Belgian typography naturally begins with Antwerp's Plantin Press, founded in 1555 by the French emigre Christophe Plantin. Under his direction, and later under the oversight of his grandson Balthasar Moretus, the press, distinguished by its famous compass colophon, was the preeminent clearinghouse for humanist ideas in Northern Europe, and was renowned also for its elegant, beautifully made books. (Peter Paul Rubens, a childhood friend of Moretus, often contributed illustrations and designs, and also published with the house.) Today, a visit to the Plantin-Moretus Museum is one of the great pleasures of any trip to Antwerp. The old presses and type matrices look like they're still in working order. I would suggest that there's no more enjoyable place for the modern typophile to stroll than a quiet lane in Brussels or Bruges, Ghent or Antwerp. To each his own, we all have our favorites. I'm partial to the elegant curling serifs that mark an old Antwerp warehouse. Not hard to figure out why.


Posted in: Typography

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