The Rigor of Joy

“Type is one of the most eloquent means of expression in every epoch of style. Next to architecture, it gives the most characteristic portrait of a period and the most severe testimony of a nation’s intellectual status.”

Peter Behrens, as quoted by Jan Tschichold in his essential work, “Erfreuliche Drucksachen durch gute Typographie” (The Abecé of Good Typography).

Tschichold criticizes Behrens’ grammar by showing a page of press advertisements from 1960 that state: “The testimony of the level of evolution of a people, the mirror of a culture? With this, we have to continually wash our hands.”

Now that we quite frequently wash our hands, both Behrens’ premise and Tschichold’s doubts remain valid. The only difference is that the typefaces that currently mark our “levels” reside by default in our computers’ operating systems. This democratizing yet homogenizing typography paradigm must be confronted by those who design letters today.

A prospective monograph

The Blanc! Festival, part of the Blanc Orígens program, is dedicating an exhibition to the modern letters of Laura Meseguer — the first female designer to be so exposed. Meseguer is in full evolution, so a mere retrospective does not suit; instead, I would opine that this is a prospective monograph. I say “prospective” because of the way that curator Eider Corral presents this exhibition as more of a look forward than a backward glance.

Corral’s analysis of Meseguer’s typographic work focuses on some aspects that seem relevant to me, and with which I agree. In the first place, it highlights the relational nature of her professional practice. Like so many others, Meseguer helms one of those one-person studios that, far from being monolithic, was compelled to generate a network of complicities, collaborations, and synergies that are only possible by keeping the creative ego in the bottom drawer. This practice, where the result is much more than its parts and is not based on the author’s personalism, is perhaps influenced by another mainstay of Meseguer’s career — the transmission and exchange of knowledge at the heart of her teaching methods. This teaching practice is influenced by her experience at the KABK in The Hague, where Meseguer earned the Type and Media master’s degree in type design — a critical leap in her training.

Some defend the notion that a teacher is one who, possessing a large amount of information, transmits it to her students. This is a very ingrained idea; Socratic, I would say, and very masculine. On the contrary, some think that knowledge should be generated in learning spaces between students and teachers. True, the teacher has experience and knowledge but acts more as a mediator and a companion than a guru.

These kinds of practices are what define Meseguer’s teaching work. From these practices, work, collaborations, and mutual enrichment arise. The fact that her exhibition’s curator was not long ago Meseguer’s student certifies that horizontal relationship; how she teaches without predefined roles. If projects were births, Meseguer would be more of a doula than a specialist in obstetrics. Tipo-g, her current educational project, made from the community and designed for the accompaniment and growth of its students, is a fine example of how Meseguer works.

Collective work as a gender perspective

That gender perspective — which I will return to later — is also present in the idea of creative socialization that Corral highlights. The idea of the “cultural figure”, alien to her environment, a lonely and often misunderstood genius (tremendously masculine), is replaced by collective creation and the exchange of experiences. A creation in femininity leaves space for collegiate, comprehensive, and collective processes. In many of Meseguer’s projects, you can see that idea of connection.

Take, for example, her more-than-20-year-old collaboration in Type-Ø-Tones, together with its essential co-founder Josema. Only from the idea of the common and the collective and from a postcolonial perspective would an intercultural project like Qandus arise. Working with Amsterdam-based Beirut designer Kristyan Sarkis and Juan Luis Blanco from Zumaia to create a multilingual typeface that incorporates the Latin, Arabic, and Tifinagh alphabets established a dialogue and collaboration without protagonism or personalities.

Typographic calligraphy, calligraphic typography

In the book The Thinking Hand, Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa says:

“The eye and the hand collaborate constantly; the eye leads the hand to great distances, and the hand informs the eye on the intimate scale.”

I think it’s an excellent way to understand the relationship Meseguer establishes between calligraphy and typography. The eye leads you through methodological rigor and the generation of complex systems. Her hand finesses details to their limits, as if she were working on a much closer, more intimate scale. Thus, we move from the mutant and adaptable system of the Sisters family to the retro coquetry of Rumba. The point between eye and hand also defines her work at House Industries, a collaboration with Ken Barber and Ben Kiel resulting in the Girard Sansusie typeface. Calligraphy also brings it closer to lettering, allowing it to generate ad hoc logos.

In this exhibition, we will see some of what Meseguer has done throughout her career and how, starting from the singularity of a stroke, we arrive at the identification of a brand. The relationships between the eye, the mind, and the hand flow with speed evident to those who know Meseguer’s work with playful logos such as the mark for Fearless Girl or the headline for the Dutch newspaper Het Parool.

Joy and rigor

The idea of gender underlies all her work, not with a shouting militancy, but by introducing a time bomb — joy — into a masculinized environment. Something akin to when Zuzana Licko blew up the dogmatism of late modernism with Emigre, the magazine she created with Rudy VanderLans. And it does so, not from an aggressive position, but from the fun of variety offered by the then-newly released digital authoring programs. The Apollonian followers of the Swiss school were scandalized, not only because Licko reimagined the principles of typography, but seemed to enjoy the shakeup without acrimony.

Meseguer is the daughter of postmodernity; of this, there can be no doubt. Her gaze at the vernacular typography that we see on her Instagram account reflects that lack of complexes and that joy of discovering genius from the past without ever giving up rigorous methodologies.

Too often, the brainy creator, permanently “preoccupied,” as if reinventing the wheel every week, is an image that has set the design stereotype. Given that, Louise Fili, Paula Scher, and even Irma Boom are often perceived as friendly, happy. I imagine the discomfort of “serious” designers in the face of such joy. The temptation to dismiss them as frivolous is immediate. But, in all these cases, and in Meseguer’s as well, there is a much more difficult achievement than maintaining coherence from the Müller-Brockmann Spartan asceticism: applying rigor, method, efficiency, and coherence in exuberance and diversity.

Obviously, that mix of “seny i la rauxa” (a form of wisdom in Catalan culture and rage) is not the heritage of women designers; some of Meseguer’s references, from Paul Rand to Cyrus Highsmith, have that lucid, effective freshness. But perhaps it is a defining feature of women designers that this complicated balance is achieved with absolute naturalness and without the fuss of “misunderstood genius.”

I will close with a phrase that Corral quotes in her working paper, words from the designer-nun Sister Corita:

“The process I want to describe is living and squirming and very difficult to pin down. The process is one of teaching, learning, growing, and doing things to make the world a better place. Whether that world is within you or as great as infinity.”

For me, Meseguer’s world of letters extends beyond what systematized typography reaches and beyond what personal lettering reaches; it is that complex but immense world between joy and rigor.

Oscar Guayabero
Para-designer and Curator
November 2020
Translated into English by Tamye Riggs

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The Beautiful People Exhibition

The Beautiful People Exhibition

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“The Beautiful People” is a type design and lettering exhibition by Laura Meseguer. Organized by Blanc! Festival and La Sala. Curated by Eider Corral.