Zhurnalnaya Roublennaya: A Poor Man’s Futura
An unusual geometric sans, born out of necessity in a Soviet Union of limited type choices, sparks new study and revivals.
Type production in the young Soviet Union
In the communist period, Soviet consumer goods were limited both in number and in regards to aesthetic options to choose from. It was the same with typefaces for books, posters, newspapers, etc. There were only few of them: the same recognizable characters appeared on greyish cinema tickets and from art books to magazines for children. The geometric sans serif typeface that popped up everywhere was Zhurnalnaya roublennaya, as grey and dull as everyday communist life itself.
Beside its own type foundries, Tsarist Russia had a few branch offices of European ones. Chief among them, H. Berthold AG from Germany, acquired a smaller type foundry in St. Petersburg in 1900, and another one in Moscow in 1901. At that time Berthold was one of the biggest type foundries in the world, and so its typefaces quickly spread throughout Russia. After the communist revolution the Russian printing industry continued to use existing fonts, often from Western companies, but in the 1930s there was an evident need to create the Soviet empire’s own printing equipment and typefaces. This was especially the case as the Iron Curtain started to descend and the material heritage of the previous imperial time wore out.
The first Soviet typeface was Literaturnaya (at first named Latinskaya, i.e. “Latin”), based on Berthold’s Lateinisch from 1899. It was introduced in 1936, and its lead designer was Anatoly Schukin. In the same year, Zhurnalnaya came out, designed by Nikolay Kudryashov. It was a copy of Linotype’s Excelsior (1931), designed by Chauncey H. Griffith. It was a common practice in the Soviet era to copy Western products and rename them, and this was evidently also true for typefaces.
Zhurnalnaya roublennaya (Журнальная рубленая), “Journal Grotesque” or “Magazine Grotesque” in English, was released in 1947, but at that point it supported only Cyrillic-alphabet languages. Roublennaya means “chopped” in Russian, and in this case it is used to mean grotesque, gothic, or sans serif. Soviet sources list Schukin and his colleagues as the designers of the typeface.
Those sources also mention the German typeface Erbar-Grotesk as a prototype, created by Jakob Erbar for the Ludwig & Mayer foundry in 1922. It was very popular in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s. Its geometrically-shaped, rounded characters and sober look fit nicely into the period’s visual image. Nowadays, Erbar is only rarely being used. Perhaps the reason is Erbar’s absence in the Letraset library in the 1970s, or during the early digital era of the 1990s. Although the color of Erbar in body copy is similar to Roublennaya’s, the microshapes of the letters are not the same. Erbar is too fancy to be the sole father of Zhurnalnaya roublennaya.
The year 1947 was an exceptional time to release a typeface in Russia. The design process had started before WWII and was finished very shortly after — two years is not a long time after fighting a war of near-total destruction. But the Soviet Union was on the winner’s side and removed several of Germany’s metal and machine enterprises. Those started a new life in Soviet cities. For example, the Opel car factory’s production was continued in Moscow, and the Opel Kadett was renamed the Moskvitsch. Printing equipment and fonts were also a part of the metal and machine industry. On the face of it, the typeface’s release seems to fit this simple pattern of a direct copy. But its actual history is more complicated.
Modernist typefaces in the 1920s and 1930s
When Bauhaus members discussed the meaning and appearance of typefaces, they raised the question of form. Getting rid of ornament also meant beginning a search for essential shapes of letters. The square, circle, and triangle were the geometrical figures that were accepted by modernists as possible shapes of characters. Although the essential geometry of type didn’t reach the public at the time, it drove type foundries to initiate their own investigations.
One result of that was Berthold-Grotesk, which came out in 1928. The type foundry Berthold’s typefaces were also produced by the St. Petersburg branch office and stayed in use after the Communist revolution.
Another typeface bearing the same early modernist feeling is Super-Grotesk, designed by Arno Drescher in 1932 for Schriftguss AG in Dresden. Schriftguss, which was located in Eastern Germany, was made a part of VEB Typoart in 1951. With Typoart as the only type foundry in the country after that, Super-Grotesk became the main sans serif typeface of the GDR. In some ways, it is comparable to Zhurnalnaya roublennaya. It shares its proletarian aesthetics and austere image, and the same wide use everywhere in the country due to a lack of alternatives. Shy and grey, overused and underestimated, it became the visual equivalent of communist Germany. It fell into oblivion during the first decade of democracy after the reunification of Germany. But ten years later a wave of Ostalgie arrived, and young typographers started to digitize several fonts that had been in use in the GDR, including Super-Grotesk.
In comparing Zhurnalnaya roublennaya with the above-mentioned typefaces, it is evident that there are a lot of similarities. The shapes of ‘a, s, R, and S’ are most alike, but the general appearance of the typefaces are also similar. None of the typefaces can be viewed as a direct prototype for Zhurnalnaya, though.
Zhurnalnaya roublennaya as a poor man’s Futura
A version of Zhurnalnaya roublennaya supporting Latin-alphabet languages was released in 1962, and became the common sans serif in Estonian printing offices for the next 30 years. It was a newcomer in the Soviet typeface library of Estonia, but mainly, there was simply no choice: the other available sans serif for machine typesetting was Gazetnaya, a typeface based on Franklin Gothic Extra Condensed, which was not suitable for longer text setting. Therefore Roublennaya was mostly used pragmatically, without special aesthetic intention.
In the Soviet-period design magazine Kunst ja Kodu (“Art and Home”) for example, the text was set in Roublennaya, but the headlines were in hand-lettered Futura. That was the real typeface in the designers’ minds when they designed the layout of the pages. Roublennaya was used in the absence of the desired font, as a poor man’s Futura.
Jüri Kaarma was one of the few graphic designers who used Roublennaya intentionally. He designed the magazine Loomingu Raamatukogu (“Looming’s Library”) and used the typeface on black-and-white covers from 1980–1983. Kaarma trusted the essential quality of a poorly-made Soviet typeface and gave it the main role. To produce more powerful results, Kaarma took the photoset negatives and used the characters oversized, sometimes covering the entire cover. Through this process the quality of the letter contours deteriorated, and this gave an industrial look to the characters.
Another remarkable use of Zhurnalnaya roublennaya dates to 1978, when the same Jüri Kaarma designed Juhan Viiding’s poetry book, Ma olin Jüri Üdi (“I was Jüri Üdi”). The modest publication was set in the everyday Soviet typeface, without any additional illustrative elements. Zhurnalnaya roublennaya became the focus of the harsh layout and described, with intense power, the silent nightmare of the poet’s childhood years: the Stalinist fifties.
Another interesting use is Arhitektid Arhitektuurist (“Architects’ Architecture”). It was designed by Leonhard Lapin and published in 1989. It uses scaled up type on multiple spreads. The resulting rough outlines were then, in some places, manually cleaned up. The stark color contrast drives the inventive layouts. Large and small type is set in two different versions of the same type, with the lowercase ‘a’ and the apexes of ‘A, M, N, W’ being the easiest characters to distinguish the two.
Zhurnalnaya roublennaya and the digital age
At the beginning of the 1990s, when the digital era began, Zhurnalnaya roublennaya fell into obscurity. The Russian type foundry ParaGraph digitized it as early as 1991, but the typeface’s drawing quality was very bad. That digital version was called Journal Sans. In 2014 the foundry, now known as ParaType, released both an updated version and a reinterpretation named Journal Sans New. The latter is a very free take on the original design, with elements such as a humanist italic and an inline style.
The lack of a properly made digital version of Zhurnalnaya roublennaya was noticeable in 2007, when the artist Marko Mäetamm exhibited his works at the Venice Biennale. Estonian designer Indrek Sirkel, who was designing the artist’s catalog, was searching for the visual expression of Mäetamm’s bitter, personal, and childhood-reflecting art. Sirkel chose Roublennaya, the typeface of his generation’s alphabet book Karu-aabits (“Teddy bear’s ABC”). Another Estonian ABC book using the same typeface is Abikooli Aabits, shown above.
As no proper digital version of Roublennaya was available, he used Erbar instead, but in 2009, he helped start a new digitization process through his colleague Urs Lehni at the Bern University of the Arts. Sirkel sent examples of the typeface to Switzerland, and the then-students Reto Moser and Tobias Rechsteiner created two fonts of the regular weight under the names Eesti Text and Eesti Display. These are some of the samples they were working from.
In the six years since, Moser has taken to designing what has now become GT Eesti. GT Eesti Text has pointed apexes on ‘A, V, W, M, N and Z’, unlike GT Eesti Display. In Soviet specimen books, two cuts are shown as well: one for small uses, and another for larger uses. That’s also why GT Eesti Text sports strong ink-traps. The incisions into the lettershapes, wherever two lines meet, help the letters look the right way at smaller sizes, in print and on screen. All styles supports both Latin and Cyrillic Extended languages, including Bulgarian alternates.
The revival of Zhurnalnaya roublennaya is logical and the zeitgeist welcomed the rebirth of this visual phenomenon. It is ironic that a German-prototyped, Russian-manufactured typeface would reappear after being picked up by Swiss designers — who renamed it Eesti.
This article was written by Ivar Sakk, Professor for graphic design at EKA in Tallinn, Estonia, and edited by Thierry Blancpain of Grilli Type. An earlier version was published in issue 21 of Kunstiteaduslikke Uurimusi — Studies on Art and Architecture, the journal of the Estonian Society of Art Historians (pdfs: Estonian with images, English translation). Grilli Type would like to thank Ivar for being a great friend and help to us when we were trying to understand the history of this typeface, as well as for being a great host when we visited Tallinn in February 2015.