A custom typeface for a centennial
Plinius was designed in 1903 as an exclusive typeface for the k.k. Hof- und Staatsdruckerei — the Austrian Imperial-Royal Printing Office for Court and State. The humanist serif was first used in a book published on the occasion of the centennial anniversary of the printing office in 1904. This book, a folio measuring 30×40.5 cm, was designed by three main proponents of Wiener Werkstätte, a Viennese artist group comparable to the British Arts and Crafts movement.
The typeface was devised by Austrian lettering artist, typographer and teacher Rudolf von Larisch (1856–1934). His publications and teaching activities on writing and lettering left a deep impression on Wiener Werkstätte and subsequent art movements. Koloman Moser (1868–1918), artist and co-founder of the Vienna Secession in 1897, contributed the decorative elements — from title and endpapers to borders, initials and water-mark — and oversaw the book design. His younger friend Carl Otto Czeschka (1878–1960) did the woodcut illustrations. Czeschka’s involvement in the anniversary book marked the start of his career as illustrator and book designer. One of his later works is the masthead of the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit, which is in use to this date.
Plinius is a typical representative of the early-20th-century typefaces that harken back to the work of Nicolas Jenson (c. 1420–1480), a trend that William Morris started with his Golden type (1890). Eponymous Gaius Plinius Secundus, better known as Pliny the Elder, was one of the most printed ancient Roman authors in the time of incunabula. The Austrian National Library owns about twenty incunabula with texts by Pliny the Elder, two of them printed in the legendary print shop of Nicolas Jenson.
Larisch’s interpretation of Jenson’s type exhibits calligraphic details like a brushy ductus in the ‘i’ dots. This lends his Plinius a vivid and decorative feel. Its overall look and especially its dark color goes extraordinarily well together with Koloman Moser’s flat and ornamental decorations.
A century later: a revival and a spin-off
In 2006, Czech type designer Radim Peško did a digital revival of Plinius. The commissioned work was to become the cornerstone of a new visual identity for the Vienna Secession, developed by Austrian graphic designer Willi Schmid. The primary inspiration were prints and books designed by Rudolf von Larisch — himself a member of the Vienna Secession —, set in Plinius. It wasn’t Peško’s intention to do a faithful revival, though:
[Plinius] was not our concern. It was the identity we were designing, not the typeface. [We appreciated the] spirit of those books and that was enough for us to embark on a journey of our own.
Peško and Schmid actually pursued a more experimental approach of a revival: trying to conserve the DNA of Plinius, while making something new and contemporary. These drafts were rejected by their client, though, who preferred the initially presented direct interpretation, now known as Larish (sic) Alte.
Larish Alte is a pretty accurate digitization and conserves the overall impression of printed Plinius. A direct comparison reveals that the uppercase is less tall and descenders were shortened. Some details were sharpened, others removed. These deviations might have to do with the different intended design size: while Plinius is a text face, Larish Alte is also used for display purposes. Like the metal model, the new typeface comes in a single — semibold — weight only. Years later, OpenType features were added, defining two different looks of Larish Alte. A monocular ‘a’, an ‘A’ with head serifs, and a straight-sided ‘y’ are offered as alternates.
After finishing the work on Larish Alte for the Vienna Secession, Radim Peško returned to the rejected drafts:
Larish Neue is a by-product of Larish Alte. Based on entirely different construction principles, this version resulted from an attempt to create a contemporary looking typeface with the DNA of the original.
The resulting Larish Neue is a strong, rugged typeface in two styles, Roman and Italic. Its ancestor shines through in some details, but only on second glance.
After only two years the Vienna Secession changed its corporate design again and returned to another Helvetica-based design. Radim Peško revised the fonts and made both Larish Alte and Neue available for public licensing from his RP Digital Type Foundry in 2011.
Peter Pesseg is an archaeologist and graphic designer living in Austria. His love of typography led to contributing a variety of interesting Uses to our Collection. This is his first to appear in the Blog.