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1961 (Zuzana Licko), 1955 (Rudy VanderLans)
For over a decade of typeface design and magazine publishing,
Zuzana Licko and Rudy VanderLans have withstood virulent attacks
from an entrenched design establishment as well as from their
contemporaries. Throughout it all, they have continued to pursue
their unique visions and, consequently, have been a prime force in
revolutionizing the industry and cultivating a spirit of
Brian Eno's quip about the Velvet Underground—that only a few
thousand people bought their record but every one of them went on
to form a band—could apply as well to Emigré. Although the
print run of the first issue was 500 copies and its circulation
peaked at 7,000 several years ago, its reverberations are still
being felt around the world. The magazine that VanderLans published
and art directed, and the fonts Licko developed for it, have
stimulated designers to defy, and even overthrow, entrenched rules
and to set new standards.
Neither Licko nor VanderLans set out to transform the face of
modern design. They achieved their notoriety rather
unconventionally. Bay Area designer Chuck Byrne, who has closely
observed their careers from the beginning, explains: “In the last
fifty years or so, making a reputation for yourself was basically a
process of winning competitions, getting your work published, and
going around pontificating to the world about how great you are.
What drove the establishment crazy was that Rudy and Zuzana totally
short-circuited this apprenticeship and became famous simply by
designing for this international group of admirers.”
Licko was born in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, and moved to the
United States at the age of seven. Her father, a biomathematician,
provided her with access to computers and the opportunity to design
her first typeface, a Greek alphabet, for his personal use. She
entered the University of California at Berkeley in 1981 as an
undergraduate. She had planned to study architecture, but changed
her major to visual studies and pursued a graphic communications
degree. Being left-handed, she hated her calligraphy class, where
she was forced to write with her right hand.
VanderLans was born in the Hague, Holland, and attended the
Royal Academy of Fine Art from 1974 to 1979. Initially aspiring to
become an illustrator, he enrolled in the graphic design
department. After an apprenticeship at Wim Crouwel's Total Design
studio, he did corporate identity work at Vorm Vijf and Tel Design.
When his application to the UC Berkeley graduate program was
accepted in 1981, he moved to California, where he met Licko. They
were married in 1983.
Also in 1983, mistakenly thinking he was applying for a job at
Chronicle Books, VanderLans found himself at the San Francisco
Chronicle. He was hired by the editorial art director to do
illustrations, cover designs, and graphs. His frustrations with the
harsh demands of a daily newspaper motivated him to seek other
Emigre was originally intended as a cultural journal to
showcase artists, photographers, poets, and architects. The first
issue was put together in 1984 in an 11.5“ by 17” format by
VanderLans and two other Dutch immigrants. Since there was no
budget for typesetting, the text was primarily typewriter type that
had been resized on a photocopier.Working with the newly invented
Macintosh computer and a bitmap font tool, Licko began creating
fonts for the magazine. Emporer, Oakland, and Emigré were designed
as coarse bitmapped faces to accommodate low-resolution printer
output. They were used in issued two, and, after several readers
inquired about their availability, she began running ads for them
in issue three.
In 1987, the other founders had left Emigré. Working
under the title Emigré Graphics, Licko edited screen fonts at Adobe
Systems, Inc., while VanderLans, who had left the
Chronicle, designed new magazines: GlasHaus for
an organizer of party events and Shift for San Francisco's
Artspace gallery. He also continued to publish Emigré
while Licko contsructed more fonts with bold, simple geometry, such
as Matrix and Modula. Their cold, rational appearance served to
anchor VanderLans's free-spirited layouts.
Emigré became a full-fledged graphic design journal in
1988 with issues ten, produced by students at the Cranbrook Academy
of Art in Michigan. VanderLans concentrated on work that was being
neglected by other design publications, either because it didn't
adhere to traditional canons or it was still in its formative
stages. The issues, each built around a theme, have featured Ed
Fella, Rick Valicenti, and David Carson from the United States,
Vaughan Oliver, Nick Bell, and Designers Republic from Britain,
several Dutch designers, and many others who were exploring new
territory. Several controversial articles and interviews have
appeared over the years, provoking other design publications to
become more opinionated.
In 1989, the fonts had become enough of a commercial success
that Licko and VanderLans gave up freelancing and concentrated
exclusively on their own business. Emigré, which had been
published erratically, settled into a quarterly schedule.
In designing Emigré, VanderLans rejected standardized
formats in favor of organic grid structures that reflected his
enthusiasm toward the contents. Computerized page composition gave
him the flexibility to reinvent the look of the magazine with every
issue. Sometimes several articles would run through the pages
concurrently, each text differentiated by font, size, leading, and
column width, creating an impression of eavesdropping on several
simultaneous conversations. Nuanced type variations within
sentences created the mood and rhythm of spoken words. Even the
logo has gone through several permutations.
When their work began to receive public attention, it was
attacked for promulgating visual incoherence and viewed as a threat
to Modernist ideals and an affront to universal notions of beauty.
Massimo Vignelli was their most vociferous critic. Throughout the
early '90s, he denounced the magazine and fonts as garbage, lacking
depth, refinement, elegance or a sense of history.
The text and typography were hardly indecipherable to its
intended audience. In fact, Emigré was quite inviting and
involving for its readers, who had a high degree of visual
sophistication. “People read best what they read most” has become a
credo for Licko and VanderLans and has been adopted as a rallying
cry by designers eager to challenge preconceptions of type design
and magazine layout.
While Licko and VanderLans were being pilloried by
traditionalists, designers who had once championed their work for
its aggressiveness began to condemn it as too readily identifiable,
and therefore unusable. Beach Culture magazine published
an issue with a cover line that boasted “no Emigré fonts,” although
the logo itself was set in Licko's Senator.
Much of the initial opposition has abated, as the same designs
and fonts styles once considered ugly have become assimilated
throughout mainstream print and electronic media. The
Emigré sensibility has achieved commercial acceptance by
popularizers like David Carson. No longer viewed as radical or
unique, the work of Licko and VanderLans regularly garners
accolades from many notables in the field.
In 1995 Emigré reduced its page size to more
conventional magazine proportions and adapted a relatively staid,
conservative appearance. The contents also underwent a dramatic
changer. VanderLans explains, “Instead of focusing on the
designers' intentions and the designers' work, we decided to turn
the tables and look at how this work is impacting our culture.”
CalArts instructor Jeffery Keedy, who has been affiliated with the
magazine for nearly a decade and who Keedy Sans typeface is
distributed by Emigré Fonts, is now a frequent contributor, as are
North Carolina State University professor Andrew Blauvelt and
writer/designer Anne Burdick.
Some readers have become put off by the academic, often pedantic
tone of what they consider diatribes and manifestoes rather than
essays. VanderLans is intrigued by “the readers who categorically
dismiss design writing and design criticism of any kind. Many
designers simply do not see how it connects to them and their
profession. How to make it relevant is a great challenge.”
Keedy sees the new emphasis on theory and analysis as a
necessity. “Emigré couldn't continue as this subcult
anomaly, a fanzine for the avant-garde, because the avant-garde is
over. Rudy and Zuzana were in the middle of a moment of change in
the eighties and the next generation is still doing the same thing.
There hasn't been another paradigm shift, so there just isn't
enough hip, groovy new stuff to show.”
As the text has become foregrounded, many who purchased
Emigré for visual rather than intellectual stimulus have
lost interest. Chuck Byrne still sees much that is praiseworthy in
the magazine's layout. “ The emphasis has gone from individual
spreads to these astounding studies in form spread out over a large
number of pages. Rudy's fiddling with Modernist concepts the way an
accomplished jazz musician might play with a theme. His work has
always been a lot more formal than most people realize.”
Licko's fonts are also evolving in reflection of the magazine's
changing contents. After a variety of releases, including a set of
pinwheel dingbats and a French-tickler version of Modula, she is
putting her own spin on classical serifs with Mrs. Eaves and
Filosofia, reinterpretations of Baskerville and Bodoni.
Respected typographers now publicly acknowledge the legitimacy
of Licko's font designs. Matthew Carter, a 1995 AIGA gold medalist,
commented, “Two ideas seem to me to stand behind the originality of
Zuzana's work: that the proper study of typography is type, not
calligraphy or history, and that legibility is not an intrinsic
quality of type but something acquired through use.”
Licko's ascendance in a primarily male-dominated profession and
her bypassing of traditional training have been an inspiration to a
generation of font designers with access to computer technology.
The market has been deluged with knockoffs of her style. She says:
“It's funny: when I look back on my work over the last twelve
years, I realize that at first I had trouble getting people to take
my work seriously, while now I have trouble getting them to stop
copying my work.”
To the surprise of those who recall Massimi Vignelli's earlier
excoriations of Emigre, he recently produced a direct-mail
promotion for Filosofia, which led Licko to speculate on the
possibility that “Massimo's willingness to collaborate on our
announcement reflects Emigré's ability to bridge different
Although quite flattered to be the first of a new generation to
be selected for the Gold Medal, the adversarial VanderLans is “not
so deluded by the praise not to also realize that the award is part
of AIGA's concerted effort to appeal to a younger generation in
order to remain significant as an organization. And I can
appreciate that kind of thinking. If you believe you have a valid
idea, which AIGA has, then it makes sense to try and sell that to
as large an audience as possible.”
Licko and Vanderlans have always claimed to eschew marketing
strategy, maintaining that they produce their products primarily to
please themselves. They have never denied accusations of
self-indulgence. In fact, it is a point of pride. As a
self-published, self-supporting venture, the self-proclaimed
“magazine without boundaries” has been free to engage in highly
experimental research and development. The fact that they have
parlayed their passions into a successful international enterprise
is simply a fortuitous byproduct.
Emigré Fonts now offers around fifty type families designed by
close to twenty designers. The best known is Barry Deck's Template
Gothic, a nod to vernacular signage, while the most notorious is
Jonathan Barnbrook's Mason, initially named Manson. From an office
in Sacramento, Emigré Graphics also sells posters, T-shirts, and
other peripheral items through its catalogue and Internet website.
A music label that was launched in 1990 is presently “dormant,” as
VanderLans puts it.
Licko and VanderLans invest as much time and effort in the
business side as in the creative side. “Without our personal
involvement in licensing contracts, distribution agreements, legal
matters, accounting, etc., Emigré would simply not exist.
Fact of the matter is, we consider ourselves as much businesspeople
as we consider ourselves designers.” Byrne strongly agrees,
pointing out, “Anyone who considers Rudy a wild primitive who
doesn't know anything about organizing information should look at
any Emigré order form. They have always been the clearest,
most concise designs for sending in the money.”
Emigré, which has been famous for making the most of
low-budget production values, has converted to full color with its
42nd issue, which was sent to the Emigré mailing list of
43,000 and is being offered free to anyone who fills out a reply
card. The increased circulation is part of an attempt to attract
Keedy sees this as a smart move, one that will expand their
audience. “There's not a huge demand for the magazine right now,
but I think this strategy will, in fact, create that demand. I see
Emigré ten years from now as a slick, glossy
special-interest magazine that has its own niche.
”Naturally, people are going to say Rudy and Zuzana are selling
out and going mainstream. They're in a weird phase right now, and
the question is, can they make it? I think they will. They have
always been ahead of the market, not behind it. They're very much
in their time and always on the move. That's the critical factor in
all they've done.“
Copyright 1998 by The American Institute of Graphic
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