José Mendoza y Almeida

Review of Bibliothèque Typographique’s
first book, José Mendoza y Almeida

Who is Jose Mendoza?

José Mendoza y Almeida was perhaps the most internationally active 20th century French type designer. While he also produced work for local distributors, his most significant faces were published by companies abroad, including the Amsterdam Typefoundry, Monotype, and ITC. Born in 1926, Mendoza’s career has been primarily devoted to activities in the fields of graphic design, illustration, and calligraphy. During his professional career, he has never worked as a full-time type designer, although he was a typographic educator from 1985–1990. His Pascal, Photina, and ITC Mendoza Roman typefaces are currently on the market, and each has played its own significant role in the history of 20th century type.

He’s the subject of a new book

The Paris-based Blibliothèque Typographique announced José Mendoza y Almeida in February. This is the first full-volume text in any language dedicated to Mendoza. The exquisite 169-page book offers a detailed glimpse into his type design work. Its bilingual text will hopefully ensure more recognition for Mendoza both at home and internationally.

Drawing for Photina

I must admit that before reading this book, I was not very familiar with Mendoza or his typefaces. On the occasions where I had come across his name, it was most often in connection with Photina. With so many typefaces to juggle in your mind, it is often only too easy to categorize them into little cupboards; you make associations in your head based on things you hear people say. Whenever I heard “Photina,” the bell that went off for me was, “the first good phototype family!” Yet this never drove me to the specimen books to examine Photina’s forms for myself. After reading this book, I can safely say how great a pity that was. Conceived as a kind of serif counterpart to Univers – in terms of family size and structure, not design – only eight weights of Photina were ever actually released. But Photina’s forms are ground-breakingly interesting, and this book displays them well. What would the family have looked like if all of the intended weights had been finished? How large an effect on the course of type design’s development would an enlarged Photina have had on the 1970s? Or on the 1980s? Pondering this book’s essay on Photina raises many “what if?” questions, a recurring theme throughout the text.

Why you should care

The more experience that I gain as a type designer, the more I realize how little I know or understand regarding the depths of French typeface history. Glancing at the surface of things, it would seem that there has been an unbroken lineage of excellence handed down from the past half-millennium that runs from Garamond, Granjon, and Jannon through to the Romain du Roi concept, the work of the Fourniers and Didots, across to the 20th and 21st centuries. The past 100 years alone have brought us the work of Georges Peignot, A.M. Cassandre, Marcel Jacno, François Ganeau, Roger Excoffon, Ladislas Mandel, Thierry Puyfoulhoux, Franck Jalleau, and Jean François Porchez. And this is before one mentions that the bulk of Adrian Frutiger’s career was spent working in France. There is also the writing of Maximilien Vox to consider. Several of my favorite designers from my own generation are French, including Jean-Baptiste Levée, Mathieu Réguer, and Jonathan Perez.

The problem with creating lists like the one above is that a tremendous amount is left out. History is not made up of the signposts along a trail, but rather by the footprints along the path. Rattling off a list of names offers no real understanding of why certain forms look the way they do, what drove the artisans who made them, and what all of this has to offer us in our current practice.

About the book

The strength of this book is the in-depth presentation of Mendoza’s three most-significant typefaces. Many photographs of Mendoza’s original sketches and production drawings are included in the book, artefacts that are disappearing from type design practice. Reading the book, I asked myself, how will the work of my own type-designer generation be documented by future historians? We do not leave behind the same breadcrumbs as our recent forebears.

Called the “godfather” of French type design by the authors, perhaps a more apt description for Mendoza might be “unsung hero.” His contribution to the canon of French design is significant, and may become more established with this book. Since Mendoza is not well-known to recent generations of designers—especially outside of France—more biographical information about him would have been interesting. In many ways, José Mendoza y Almeida reminds me of Fred Smeijers’ Type now. Both books have similar dimensions. The focus of José Mendoza y Almeida is narrower; it includes five essays encapsulating the process behind specific typefaces, or styles of typefaces, designed by Mendoza. The essays include:

1. Pascal (Martin Majoor)
2. Photina (Sébastien Morlighem)
3. Five calligraphic typefaces (Martin Majoor)
4. The invention of the “mécalde” (Sébastien Morlighem)
5. ITC Mendoza Roman (Sébastien Morlighem)

Mendoza Script, original drawings

Above: Drawings for Mendoza Script

Below: Drawings for Père Castor

Unlike Type now, this book presents a more objective display of a designer’s body of work. The text was not prepared by the designer himself, so information is presented in a third person voice. The small, partially full-color “portfolio” section in the back of the book is less good. It feels removed from the main narrative of the book. Again, I tie mental parallels with Type now, whose end, color “portfolio” section is both more thought out, and more whimsical. José Mendoza y Almeida‘s portfolio section includes images that seem to bear no relation to the main text of book. Were these images included just because they are pretty? Additionally, we see some glimpses of yearly “holiday cards” designed by Mendoza. Some other similar cards are presented on the inside flap of the back cover. Are these cards something that Mendoza designed and distributed every year? I did not find much mention of these in the text.

The French/English split of the text works well most of the time, with French texts displayed verso, English texts, recto. In captions the text is always presented in French first, followed by English. I quickly adapted to this, only being disrupted after flipping through extended spreads filled mostly with high-quality, well-reproduced images. They are so captivating that it was difficult for me to reorient my mind and my eye to reading regular text.

The book is set in Lyon Text, a Commercial Type face from Kai Bernau. Lyon Text imbibes from the fountain of Robert Granjon’s work. This gives it a similar air to Mendoza’s oeuvre. José Mendoza y Almeida explains that Mendoza’s work is deeply influenced by French humanist type from the Renaissance onward; and Granjon was one of this strand’s key players. Perhaps one could imagine the book set in a Mendoza face—particularly ITC Mendoza Roman; or an authorized Brennus revival might have been appropriate. In terms of “complete” typeface families, only Mendoza’s most recent release would likely fall into this category: ITC Mendoza Roman. Released in 1991, the family includes three weights, each with a companion italic. However, Pauline Nuñez’s (the book’s designer) decision to set the text in a more neutral typeface—similar in flavor but still different—helps set the images apart from the other pages. When an image appears, you are certain that it is featuring work by Mendoza himself.

Jan Middendorp’s introduction ends with a message to designers that is particularly apt for our time. I am thankful that he included it, and think that it should be repeated here. Perhaps a similar text should be included in more design books:

“With today’s technology, making quick ‘revivals’, capitalizing on the ideas that lend these alphabets their vibrant originality, may seem a piece of cake. But if anyone decides to ‘do something’ with these alphabets, he or she should proceed with caution and respect. Their designer is still alive and well, and he may have ideas about what to do it them – and what not.”

Mendoz’s legacy

Since Mendoza’s engagement with type design has been part-time, taking place over several decades, it seems that just as many of his concepts—if not more than half—were either never published, or have been withdrawn from the market owing to the closure of type manufacturers. Two instances covered are particularly representative: Pascal’s unreleased Italic, and the discontinued Brennus family. Pascal was Mendoza’s first typeface, published by the Amsterdam Typefoundry in 1962. Before the phototype era, this typeface was only distributed in a single weight. From 1962–1967, Mendoza worked with the Amsterdam Typefoundry to develop a Pascal italic, though it never came to market.

Pascal Italic

Drawings for Pascal Italic

Would it have been published, Pascal Italic may have been the world’s first humanist sans serif italic. Perhaps this does not sound so revolutionary now, as the average graphic designer most-likely has several of these in his font folder; but in 1967, none were available. Optima’s roman (similar to Pascal) was only sold with obliques, a trend that was the rule for grotesk-style sans serifs of the time.

Brennus was a two weight design for Socotep. The family was on the market during the 1980s, but is no longer in active distribution. This design is an almost monolinear Egyptienne, with oldstyle traces. For me, Brennus is the centerpiece of a chapter on “mécaldes,” which – according to Sébastien Morlighem – represent a genre invented by Mendoza. “Mécaldes” are a combination of “mécanes” and “garaldes,” two categories of type from Vox’s classification system. The typical English-language terms are slab serif and oldstyle. After reading this book, I was really left wanting to know more about Brennus, a Mendoza typeface no longer in distribution. This is not because I felt the text on Brennus lacking, or because I feel that Brennus offers some secret key to unlocking further type design understanding. I just really like the typeface, and would like to see more of it.

Monotype Recorder, 1979

A single-page Monotype advertisement from 1979 illustrates Mendoza in the company of Morison, Gill, and Van Krimpen. The ad is in English, and I wonder which four designers a French company might have chosen as their titans of 20th century type design. Would Mendoza have made the French list? On the other hand, that the advertisement was a Monotype one is revealing. At the time, type designers tended to be bound to certain foundries, or at least partner with one at a time. No foundry could yet claim to have all of a century’s famous European designers under one roof. This is one of many differences in 21st century font marketing. The period post-1979 has seen the rise of mega companies, which absorbed numerous smaller foundries from a number of countries. In the last two decades, we have also seen the rise of font distributors that resell the products of multiple companies and individual designers alike.

Fidelio drawing

Drawing for Fidelio

Like Matthew Carter, Adrian Frutiger, or Hermann Zapf, Mendoza’s career spanned the changes of technology that revolutionized—and then re-revolutionized—type design. Pascal was initially released in metal for hand-setting. Most of Mendoza’s subsequent typefaces were developed for phototypesetting systems, although a few of them were converted by their respective foundries into digital format. Fidelio was first released by Mecanorma as dry transfer lettering, and ITC Mendoza Roman is a fully digital typeface family. The history of 20th century type design shows us some designers who created fantastic romans, but may have failed with their companion Italics. Mendoza is not one of these. Not only are Photina’s italics — as well those from the ITC Mendoza Roman family—excellent, lively, legible, and interesting, but Mendoza’s mécalde italics seen in the Brennus family and elsewhere are just as powerful as their roman counterparts.

José Mendoza y Almeida is a real page-turner. I went from cover to cover in two afternoons. Not only was the book a fun read, but it made me think. Blibliothèque Typographique has issued a great production. The book contains a few minor flaws, but as an object it feels lovely in the hand. It also makes for very easy reading. The texture of the paper is optimal, the type clear, the layout engaging, and the illustrations rich. I highly recommend this book to anyone in the field.   

Dan Reynolds was born in Baltimore, Maryland. Before moving to Europe, he received a BFA in graphic design at the Rhode Island School of Design. Reynolds studied at the HfG Offenbach for a few years before receiving an MA in typeface design from the University of Reading (U.K.). Today, he lives in Berlin, Germany, where he works for Linotype GmbH and teaches typeface design at the Hochschule Darmstadt. His most recent typeface, Malabar, received a Certificate of Excellence in Type Design from the Type Directors Club, a silver medal at the ED-Awards 2009, and a gold medal from the 2010 Design Award of the Federal Republic of Germany competition. Dan blogs from time to time at www.typeoff.de.

José Mendoza y Almeida
By Martin Majoor and Sébastien Morlighem. With an introduction by Jan Middendorp, who also translated the French texts into English.
Paris: Blibliothèque Typographique, Ypsilon Éditeur (2010).
French/English. 169 pages.

Savoie, Alice, French type foundries in the twentieth century.
Smeijers, Fred, Type now: a manifesto, plus works so far. London: Hyphen Press (2003).

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