The Wolpe Collection celebrates a quiet legend of design, Berthold Wolpe

The Wolpe Collection brings together a restored set of typefaces by Berthold Wolpe – the designer behind some of the most beautiful and memorable book jackets released by British publisher Faber & Faber. Spanning striking display type, roman text faces, blackletter, and little-known designs that introduce a quirky retro sci-fi flavor, The Wolpe Collection, now revived by type designer Toshi Omagari, reinvigorates the work of a man who was quietly instrumental in the world of British visual culture.

It’s perhaps Albertus that Wolpe – a German typographer who designed an astounding 1,500 book covers for Faber & Faber – is best known for. The typeface which was designed in 1932 and commissioned by Stanley Morison, is easily recognized by its sharp, flaring serifs, which were modeled on letters chiseled in bronze.

It’s been used heavily in the world of publishing, where it found a natural home as a titling typeface, however has some more surprising uses – film director John Carpenter is a fan, and it appeared on several TV shows and BBC documentaries thanks to its majestic appearance, and perhaps because of how its robust shapes performed in low resolution environments.

The typeface also appeared on signage in London, where it was adopted to give the city a strong identity when being rebuilt post-war, in a 1950s product range by British supermarket Sainsbury’s, and on album sleeves for The Smiths, the Beach Boys and New Order. A more recent appearance includes the cover of Max Porter’s novella Grief Is The Thing With Feathers.

It was Albertus that first caught the eye of type designer Toshi Omagari - who has worked on several typeface revivals, including Neue Haas Unica and Metro Nova. Fascinated by its letter g, which had lost some of its original form in the transition to hot metal, Omagari began uncovering Wolpe’s original drawings in the Monotype Archive.

While looking for the Albertus materials, the designer also stumbled across a whole extra set of Wolpe typefaces that had been hidden away for decades – Fanfare, Pegasus, Sachsenwald and Tempest – and felt compelled to restore the entire series. Although he’d only initially planned to recreate Albertus, these new finds proved an essential part of the whole process.

“If had a problem with one typeface, the way Wolpe drew characters for other typefaces sometimes offered a solution,” says Omagari. Pouring over these original drawings was a chance for the type designer to gain a whole new appreciation for Wolpe’s approach, and the pleasing quirkiness that marks out Albertus in particular.

“His design is not very consistent at all,” he explains. “Wolpe breaks a lot of typeface design conventions.”

Working on this collection taught me that consistency is overrated.

Omagari’s updated take on Albertus restores some of the designer’s original intentions, recreating details that had to be removed at the time because of the limitations of technology. This meant returning to the flared elements that Wolpe originally had to compromise on and turn into square shapes, bringing the design much closer to his early drawings.

“Typefaces evolve, like language,” says Omagari, who has created a full character set for the typeface, and added small caps, Greek and Cyrillic. “If you want to keep Albertus relevant, you have to make it evolve. There’s quite a bit of my design in it, but it’s closer to the original as well.”

Not just Albertus, the Monotype Archive also held Wolpe’s drawings for four other designs – Fanfare, Pegasus, Sachsenwald and Tempest, all of which embody the same charming disregard for conventional design. Many of these designs had been un-digitized until now, and in Sachsenwald’s case, had only been sold in the UK a handful of times.

Fanfare has its roots in the publishing industry, first designed for Fanfare Press and used on several book covers in the UK. Its energetic, dashing letterforms also appeared on travel posters by the British Overseas Airways Corporation, which later merged with British European Airways in the 1970s to become British Airways.

“It has a sci-fi feel,” says Omagari, who has added new weights to the revived design, including a hairline. “It feels quite new, and doesn't necessarily look like it was made in the 30s or 40s, but it somehow feels retro as well. It has a slanted baseline and stems, so it has lots of movement.”

Wolpe Tempest carries a similar vintage-yet-futuristic feeling, with its bold fin-like details and exuberant personality. The typeface was originally designed with striking swashes, which Omagari has added to even more letters in the family to cover all possible combinations.

Pegasus is somewhat more sedate in flavor, created as a roman counterpart to Albertus. However although designed as a text face, it offers enough “weird shapes” to set it apart from its competitors. The E offers up a satisfyingly thick middle bar – disregarding convention, which calls for it to be the thinnest – while the bar across the H, by contrast, is more slender.

“There’s so many unusual things,” adds Omagari. “Especially the number zero, which has one-sided added contrast. It’s really charming, and makes for a nice difference.” Matthew Carter, who created his own version of Pegasus in 1980 – which itself has earned something of a secret fan base in the design industry – also advised Omagari on this version of Pegasus.

Offering up a contrast to the other four designs, Sachsenwald is a decorative blackletter design that, until now, hadn’t been made widely available. It draws on Wolpe’s experience working in a metal foundry casting church bells which would have letterforms embossed onto them. Sachsenwald dials back some of the intricacy of typical blackletter designs, opting instead for the kind of angularity that would have been easier to chisel into metal. It retains its distinctive traditional German x, however Omagari has also created an alternate, more Romanized, version.

Sachsenwald offers a sharp contrast to Wolpe’s other designs, which together have contributed an undefinable but instantly recognizable element into the world of British graphic design.

While a Wolpe typeface might not be instantly nameable, it’s sure to carry a distinctive flavor that is immediately recognizable. And for Omagari, who has spent years immersed in Wolpe’s work, his typefaces come with a simple, yet lasting, lesson.

“Working on this collection taught me that consistency is overrated,” he says.

The Wolpe Exhibition at The Type Archive, London, is open to the public until Monday 4 December and is free to visit. For opening times and more information click here.

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