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Type News

Adrian Frutiger 1928–2015

September 15, 2015 by
Jürgen Siebert
Jürgen Siebert

These are difficult times for the typography world. Too soon after Hermann Zapf, we lost another one of our legends. Saturday the news reached us that Adrian Frutiger, considered by many to be the most important type designer of the twentieth century, had passed away in the early morning of September 10th in Bremgarten near Bern, Switzerland. The news spread like wildfire through social media, much to the chagrin of the family who did not want to reveal his death to the public, in accordance with the explicit wish of the designer. There will be no mourning cards nor official obituary from the Frutiger family.

Adrian Frutiger in Interlaken, 2004
Adrian Frutiger in Interlaken, 2004

Adrian Frutiger’s modesty was legendary. Yet despite all their restraint Frutiger‘s heirs could not prevent thousands of type users and numerous type designers paying tribute to the giant of modern typeface design and expressing their gratitude for the influential body of work he leaves behind.

My great hero and friend, Adrian Frutiger, best type designer of the 20th century, died today. His #Univers was a revolution back in 1957

— erik spiekermann (@espiekermann) 12 Sep

RIP Adrian Frutiger, the greatest and most influential type designer of the 20th century.

— Commercial Type (@commercialtype) 12 Sep 2015

For the 2nd time this year we say goodbye to a type design legend. We have lost a giant. #RIPAdrianFrutiger

— Nadine Chahine (@arabictype) 12 Sep 2015

We are all standing on Adrian Frutiger’s shoulders. May he rest in peace.

— Paul van der Laan (@boldmonday) 12 Sep 2015

We’ve lost Adrian Frutiger. He defined contemporary type, and he defined the role of a type designer today. We’ll never forget him.

— Font Bureau (@fontbureau) 12 Sep 2015

So sad, so strange to think Adrian Frutiger has left us. His work feels like… bedrock. His letters live(d) all over the places I grew up.

— Nina Stössinger (@ninastoessinger) 12 Sep 2015

Adrian Frutiger was born on May 24, 1928 in Unterseen on the river Aare, in the canton of Berne. After training as a typesetter in Interlaken and studying at the Zurich School of Applied Arts (1949–1951), he first worked as a graphic designer at Alfred Willi Mann and Walter Käch in Zurich. A year later he joined the Paris-based Deberny & Peignot type foundry. He joined forces with André Gürtler and Bruno Pfäffli, founding his own graphic design studio in Arcueil near Paris in the summer of 1962.

The iconic visualisation of the [Univers®](/superfamilies/univers) [typeface family](/glossary#family) with its revolutionary numeric system identifying the different [styles](/glossary#style), 1954. The first digit represents the [weight](/glossary#weight), the second the [width](/glossary#width). Odd numbers define [roman](/glossary#roman) variants, even numbers [obliques](/glossary#oblique).
The iconic visualisation of the Univers® typeface family with its revolutionary numeric system identifying the different styles, 1954. The first digit represents the weight, the second the width. Odd numbers define roman variants, even numbers obliques.

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The Univers® typeface that made Adrian Frutiger world famous has its roots in exercises he made in 1949 at the early age of 21, when he was still enrolled at the School of Applied Arts. Unlike the Helvetica® typeface which started as two weights and was gradually expanded, Univers was revolutionary as it was conceived, designed and released as a fully-fledged type system of co-ordinated weights and widths. The starting point is the normal weight Univers 55, from which all other variations are derived. The expertly balanced contrast makes the fonts also suitable for body text, also thanks to the x-height that was unusually high for those times. Frutiger attached great importance to the relationship in stroke thickness between capitals and lowercase.

It took Univers 15 years to become the universally known success story, available for both metal setting and phototypesetting. The rationalist style in typography that had prevailed for 60 years lead to this cool, systematically developed family. It corresponded to the ideal of “total design”, as Dutch designers Wim Crouwel and Ben Bos christened their acclaimed design studio in 1964. Univers became somewhat akin to the national typeface of the Netherlands, while in the US and Germany the graphic designers had a preference for Helvetica.

The technological shift to photo composition inspired Adrian Frutiger. Some 30 years later he recalls in his monograph: “Working with hot metal was my first experience of the power of type to make the whole spiritual world of thought legible simply by re-arranging the same letters over and over again. This made it clear to me that optimum readability should always be foremost when developing a typeface. But then we found ourselves in an era in which type was no longer set using lead characters, but with beams of light. Transforming the typefaces of the old masters from the old to the new process was the best learning experience for me. But when it came to the grotesques, I had an idea of my own. And from that idea arose the Univers family.”

In 1997 Univers was completely redesigned by Adrian Frutiger and Linotype, expanded to 59 styles and numbered with three digits: the Linotype Univers type family. Then in 2004 the Univers Next type family was released with different styles (71 in total), an extended character set, and systematic family structure.

The prototype for the [Frutiger®](/superfamiles/frutiger) typeface – templates for the bilingual guidance system in Aéroport Charles de Gaulle, France, opened in March 1974.
The prototype for the Frutiger® typeface – templates for the bilingual guidance system in Aéroport Charles de Gaulle, France, opened in March 1974.

When the French Council of Ministers decided in 1964 to build a new airport on the sparsely populated agricultural land near the village community Roissy-en-France, the young architect Paul Andreu was entrusted with its design. He organised a series of workshops with architects, designers, psychologists and artists, including Adrian Frutiger who was commissioned to develop the signage using his popular Univers typeface that was published in 1957. But Univers’ rather geometric letter forms and their relatively small apertures were not conducive for the quick and efficient recognition of signs needed in a busy airport environment. This led Frutiger to revisit a 7 year old sans serif design called Concorde, designed in collaboration with André Gürtler for the typesetting company Sofratype. The colour psychologists devised a wayfinding system consisting of a yellow background with French directions printed in white, and English in black. Frutiger used Letraset colour foils for the presentation. He cut out the word Départ in the forceful Concorde, and pasted Departures in black below. The improved readability when compared to Univers immediately convinced everyone, and Paul Andreu was excited by the concept of ​​a bespoke ‘airport alphabet’. When the Aéroport Charles de Gaulle was inaugurated in March 1974 it immediately set a new standard for signage systems.

Still in use, the Frutiger typeface in the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris
Still in use, the Frutiger typeface in the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris

Typographers from around the world wanted the font for printed materials. Eventually D. Stempel AG and Linotype renamed the typeface as Frutiger®, and released it on the market in 1977. It quickly became a bestseller and was extended several times, most recently in 1999 by Frutiger himself. It took Adrian Frutiger two years time for the “relaunch” of Frutiger Next. All the characters were re-digitised, however their core shapes remained virtually unchanged. Only the ‘SS’ and the ampersand were overhauled, while the ‘s’ and ‘t’ received a discreet facelift. The number of weights increased from 5 to 6, and the obliques were replaced with genuine italics.

Univers and Frutiger are just two of more than 20 typeface families created by Adrian Frutiger in a time span of about 60 years. It is a testament to his immense talent that all of his designs exhibit a groundbreaking quality, both in concept and execution. His Avenir® typeface still is one of the best geometric sans serifs, the Egyptienne F™ and Glypha® typefaces are revered by lovers of the slab serif fonts, and the Vectora® typeface with its exceptionally high x-height remains unique in the class of the Anglo-grotesques.

All these typeface designs embody Adrian Frutiger’s design philosophy – in his own words “from all these experiences the most important thing I have learned is that legibility and beauty stand close together and that type design, in its restraint, should be only felt but not perceived by the reader. In the course of my professional life I have acquired knowledge and manual skill. To pass on to the next generation what I have learned and achieved became a necessity.” The quality of Frutiger’s typefaces is not found in superficial or formal criteria, but in their structural, fundamental legibility. Discovering this exceptional DNA in his designs requires a trained eye. As such, it would not be surprising if the less well known but equally exquisite typefaces of Adrian Frutiger will eventually break through in the typographic world.

In 2007 Berlin filmmaker Sebastian Rohner had an almost two-hour long interview in German with the Swiss type designer. He wrote in the explanation of Adrian Frutiger – Ein Leben “One of the greatest designers of the 20th century is completely unknown to most people. I wish to change this with this interview”. The insightful film not only shines a light on the type design icon, but also on a design discipline that could hardly be more unfamiliar yet touches every single person who reads. Another film about Adrian Frutiger, Der Mann von Schwarz und Weiss : Adrian Frutiger, was made by his grandson Christoph Frutiger and Christine Kopp. It is a lively, beautifully filmed 45-minute conversation that is also available with English subtitles.

Header image: Adrian Frutiger at home in Bremgarten © 2003 Henk Gianotten

Trademark attribution notice
Frutiger, Glypha & Vectora are trademarks of Monotype Imaging Inc. registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and may be registered in certain other jurisdictions. Univers, Avenir & Helvetica are trademarks of Monotype GmbH registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and may be registered in certain other jurisdictions. Egyptienne F is a trademark of Monotype GmbH and may be registered in certain jurisdictions.