The original Kabel® is quite an unusual design in Rudolf Koch’s portfolio of typefaces. It is dominated by blackletter faces (Deutsche Schrift, Wallau, Peter-Jessen-Schrift, Wilhelm-Klingspor-Schrift, Frühling, Maximilian), mostly rotunda- and fraktur-style, but also serif faces (mainly the Koch Antiqua family) and until 1927 Koch had not designed a sans serif. Evidence of Koch’s motivation to design a geometric sans has not yet been discovered in the Klingspor archives. All we know is based on a journal dedicated to Koch, shortly after his death, in which the author quotes the type designer: “The task of creating a typeface with compass and ruler was very tempting.” 1 We can only assume that Koch operated per procura of Karl Klingspor, then head of the Gebrüder Klingspor foundry. Just five miles away, one of their competitors, the Bauer Type Foundry in Frankfurt am Main, had released Paul Renner’s Futura® that same year—perhaps its appearance gave an impetus to the design of what was to become Kabel. Kabel is clearly a typeface of its time (many more geometric sans serifs followed in the late 1920s and early 1930s), however, its final gestalt bears Koch’s trademark without any doubt—most notably in the prominent characters a, e and g.
A look at the first Kabel type specimen (then only a light weight) issued by Klingspor in 1927 reveals a set of interesting diagrams: Construction of capital letters on a square grid. Another look quickly reveals that the letters to be traced from these grids are not the capital letters included in Klingspor’s Kabel fonts. In a way the diagrams serve as an illustration to Koch’s statement, but his letters are not actually based on strict modular rules. Instead, they follow common optical understandings of typography. “Our common forms of type all have their beginning in the Roman capitalis that is maintained in the upper case letters of the Latin printing types,”2 Koch wrote in 1930. Perhaps the diagrams were just an early study in the design process and for them to remain in the release specimen was possibly a marketing idea of Klingspor. Or to put it into the words of Walter Tracy, who wrote an extensive review on Kabel: “The diagrams are simply an attractive piece of window dressing to influence people into accepting Kabel as a rational design.” 3
A recent discovery at the Klingspor archives reveals letters that appear to have been traced from Koch’s diagrams. Unfortunately the document is neither signed nor dated, but it raises the question whether the diagrams might have been used by others—the more so in the context of Koch’s small lettering publication Das Schreibbüchlein (1930), in which the diagrams are re-published and Koch writes: “First of all the following diagrams shall serve as examples and need not be traced.” 4
To some, the lowercase letters may appear a bit odd (at least a few of them). Tracy, an English native, is particularly concerned with the awkward wideness of the w in combination with the h—their association being rather frequent in the English language. However, the characters so typical of Koch (a, e, g) are perhaps the most controversially debated. This is where the first redesign—let’s call it a face-lift–steps in: While the head of the a was cut off unusually tight near the stem in the original release, an a with a wider top appeared unannounced in later specimens. Along with the capital W (which looks like two folded Vs), Klingspor decided to change some of these idiosyncrasies and released “Neu-Kabel” in 1953, a version with light, medium and bold weights equipped with alternate letters for a, e, g et al. This decision makes sense against the background of Futura’s success (the redesigns of the letters mentioned look rather Futura-like), and yet at the same time Kabel lost much of its unique selling proposition. But let’s not forget Futura also lost a few of its originally designed geometric letterforms due to a marketing decision at Bauer. 5
Unique characteristics of the original Kabel are diagonal terminals (most notably in I, H, N) as well as chamfered horizontal strokes (in E and F), not to forget the diagonally cut off legs (in K and R). Contrary to almost all other geometric sans serifs of the time (Futura®, Erbar®, Neuzeit Grotesk, et al.) these features equip Kabel with a certain liveliness, unusual for a geometric sans. In the bold version, however, Kabel loses some of these features: All the vertical stroke endings become squared off again, several letters even undergo heavy transitions in shape (A, M, R, S and W). What’s more, the bold weight has a significant increase in x-height. These inconsistencies leave room for niggles, but they are also somewhat charming.
To the generation of German type designers such as Gudrun Zapf-von Hesse and her husband Hermann Zapf their admiration of Koch and his work led to their autodidactic studying of his letter shapes—mainly blackletter and serif faces, Kabel, however, was not on their radar. 6 Like many of its geometric contemporaries (some of them were perceived as a visual expression of the Avantgarde movement), Kabel vanished in the 1930s.
During air raids in the Frankfurt area in 1944 the Klingspor Type Foundry was heavily damaged, losing much of what could have been discovered in archives today. Another Frankfurt-based type foundry, the D. Stempel AG, which already owned shares of Klingspor, eventually acquired most of the typefaces in 1956 and thus received the rights to Kabel. Through Stempel’s connection to Linotype®, Kabel was made available to a new technology: phototype.
One of the major drawbacks of phototype for foundries was the ability to make unlicensed copies of fonts so very easily. A typeface that became a great victim of this act of piracy was Kabel. 7 “Cable”, “Kabell” or “Kabello” from various phototypesetting companies are some of the results. Kabell Bold, a version from Phil Martin’s Alphabet Innovations Collection (AI), released in 1972, was promoted as “similar to Kabel Bold with ‘x-height’ enlarged for readability”. 8 Kabell was not only “similar”, it was in fact a rip-off, not for the better. Kabel’s characteristic diamond dots were changed to square ones and AI added somewhat flamboyant, not to say useless ligatures (in terms of legibility): ra, fa, rf, rt, ta. Nevertheless, it anticipated a key feature of Kabel’s most iconic phototype revival.
Under a special license from Stempel, Victor Caruso redesigned Kabel for the International Typeface Corporation, released in 1975. In one of the first specimens, the introduction reads: “ITC redesigned the original typeface as Rudolph Koch might have chosen to create his Kabel letterforms if the technology of film and phototypesetting had existed in his era.” 9 Besides spotting an Americanised version of Koch’s name, we will never know what he might have done with film stats at hand. In fact, an eminent change to the typeface is rooted and revealed in another policy: “It was possible not only to retain the original character of Kabel but to create a much larger face, fuller in body and more in keeping with the large lower case ‘x’ height style that is so popular today.” 10 How could the original character be retained with a change that has such a heavy impact on the overall proportions of the letterforms? Changing the x-height to such an extent was a strong intervention and with it the original spirit of Kabel vanished. Especially in the bold weights the typeface appears restless. Of course, ITC Kabel® is also a typeface of its era, so when we judge it we need to place it into context of preferences in graphic design and advertising of the 1970s in the United States. However, today it appears to have fallen a bit out of time.
In the late 1980s both prominent versions of Kabel stepped into the digital age. Linotype-Hell AG, who took over Stempel in 1985, now owned the trademark “Kabel”. In a typeface handbook of their new collection both Linotype Kabel and ITC Kabel were offered on separate pages, available as laser and CRT fonts. In recent years one has mostly seen ITC’s version of the two in use, almost always in a display context, not in book typography.
When students of the HfG Offenbach (Offenbach University of Art and Design) designed the school’s yearbook in 2013, a decision was made to select a typeface related to the school’s rich history. The answer was Kabel, as Koch had designed the face while teaching at the predecessor art school of HfG Offenbach. The students quickly noticed that they would be unable to use either the Linotype version of Kabel or that of ITC. None of the two digital fonts suited their needs—most significantly because both lacked corresponding italic fonts in any of the weights. Long story short, it was Marc Schütz—who taught type design in Offenbach—heard about the project and offered to design two weights of Kabel: one that matched book typography for long reads and an appropriate italic. He only drew the characters that were needed for the publication.
When redrawing and extending a typeface that is derived from historical models, it is necessary to explore the past and present of type design. Koch had drawn italic weights for Kabel so why were they never maintained for phototype? Schütz went back to the archives of the Klingspor Museum in Offenbach and searched for more weights that had been overlooked in the transition of technologies. He was surprised to find the original in fresher condition than the available digital versions. Redesigning a historical typeface is accompanied by decisions to bring back coordination into the system of weights, to restore missing characters and to add long-awaited features such as small caps or old style figures. In a recent piece on The why and how of reviving a typeface my colleague Toshi Omagari rightfully claims: “Newer technology means that inconsistencies brought about by limitations in older type production methods can be fixed without losing any of a typeface’s idiosyncrasies.” 11 The art of a revival is to preserve historic shapes and at the same time lending the face a contemporary feel with today’s tools.
Early on Schütz recognized the disproportions in ITC Kabel in comparison to Koch’s original design, but he nevertheless studied Caruso’s shapes to understand what approach he had taken. Schütz also appreciates Caruso’s full dedication in building an equally consistent set of weights—something that was important to him in Neue Kabel®.
Just as much as Koch is present in each letter of the original Kabel, Caruso left a mark on his version. In fact, Koch expressed his own view on this relationship: “Because my share in letterforms usually leads to very personal expressions, I do hope to be free of myself for once. The people tend to say I am searching for personal expression, but that is not at all true; on the contrary, I avoid it as much as I can, but I am not succeeding.” 12 Omagari says: “Personality is not something you try to express, it’s something you can’t suppress.” 13 When I asked Schütz what is typical of him in Neue Kabel in an interview recently, he responded quick-wittedly: “Everything that’s different from the original is my influence.”
Schütz built a coherent system of weights ranging from thin to black, each with respective italics (that have been long-awaited) and small caps (that never existed before). In the metal type days there were usually several master drawings for each range of sizes—within these ranges the ratio between cap height and x-height would slightly vary. Schütz studied them all and discovered a relation that sits clearly below that of ITC Kabel, but also slightly above that of the original Kabel for better legibility. He extended the glyph palette, equipping Neue Kabel with accents and special characters for multiple languages. Neue Kabel has seven figure sets, among them tabular and most importantly old style for longer text. Schütz proudly announces: “Neue Kabel has everything you need to typeset an encyclopedia. I like the idea that someone can set a Ph.D. thesis with it.”
The dots in Schütz’s redesign are round, but they can easily be changed to the original diamond shapes: Perhaps the most powerful feature of the Neue Kabel is the range of Stylistic Sets supplied for each of the weights. It contains all of the historical alternatives of the original Klingspor Kabel as well as Neu-Kabel (a, g, W) that can quickly bring Neue Kabel back to 1927 or 1953. What’s more, he drew alternatives for l and t. All of these allow for a lot of flexibility in editorial design and branding applications.
The design of Rudolf Koch is truly iconic, but its digital heir never took on all of its inheritance. Victor Caruso’s ITC Kabel worked well and perfectly fits into its time, but it does not meet today’s standards. Marc Schütz found the right mix of handling the past and finding a new visual expression that fulfills our typographic needs, perceptive habits and expectations of a typeface called “Kabel” today.
1. Julius Rodenberger: Der Schriftkünstler Rudolf Koch, in: Graphische Nachrichten, vol. 13, no. 6, Berlin 1934, p. 272
2. Rudolf Koch: Das Schreibbüchlein. Eine Anleitung zum Schreiben, Kassel 1930, p. 1
3. Walter Tracy: Letters of credit. A view of type design, London 1986, p. 170
4. Koch, 1930, p. 2 ff.
5. Christopher Burke: Paul Renner. The art of typography, New York 1998, p. 100 ff.
6. From a conversation with Gudrun Zapf-von Hesse in Darmstadt, 27 Sept. 2016
7. Kabel had already been a subject to copying in the metal type days. Such an example is Sol Hess’ typeface simply called Sans Serif, released with Monotype in the 1930s of which Stephen Coles found a specimen in: Mac McGrew: American metal typefaces of the twentieth century, New Castle/Delaware 1993
8. Alphabet Innovations Collection, vol. 7, Dallas 1972, p. 6 f.
9. International Typeface Corporation: ITC Kabel (specimen), 1976, p. 1
11. Toshi Omagari: New from old. The why and how of reviving a typeface, on: monotype.com/blog/articles [last opened: 27 Sept. 2015]
12. Rodenberger, 1934, p. 272
13. Omagari, 2015
Thanks to Erik Spiekermann and Thomas Maier for sharing specimens and giving helpful insights. Special thanks to Norman Posselt for joining me on the Kabel journey to Offenbach am Main.
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Trademark attribution notice Kabel is a trademark of Monotype Imaging Inc. registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and may be registered in certain other jurisdictions. ITC Kabel is a trademark of Monotype Imaging Inc. registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and may be registered in certain other jurisdictions. Futura is a registered Trademark of Bauer Types. Erbar is a registered Trademark of Bauer Types. Linotype is a trademark of Monotype GmbH registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and may be registered in certain other jurisdictions. All other trademarks and copyrights are the property of their respective owners.