A grotesque and modern type family called Sempione

The new family of sanserifs designed by Tipiblu is a blend of Italian flamboyance and Swiss rigour. With its two main styles, each coming in seven weights and with matching italics, it is eminently suitable for publishing and advertising.

Interview by Massimo Gonzato

Who are Tipiblu and what do they do? Is this your first typeface?

Tipiblu is a graphic design studio founded in 2014 by Andrea Amato and Aurora Biancardi. We’re based in Milan and we mainly deal with publishing and the development and design of corporate identities, often in the cultural and artistic field. We strive for a contemporary approach to the use of typography. Our passion for type springs from this and is reflected in the way we work: taking care of how typefaces work together, how they are used on the page and creating logos and special alphabets for titles.

Sempione is our first complete and fully articulated typeface. Other projects are yet to be launched.

What is the source of inspiration for Sempione?

Sempione emerged as a follow-on from a specialist thesis project at the Politecnico di Milano (“Forma. Breve storia dei caratteri lineari e il caso studio del Forma”- “Forma: A brief history of sanserifs and the case study of Forma”, supervised by Andrea Braccaloni). For that project we had digitised the typeface originally designed by Novarese under the supervision of the Milanese designer team and released by Nebiolo from 1969 [see Alessandro Colizzi, The final act at Nebiolo: the quest for a ‘universal’ typeface (1/2). Forma, editor’s note]. But our real intention was to design something new, not a revival. Forma was only the starting point.

At university we researched the history of the development of sanserif forms. We were fascinated by the way the aesthetics and/or technique of a certain period affected the design: the earliest 19th-century models of sanserifs are crude uppercase letters with tight apertures and little contrast; this is why they are called “grotesque”. Compared to the earliest grotesques, the American gothics are less uncertain in their design and a little more refined. Later, the move towards aesthetic rationalisation favours the establishment of geometric typefaces with hardly any contrast.

This, briefly, is the history that inspired Sempione Grotesk, which we published with CAST in the spring of 2018 and for which we had had initially designed variants for &, @ and about twenty upper and lower case letters.

What’s new about this release?

When we started working on the release of the Sempione Grotesk italics we soon decided to make the different origins of these variants more evident by separating them, and today Sempione is a true type family divided into two main styles: Grotesk, linked to the original 19th-century models, and Modern, which features glyphs that tend to be geometrical, typical of the faces of the 1920s, such as Paul Renner’s Futura. They both follow the thread of historical reminders and the differences are obviously linked to a few glyphs, although these are enough to produce a difference in the structure of the text. Each of these two styles – coming in seven weights, from Thin to Black – is accompanied by a different italic type: a real cursive for Grotesk, and a slanted for Modern.

What are Sempione’s main features and how does it differ from other sanserifs?

Sempione is the Italian name for the Simplon pass which connects Switzerland and Italy and the identity of the typeface picks up typographic connotations of both countries: Swiss rigour and Italian flamboyance. Sempione is a reworked mixture of ideas and historical models. These include ligatures and ornaments etc., usually associated with seriffed typefaces (such as f with a descender in Sempione Modern), and typically neo-grotesque features such as horizontally cropped terminations and letters that tend to be of equal width.

The idea of this alternation of forms for Sempione came to us from studying the marketing strategies developed by the Nebiolo foundry, which chose to produce some letters in two variants, the second of which mimicked the designs of Helvetica, the great commercial success of the time. Sempione takes its basic designs from Forma (although the proportions of many letters have been revised and the typeface is generally less tightly spaced than its model). A slight flaring of stem terminations is another feature of Sempione.

Basically, Sempione inserts rationalist forms into a 19th-century structure (the single-storey a and the vertical descender of y in Modern; the w with a broken and straight central vertical stroke in Grotesk); it revives the two-storey g that we find in both German and English grotesques and in American gothics. There are some weird or deliberately strange glyphs: we’re especially fond of the Q of Modern which resembles a distorted figure 2. From the palette of the more humanist-looking glyphs we have inherited a need to design small caps and oldstyle figures, both of which are very rare in historical and contemporary grotesques. However, the most peculiar glyphs appear in the new Sempione Grotesk Cursive and here the intention was to design ‘authentic’ cursive forms: we have a calligraphic two-storey g and letters v, w, y and z with some slightly curved strokes.

Do you have an ideal use in mind for Sempione?

Grotesque and neo-grotesque typefaces have clearly defined a graphic style; they are highly recognisable and use of them is often linked to an idea of neutrality and universality. Sempione has this heritage, but interprets it with some decisively quirky flashes, which we hope our designer colleagues appreciate for this very reason. We hope they’ll be finding new ways to mix its styles and use its OpenType features both in publishing and advertising.

How did the collaboration with CAST come about and how long did the design work take?

Sempione was rather long in the making and finally saw the light only recently and thanks to CAST. In 2009 we attended the type design course at CFP Bauer in Milan precisely because we wanted to digitise Forma, and it was there that we discussed its development with our teacher, Luciano Perondi. Once the thesis had been presented at the Politecnico, the project to design something more advanced was on hold until we saw Perondi again at Kerning 2016. In the meantime CAST had been set up, and so we were asked to enter our design in the foundry catalogue.

Were significant decisions made regarding your initial project during production?

We should emphasise that Sempione Grotesk was released in March 2018, but it took us another year and a half to complete the family. Right up until just before release we had not yet decided which would be the main letterforms and which the secondary ones. We had provided the first Sempione Grotesk OpenType features sets that allowed access to groups of letters, but judging from what we saw of how the typeface was being used, it seemed to us that they were mostly being ignored. When the italic was going to be released we chose to rationalise these sets and build on the idea of variants. And so Sempione became a family with two clearly-defined styles of sanserif alphabets: Grotesk and Modern.

What have you gained from this experience?

It was a very instructive collaboration. Designing a typeface means orchestrating many different things and often you get lost in the smallest details, forgetting to keep an eye on the whole. Throughout the pre-publication phase CAST constantly revised the work, suggesting improvements to the design and indicating corrections to be made. It was like a specialist course in type design. Also, almost at the same time as we published Sempione Grotesk, we joined the cooperative and immediately started working on specimens and posters, press ads and presentations, etc. for displaying the faces. While all this was going on – and it’s still going on – we tried to find the time to get other projects off the drawing board and into the foundry collection.