Fulmar: practical and prettier than a Scotch Roman

Scotland born & based, farsighted designer Leo Philp introduces Fulmar, his brand new book face for CAST Foundry — the Scotch Roman which ‘might wear a hat, but never indoors’. Named after a North Sea seabird, Fulmar claims connections with Alexander Wilson and the foundry of Miller & Richard and draws inspiration from the Romain du Roi. With its practical beauty, it comes in five weights, ten styles, small caps, number sets and a couple of quirks you will fiddle about with

Interview by Massimo Gonzato

Leo Philp is a type designer who lives in Scotland. After realising that working as a graphic designer entailed replying to too many emails, he studied type design in Reading. He now works independently and with others. Fulmar is not his first typeface, but it is his first release.

Could you give us a short definition of Fulmar and also describe its main design details?

It’s a serif typeface meant for reading. It’s crisp and while some of its flavour and design details come from ‘rational’ type designs, it isn’t cold. Sharp joints are balanced by relaxed apertures, machined modulation by the warmth of slightly inked serifs and gently concave stems. There’s a bit of sparkle. It might wear a hat, but never indoors.



SOMETHING WITH AN ENLIGHTENMENT SPIRIT 

How did you start designing it?

I was asked to recommend a typeface for a company in Edinburgh’s New Town. The New Town is an 18th century extension to the city, built when the prosperous classes wanted to escape the medieval city centre and reimagine Edinburgh as modern, enlightened and rational. For the city and type, this period is a lot of fun. You can see some of that in James Craig’s plan for the development, drawn in 1768. The austere geometry of the proposal, all mathematical proportions and carefully demarcated sites, rides up against a classical frame, an orchestra of lettering styles and the winged babies disporting themselves around the corners.

James Craig, Plan of the New Streets and Squares intended for the city of Edinburgh, 1768

A decade or two later and I think the plans would have been more severely presented, reflecting the neoclassical architecture and the trend towards discarding rococo bumf. This is the period where blacker ink, harder steel, smoother paper began to unlock the highly contrasted moderns that dominated the 19th century. Looking at the letters of the period, in specimens and books, on monuments and buildings, made me want to draw something that had an Enlightenment spirit. When Riccardo Olocco asked if I’d been working on anything, I saw an excuse to start.



THE MANICULES ARE UNICORNS 

How many weights, styles and tricks is Fulmar equipped with? How much time did Fulmar take to be produced and then to be released by CAST? Could you tell us how you worked with the Foundry?

Working with CAST was a useful corrective. When I’m working on self-initiated projects I can be as slow and as secretive as an oyster. Having other folk to crack the whip, prompt me to think through some of my ideas and to see things clearly when my eyes were full was invaluable.

And Fulmar is neat. Five weights, ten styles, small caps, number sets and a couple of quirks, like the Unicorn manicules and the six pilcrows. It’s not a superfamily and it’s not really meant to be. There’s a variable font version for those who want to finesse weights for particular contexts, but I’m wary of superfamilies because to pick a typeface is to pick a series of choices. Good superfamilies make those choices meaningful.

As a matter of philosophy, there are no ligatures and the manicules are unicorns for the entirely sensible reason that they’re Scotland’s national animal. It was inevitable. I’m not sure what serious typographic purpose Fulmar’s range of pilcrows might serve, neither is anyone I have asked, but for those who are…



A SORT OF UNPRETENTIOUS BEAUTY

Fulmar: where does this name come from?

From a seabird. There are typefaces which have names right from the start, the name holds some identity or association that reminds you of where the typeface wants to go. Fulmar wasn’t one of these, but after some faffing around I settled on Fulmar to try and speak to my intentions. Fulmar aren’t fancy. They aren’t stunt birds. In flight they’re quite stiff-winged but they have a sort of unpretentious, practical beauty to them and they are seabirds. In England there seems to be a tedious habit of viewing the sea as a wall, but the sea has always been a highway for trade and communication and many of Fulmar’s influences are linked by the North Sea. Northern Fulmar stick to colder waters but their range connects the countries around the North and Baltic seas to Iceland, Greenland, Canada and Japan. I think those are nice things to think about when drawing or choosing a typeface.

Practical and prettier than seagulls… What about the identity of Fulmar?

I talk about Fulmar being more European than American, but I think I can only explain that badly. Fulmar’s a Scotch typeface, so it associates with a whole group of typefaces that have Richard Austin’s types for the foundries of Alexander Wilson and Miller & Richard, cut in the late 1700s and early 1800s, in common. Austin, Miller, Richard and Wilson may not have seen their types as a genre, but when it came to marketing them, their revivals and interpretations at the turn of the 20th century, American foundries used the word Scotch, did brisk business and the name stuck.



SCOTCH, THE NAME STUCK

I think the relative popularity of Scotches in the US is why many of them, particularly the newsy ones, feel American to me. In one of his definitions, Italo Calvino wrote about how classics are those books that ‘come to us bearing the aura of previous interpretations, and trailing behind them the traces they have left in the culture or cultures through which they have passed.’ That applies to type, too, and I found I had a clearer sense of what I wanted to draw when I looked at French, Belgian and Italian types. Thinking about how I might apply their logic and attitude to a Scotch design gave me a puzzle to solve and opened up imaginative space. At one point I joked about uchronia — speculative fiction where history is rearranged and re-examined — Fulmar as a Scotch typeface if Scotland was a part of mainland Europe. (Which it is!)

Could you explain what you mean with Scotch typeface? Are there any historical models you refer to?

I looked at a few historical models. Early on, that was to my detriment: terrible photographs of Miller & Richard’s 1814 and 1839 specimens in the Scottish National Library lead to initial drawings that looked anachronistic whatever their context. Thinking through my ideas and looking at other things helped shake me out of that. I think it’s traditional for anyone talking about drawing a Modern typeface to talk about two things. The first is encountering a book — it has to be a book, type specimens are too short — printed in a Didot or Bodoni typeface from 18-something-something and realising how widely used and how readable those typefaces can be. I didn’t do that. It was seeing something set in a Rosart that made me more confident about drawing Fulmar more sharply.

William Miller & Co, New English No. 2, 1814



BIGNON APPROACH AND ALEXANDER WILSON TYPES

The second is a ramble about the Romain du Roi. Here’s mine: when I was studying graphic design I was led to imagine transitional types as being something like interpolations between old style and modern typefaces. Referring to them as ‘transitional’ suggests thinking of them in such a way, but letters like the Romain Du Roi’s don’t sit neatly in that mistaken mental model. The Bignon commission’s ruler and compass approach to rationalisation resulted in letters with a vertical axis and a clumsy finesse; both qualities easy to see in letters that followed; but it also led to mechanically constructed letterforms with a very un-calligraphic approach to modulation. The Romain du Roi predates ‘Scotch’ typefaces by a century or so, but in its plates I saw another way to imagine them: other directions to transition in.

Bignon Commission, Roman du Roi, 1692

I have to mention Wilson and not only because he is one of very few Scottish typefounders and the only one I know of from the same part of Scotland as me: Fife. I think the influence of some of his types, or interpretations of his types, show through in Fulmar’s relaxed apertures, the way the g sits and the skeletons of some of the italic letters. Mardersteig’s Fontana’s based on a type from Wilson’s 1760 specimen and it is one of the reasons that Fulmar’s italic caps aren’t simply slanted and corrected versions of the Roman’s. Horizontal serifs aren’t slanted in the italics, and most of the top right vertical serifs aren’t slanted as much as they normally would be. Both details add a slight tension I quite like.

Giovanni Mardersteig, Fontana Specimen, 1936

Scotland seems to be an important issue to understand Fulmar’s sources of
inspiration …

Maybe so. I don’t think I would have drawn Fulmar if there hadn’t been a weird moment where someone in Reading mentioned Scotch typefaces and I realised that I knew nothing about a genre of typefaces that take their name from where I am from. Scotland’s where I work and vantage points shape perspectives, but I felt I made the most progress when I was looking and thinking outward.