Aldo Novarese: the Italian type design maestro you didn't know -until now
In the event of Kickstarter’s well received and successfully funded campaign for the reissue of a typographic masterpiece aka Aldo Novarese’s Alfa-Beta book, literally a tribute to one of Italy’s most prominent type designers launched on the centenary of his birthday, Typeroom caught up with the family and team behind an iconic project.
In the following interview Matilde Argentero, one of the four Aldo Novarese’s granddaughters and a member of the project along with the design studio Archivio Tipografico speak of the overall work and design ethos of a figure that shaped the contemporary visual language. Novarese’s oeuvre was mostly unknown to most present-day typographic enthusiasts outside of Italy but the initiative to republish Alfa-Beta is about to restore his global reputation and change the course of typographic knowledge with beauty and type unfolding.
“Aldo Novarese is one of the often-overlooked maestros of 20th-century type design” wrote design historian Paul Shaw of the man who offered a variety of typefaces one should adore.
“His work veers from the sublime (Nova Augustea) to the goofy (Estro); from the ingenious (Stop) to the clumsy (Ritmo); and from the swoonily romantic (Fontanesi) to the severely utilitarian (Eurostile). Novarese is a designer one can simultaneously love and hate, but he cannot (and should not) be ignored” notes Shaw. But now it's about time to let the people of the project unveil the story of Italy’s typographic maestro in the interview below. A tribute to Aldo Novarese’s legacy follows.
Typeroom: What is the project all about?
Matilde Argentero: This project is about the reissue of one of my grandfather’s books: Alfa-Beta, published in two editions, first in 1964 and then in 1983 in a cheaper soft-cover edition for didactic purposes. We are currently working on the digitization of the films used for the second edition, matching simultaneously the fine details of the first edition like paper stock, binding and colors. The whole project is supported by a crowd-funding campaign which has been launched on the exact day of the centenary of Aldo’s birth, the 29th of June, 2020.
TR: How did you come up with the idea of releasing this book at this period of time?
MA: The project arose from the deep passion for letterforms and typography underlying our quest for inspiring books we often fall in love with. Type-crazed designer Lorenzo Bolzoni had his eye on Aldo Novarese’s Alfa-Beta, but had a hard time finding it. When he finally got his hands on a copy, the joy he felt sparked the idea of a reissue. He decided to reach out to Aldo’s heirs and, with help from Tipoteca Italiana—a museum in northeastern Italy that houses most of Novarese’s surviving work— got in touch with me, as one of Aldo Novarese’s granddaughters and designer. Serendipitously, I had recently begun rediscovering my grandfather’s work during visits to Archivio Tipografico, so was enthusiastic about the idea. I intuitively knew Archivio Tipografico’s team would be eager to dive in. Upon the forming of the team we all agreed that reissuing one of Aldo’s books was the perfect way to celebrate my grandfather’s centenary and we do believe Alfa-Beta is the book that best represents his figure.
TR: How would you describe Aldo Novarese in terms of personality?
MA: He was definitely a great worker, always having on-going projects, both in his professional and personal life. He surely was moved by a deep focus on reaching his goals and was absolutely prolific, always chasing for excellence in his doing.
Alongside his font designer activity to which he dedicated his lifelong career, he loved to paint and take pictures in his free time. He was clearly very creative, thoughtful and sensitive: he loved spending time on his own and taking shelter in art, where his emotions could be translated into a graphic language anyone could understand. He was a brilliant and smart alec man, especially when in good company. Rules were fundamental for him and would hardly tolerate those who didn’t respect them.
TR: How would you define his legacy in five words or less?
MA: I would use one of his most famous quotes: “Meglio essere criticati che ignorati” aka “Better to be criticised than ignored” in English?
TR: How long have you been working on this project?
MA: The first official meeting took place in October, during the 2019 edition of Torino Graphic Days. Since then Alfa-Beta has been one of our daily thoughts and all the energy we have dedicated to this project is coming back through the support people are giving us, which will allow Alfa-Beta to be printed again!
TR: Being a granddaughter of Novarese what is the most vivid memory you have of yourgrandfather? What is the most valuable advice he ever gave you if any?
MA: My personal memories about my grandfather are filtered by my seven-year-old personality. This is how old I was when he passed away. I clearly remember him as a handsome man, very elegant in his look and in his attitude. His home in Turin had a room designated as a personal study, where he kept colors, paper, paints and everything that would fulfill his creativity.
This room had a magic aura around and I could step into it only a few times, but I recall these visits as a dream coming true. The smell of paint in the air made me feel that I was entering a magic space, where almost anything thinkable was made possible by a wise man and his skillful hands.
Even though I cannot recall any of the words he told me in these occasions, from this experience I have learned to save a sacred space both in my mind and in my house for letting my creativity express using any available means. I guess this is freedom to me.
TR: The world's visual language is dominated by Anglo-American influences. Yet there are many European type designers who pushed the craftsmanship of typography forward. What do you consider as Novarese's most valuable contribution to typography and the visual language as we know it?
Archivio Tipografico: It depends on which moment you are analysing. If you consider the 20th-century we would not say that is completely dominated by Anglo-American, especially if you consider how much Germany and Switzerland contributed to the definition of a global typographic language, with central figures such Paul Renner, Hermann Zapf, Max Miedinger, Jan Tschichold, Adrian Frutiger and many others. But surely Italy is largely overlooked, and we like defining Novarese as a key figure because it is the central node from which is probably easiest to start deepening the interest towards Italian typography. Many of the typefaces he designed started during his first collaborations with his teacher and many others were developed also thanks to his collaborators and apprentices. This is not something specific to Aldo, but we guess it is a quite common costume to every team adopted for the development of such complex and long projects.
Eurostile, for example, is a typeface that truly shaped our visual landscape. It can be seen on every possible media, from logotypes of big companies – to boxes in hardware stores – to Hollywood movies… truly everywhere. And it is the result of his development of an only uppercase typeface called “Microgramma”, designed by his teacher and mentor Alessandro Butti when Aldo was a young apprentice in the Nebiolo art studio, with the purpose of designing a typeface specific for small sizes. Novarese’s strength was to take this technical typeface, adding a lowercase (completely useless if the typeface is used in extremely small sizes, as the previous version was meant to be) and creating a visual storytelling around its rectangular and rigid shapes, comparing that stylistic choice to modern architecture.
TR: Which is your favorite Novarese typeface of all?
AT: We are actually more intrigued by his ability of having spanned through every possible typographic style, than appreciating a specific typeface he designed. But if we had to decide, we would probably pick “Stop” because it is (probably) based on a historical source and at the same time it is such a forward-looking typeface, considering it was designed in 1971. It became so iconic that it is impossible not to appreciate its visual power and the vision of Novarese behind it.
TR: What do you consider Novarese’s design ethos? Which were his principles that he followed throughout his lifetime?
AT: His typefaces demonstrate a great ability in execution and a solid knowledge in typographic rules, from which we can easily understand he was considering type design as a discipline more than an expressive art. On this topic it is interesting to talk about when he collaborated with a consultancy team established by Nebiolo Foundry for the development of a new sans serif typeface, featuring big names like Grignani, Tovaglia, Iliprandi and even Munari. During these meetings he had a hard time trying to explain to graphic designers that in order to design an enjoyable type, geometrical rules must be followed, but not blindly, because each typeface must express a certain aesthetic taste.
TR: Novarese's sophisticated approach to design has been overlooked for decades. Why is that?
AT: The two approaches explained before, combined together, brought him to a quite vernacular portfolio, in a time where Helvetica and Univers were imposing their neutral aesthetic in a modernist landscape. We are only recently rediscovering the beauty of tasty and vernacular typefaces. Another similar figure is the one of Joseph Churchward for example, whom talent has been greatly overlooked and was rediscovered only recently.
TR: Italian graphic and typographic design scene is quite inspiring. Are there other Italian type and graphic designers you admire?
AT: Considering the 20th-century there are many interesting figures to be studied in the Italian scenario. Many of them are already pretty well known, like Vignelli (and Unimark), Fronzoni, Grignani, etc. But our main focus goes on less known typographers like Alessandro Butti, the teacher of Novarese and previous art director of Nebiolo; Giulio da Milano is another great type designer (and an amazing painter!) who deserves to be deeply studied; Pino Tovaglia, a skilled graphic designer who collaborated with Novarese for many years and with an incredible taste for shapes is also an admiring case of talent.
TR: In which ways Nebiolo and Progresso Grafico contributed to Italy's typographic legacy?
AT: We have to consider that at the beginning of 20th-century all Italian foundries were casting types acquiring matrices designed by foreign foundries, or even blandly copying them. Thanks to the vision of Raffaello Bertieri, Nebiolo decided to establish an in-house design studio and finally started shaping an Italian visual language for contemporary typography.
This step had incredible long-term repercussion on the Italian graphic design scene and we are truly thankful for that. Progresso Grafico was another great contributor to this path, but less known since they were working on an only Italian scale. Alfa-Beta is probably the most relevant book they published, but there are other very interesting titles they worked on. They also run the magazine “Graphicus” for more than hundred years, and largely helped in the diffusion of graphic design and print making culture in Italy.
TR: Which is the most intriguing and difficult aspect of Alfa-Beta's reissue?
MA: The most challenging part, so far, has been the reproduction of the book in a digital form. This process involved cleaning by hand each and every acetate film used to create the offset printing plates of the 1983 edition and scanning it to obtain an extremely high-resolution file—2400 dpi—in order to capture maximum detail. Of course, such high-quality scans also revealed every imperfection due to dust or decay. We removed these minor flaws primarily by using the scanner’s UV filter, and secondarily through minor digital retouching. This part of the process has required an immense amount of time and effort, but this once-in-a-lifetime project calls for no less, and we know our commitment will clearly show in the quality of the final print.
This precious material has been found by Piergiuseppe Molinar and donated to our cause by the Polytechnic of Turin, who now owns Progetto Grafico’s projects copyright. Thanks to this finding we were able to avoid the daunting alternative: disassembling a copy of the original book to scan its pages, which would in turn require additional adjustments for the paper’s texture, color, and other challenging elements.
Having all the book’s elements in a digital form allowed us to preserve the original three-color separation, giving us full control during the printing process.
TR: A century since he was born, Novarese seems relevant today. Why is that?
MA: Today an enormous number of fonts is available for free and this can be helpful and confusing at the same time. We tend to think that graphical composition has no rules, apart from aesthetic fulfilment, but that is misleading and deeply untrue to me. There are plenty of optical fundamentals behind the best fruition of an aesthetic product that whoever works with graphics and design should be aware of. Experimentation and innovation can only come from knowing the theory and consciously stretching its boundaries.
What I have experimented in many fields of research is that the more information and products are easily accessible for free and to everyone, the more researchers feel the yearning of drawing knowledge from a respected source, in order to give solid roots to their work. I believe Alfa-Beta can still be considered a credited manual where the fundamentals of type design are clearly explained by a person who knew its theory so well that he could shape it in hundreds of different alphabets characterized by such different looks. Between other great type designers, Aldo Novarese is being rediscovered today mostly thanks to his prolific and diversified work, which is still very inspiring for the development of contemporary projects.
TR: Why did you choose to revive Nova Augustea and not another typeface designed by Novarese?
AT: Mainly because it was used on both the dust jacket and cover of Alfa-Beta, which became pretty iconic, and also because it was released in 1964, the same exact year of the first issue of Alfa-Beta. We can then imagine that in the same period when Novarese was writing the texts for the book, he was also working on the design of Nova Augustea. The typeface was initially called Augustea and designed by his mentor Alessandro Butti, and then reinterpreted by Novarese when he was appointed as art director of the Nebiolo Art Studio.
TR: How did Archivio Tipografico and its in-house graphic and type design studio, Studio 23.56, get involved with the project?
MA: As soon as Lorenzo Bolzoni proposed me his idea of reissuing one of my grandfather’s books I felt that Archivio Tipografico would be enthusiastic to join as well. In this space my grandfather is very well known and deeply studied, alongside with each and every international type designer and foundry. AT is being a fundamental partner for the development of this project, because of the specific know-how on the subject, that I am personally lacking.
TR: Would you consider this project a reconnection with your family's roots?
MA: I will never be thankful enough to Lorenzo for sending me that one first e-mail with the initial idea for this project. His suggestion triggered a fundamental research process that I and my family have undertaken with enthusiasm and will definitely carry on beyond the reissue process.
TR: Which were Novarese’s tastes in arts? Which were his vices?
Matilde Argentero with the support of her mother, Federica: Aldo loved classical art, renaissance and French impressionism. In the meantime, he was very critical on contemporary art. Musically speaking he would listen to classical music, from Beethoven, to Bach, to Mozart. If his second daughter Federica would have been a male, Aldo would have named her Wolfgang, definitely a very unusual name for an Italian kid in the 1960’s.
As for the vices, he never had any apart from smoking his pipe from time to time, appreciating good wine when in good company and attracting women with his sensitive charm.
TR: What is the ideal music to accompany the reading of Alfa-Beta?
MA: The historical excursus through human writing systems allows very different music styles to accompany at best all typographical illustrations of this very visual manual. Our attempt is, though, to give a new life to Alfa-Beta, so I would suggest our readers to make a selection of experimental music and then check how such contemporary vibes influence the fruition of this book.
Back the project and be a part of Aldo Novarese’s legacy here.