Occlusion Grotesque is an experimental typeface that grew on a tree
Bjørn Karmann is a senior experience and interaction designer based in Amsterdam who is currently designs "real and speculative futures" at oio. He is also the creator of Occlusion Grotesque aka an experimental typeface carved "into the bark of a tree."
"As the tree grows, it deforms the letters and outputs new design variations, that are captured annually. The project explores what it means to design with nature and on nature's terms" explains Karmann.
"In this project, the roles have been flipped, as nature is given agency to lead the process, and the designer is invited to let go of control and have nature take over. It starts with the designer's handover to the tree by tracing and carving an initial typeface. Conceptually this initial type design refers to the desire for control, a man-made almost mechanical sans-serif typeface in high contrast within the natural environment. The tree is now left untouched for a year, where the natural processes such as occlusion begin. A tree’s occlusion is the process whereby a wound - or in this case carvings - is progressively closed by the formation of new wood and bark."
"Returning to the tree reveals an unsupervised transformation that is unique to each letter of the alphabet. The artist now takes on an observant role and meticulously documents the letters with a camera and measurement tools. This is repeated every year with the important detail that the camera settings, lens, distance, and measurements stay consistent at every observation."
"The digitalization from the tree to a usable font invites the artist to become the design interpreter. For the most part, the letters can be traced, but occasionally due to unexpected bark behavior, edge cracking, and blurring of boundaries, the artist has to take decisions without diverting from the tree's intent" he adds.
A project made of nature; Occlusion Grotesque is a call to rethink. "One of the beautiful coincidences between the growth of a tree and type design is that growth happens sideways. This was new to me but seems obvious now. Already 3 years in, the letters were clearly showing expansion to the left and right, while the position from the ground had not changed. This is due to the misconception that trees do not grow from the ground up, but rather out from the tips. As new branches reach higher into the sky, the lower trunk grows radially from within. While this happens, the inner- and outer bark stays wrapped around the trunk performing an extraordinary expansion, thus deforming the surface. All while keeping the tree protected" notes the designer.
"In typography, as we 'grow' the typeface into bolder and heavier weights, we design each letter sideways too. Letters gain more graphical volume left and right while keeping the x-height more or less consistent. A coincidence that makes a tree the perfect candidate to design a typeface. Nature is never perfect and will never produce two of the same. Another interesting attribute that aligns with an ever-growing need to create unique designs, free from norms and human-biased conventions" he elaborates.
As noted, Occlusion Grotesque "does not follow the conventual weights, (e.g., light, medium, bold) but rather each weight represents a year of growth. Year 0 for example is referred to both the ‘regular’ weight and the beginning of the project in 2015. Year 5 was captured in 2020. For the most dramatic annual changes a younger tree was desired, but since carving in the bark can be painful and potentially kill the tree a resistant sort and age was chosen."
As for the tree of choice it was a Beech, native to the forest of Karmann's parents. "It was planted by them in 1997 in Ågård, Denmark. At year 0 only a quarter side of the tree was used to carve the letters, maintaining the tree's ability to transport essential nutrients from the leaves to the roots. It is important to note that cutting through the bark of a tree trunk in a complete circle will kill the tree. No trees were harmed in this experiment" he notes.
To celebrate the tree's design and support the project, some of the most surprising outcomes have been converted into graphical posters that you can buy here.
Download the font here.