Slab Serif Type: A Century of Bold Letterforms

Slab Serif Type: A Century of
Bold Letterforms

Steven Heller, Louise Fili
Thames & Hudson, 352 pages, $34.95

Slab Serif Type: French

Somewhere exists a hellbox of ancient typefaces that have defined French graphic design at various times during its grand history, but slab serifs hold a unique status. Used for newspaper mastheads, business logos, and product packages, slab serifs’ ubiquity is connected to their Napoleonic roots. The Emperor Bonaparte did not actually design typefaces any more than he personally prepared the delicious mille-feuille pastry known as the Napoleon. However, the peripatetic French adventurer led an expedition into Egypt and subsequently commissioned the Description de l’Égypte, an ambitious multi-volume study of the country and its natural history written by scholars who accompanied the army’s campaign. Its publication prompted a popular fascination with all things Egyptian and inspired the nomenclature of a novel type genre, Egyptiennes.

Slab serifs were actually born in Britain, then exported everywhere type was used. Their beefy black forms derived from shifts in aesthetics triggered by the Industrial Revolution. Influenced by commercial demands, French type foundries such as Deberny et Peignot, Fonderie Warnery, Fonderie Typographique Gustave Mayeur and Allainguillaume & Cie. produced massive stocks of Eyptiennes, which they advertised as “for the frequent employ of black letters in ordinary texts.” Many metal fonts were sold to print shops by the kilo, used for body and headlines, while others, such as Les Italiennes Allongées, were specially cut for display. Additionally, ornamental baroque versions of slab serifs were engraved or etched to provide printers with page enhancements. These included letters with bifurcated serifs, known as Fantaisies.

Fonderie Warnery’s eclectic Egyptiennes Dentelles, so called for their serrated bodies, were not appropriate for all jobs, but were visually appealing when used judiciously. There was also a surge in hand-drawn slabs that were riddled with imperfections. The type expert Douglas C. McMurtrie wrote: “The design of square serifs had been encouraged, I believe, by the wide use which French modern typographers had been making of typewriter types … because in the square serif family tree, typewriter type is at least a legitimate second cousin.” It was the sheer diversity of the slab genre that accounted for the longevity of the style. Vive la différence!