The typecast artist

After years of neglect, the work of French type designer and adman Roger Excoffon is enjoying renewed interest. Jean Grogan reports from a conference about his work

While Roger Excoffon (1910-1983) is best known for his type design, he also has the dubious distinction of being remembered as the man responsible for the look of many of the shop signs found in small provincial towns all over France. Worse still, after decades of being seen as outmoded, some of his typefaces, Calypso, Banco and Mistral, are now used ‘ironically’.

Yet, if ever there were a creative all-rounder of genius, it was Excoffon. His career turned full circle: self-taught artist, commercial illustrator, type salesman, type designer, advertising executive, graphic designer, and finally, artist once again. Though Excoffon had no formal training in any of the métiers he practiced, he was spectacularly successful in each one.

In 2006, designers Sandra Chamaret and Julien Gineste organised an exhibition of Excoffon’s work during the summer session of the Rencontres Internationales de Lure. They subsequently collaborated on Sebastien Morlighem’s book, Roger Excoffon et la Fonderie Olive, published in 2010.

Such was the interest expressed in this Excoffon revival that Chamaret (who also lectures in typography at HEAR, the Haute Ecole des Arts du Rhin in Strasbourg) gave a conference on his work at the ECV Buffon design school in Paris at the beginning of November, as part of its Master Design Typographique programme.

Born in Marseille in 1910, Excoffon initially went to Paris to study law, but he sketched constantly and decided to abandon the subject to study art. He was rejected by the two art schools to which he applied, but he continued sketching every day, undeterred. When he was demobilised at the end of the Second World War, Excoffon was a 35 year-old father of two without a job or prospects. In the face of this, his wife’s brother-in-law, Marcel Olive, proposed that he take charge of the Paris branch of his family’s struggling type foundry, Fonderie Olive in Marseille.

Excoffon’s mission was to challenge the behemoth Deberny & Peignot with its all-pervading Peignot typeface created by Cassandre. Despite “knowing absolutely nothing” about type, Excoffon designed Chambord, as a “sub-Peignot alphabet” in 1946, expressly to break its hold on the print industry.

Thanks to aggressive promotion, Chambord became Fonderie Olive’s first nationwide success. When Excoffon visited the major print houses in Northern France as the foundry’s sales rep, he instantly grasped the real reason for Deberny & Peignot’s ascendancy – space. Printers hadn’t enough room to stock two similar typefaces. The first foundry to propose a distinctive new face to the printer would secure an order. The race was on.

Reading a trade journal, Excoffon came across an article featuring Marcel Jacno in the process of creating a new typeface for Deberny & Peignot. He studied the accompanying photograph of the typeface with the aid of a magnifying glass. Though indistinct, it was enough to form an idea of its style. Two months later, in 1951, Fonderie Olive launched Banco to resounding acclaim. There was no lower case – there wasn’t time – but the all caps face became ubiquitous. “I saw it in ads, in catalogues, on photographs of the Vietnam War, everywhere,” Excoffon recalled to François Richaudeau in 1977. “It’s the most shameful thing I ever did in my career.”

But it was with Mistral that Excoffon surpassed himself. The result of months spent analysing handwritten text, Mistral attempted to reproduce, he said, “the handwriting of the man of the20th century” and was eventually based on his own hand. As Chamaret demonstrated in her talk, ensuring that the ligatures occurred at the same points on either side of each letter, while conserving its vigorous aspect as a spontaneously handwritten script, was a technical tour-de-force.

Mistral’s condensed energy appears fresh off the pen, written fast while standing up, which is exactly how Excoffon worked – dressed in tailored suit, buttoned shirtcuffs and tie.

Antique Olive was to be Excoffon’s last typeface before he dedicated himself full-time to advertising through his agency, Urbi & Orbi. Excoffon’s key client was Air France for whom he was art director for 15 years. On May 23, 1958, he was leaving for a client lunch when he asked his assistant José Mendoza y Almeida to quickly compose ‘Air France’ in Catsilou. Mendoza got to work, finishing 45 minutes later, and Excoffon presented the logotype to the directors of Air France who accepted it on the spot. In his advertising work, Excoffon was able to revisit his first passion, painting, to produce some of the most breathtaking posters for Air France. His portfolio of clients included SNCF, the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble and Danone. His second agency, Excoffon Conseil opened in 1971 and continued to create work for Air France, but also for the French Mint, Christian Dior and Renault.

When he died in 1983 aged 72, Excoffon left a legacy of masterly typefaces, some of the most beautiful French posters and perhaps the most original Olympic Games medals ever designed. Appropriately, having resumed painting in the later stages of his life, he had a major retrospective of his art five years before his death. Not bad for a man who said of his 30-year-old self; “I was a failure, a damp squib; I had achieved nothing. I passed my time observing, drawing, painting.”

As Julien Giniste observes, Excoffon’s work disappeared off the radar for several decades, but there is something of a revival underway. Design schools in Japan, the UK and the US have expressed interest in holding this conference of his work there. Students are attracted by the fact that his work doesn’t reveal itself entirely at first glance. “There’s something very slightly out of kilter that intrigues them,” says Gineste. “His work is anarchic, but in a discrete way. We’re very happy to reignite the flame.”

Jean Grogan is a design writer and editor based in Paris. For more details on the two notable publications about Roger Excoffon, see ypsilonediteur.com and adverbum.fr. All images taken from Roger Excoffon et la Fonderie Olive by Sandra Chamaret, Julien Gineste and Sébastien Morlighem (Ypsilon éditeur), except Banco specimen from Roger Excoffon: Le Gentleman de la Typographie by David Rault (Atelier Perrousseaux éditeur). Banco image courtesy Atelier Perrousseaux éditeur.  All other images courtesy Ypsilon éditeur

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