All things type. Nothing fancy. Thoughts and musings by Elena Veguillas. 991 to go. Twitter. Instagram. Circular RSS

The Basque letterforms

Thursday 12 November, 2020


In April 2019 I published a series of posts in the Alphabettes Instagram feed — this is something members do regularly, a take over of the account — about the Basque letterforms. It allows us to show to a wider audience content that perhaps could go lost, and it shows the diversity that is associated with Alphabettes.

I am originally from the Basque Country and the topic of the Basque letterforms has always puzzled me, not necessarily in a positive way. I came from a medium-sized town called Getxo, where these letters are everywhere: bars, restaurants, street signs, political parties, food packaging, schools, all kind of imaginable brands use them. But why? And where do they come from? This series of seven posts was a short introduction to the topic. It allowed me to understand them better, and to separate the sign’s national feeling from the letterforms.
Next week Juan Luis Blanco will give an online lecture on the topic as part of the Type West postgraduate program (Basque lettering: letters for self-assertion). Although we are both from the Basque Country, we have very different backgrounds and our approach to the Basque letterforms is completely different. That’s one of the reasons that I am looking forward to learning from him, not just because he is a great designer and his research is always spot-on, but because diversity in opinions and approaches is what enriches the dialogue. Translating the Instagram posts to my blog is like having a vermú before his talks, just a little aperitivo. It is also a reminder to myself, that this is one of the research lines I would like to continue once my PhD about architectural lettering is done.

The posts format is the same as the original, I have slightly edited the text. The link to the original post is in the number.

1
The Basque Country, a region in the North of Spain, where the so-called ’Basque letterforms’ are ubiquitous. Are the really Basque? Where do they come from? Are they different enough to have their own category? What are they? Join me to find out. Opinions are my own.

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2
Let’s start with a little bit of history. The Basque Country is a region in the North of Spain with a strong nationalist feeling and generally governed by the national party (Basque Nationalist Party). Contemporary national signs from the Basque Country cannot be easily divorced from its violent history, but it doesn’t seem appropriate to expand this right now. I am sure there are many articles online about this aspect.

The Basque Nationalist Party was founded in 1895 and it was cause and consequence of a cultural Basque revival, that included a typographic revival.
Simultaneously to this cultural revival a French teacher, Louis Colas (1869–19??) started an epic venture: to document ancient Basque monuments and tombs, to photograph them and to classify them. The result was an encyclopaedia that included about 500 sketches made by him, and about 30 photos. A thousand copies were printed, and according to different websites, it resulted economically a disastrous. However, this book seems to be the basis of a story of cultural identity. It is his book that was used later by commercial artists to develop the grafía vasca, the Basque letter.
[Colas, Louis, La tombe basque: recueil d’inscriptions funéraires et domestiques du Pays Basque français, études, notes et références diverses. Biarritz: Grande Imprimerie Moderne, 1923]

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3
This is the first time that I’ve seen Colas’s book (a digital version), and there are a few things that I find surprising: the samples are from the French Basque Country[1] and not the official region of the Basque Country (in Spain) yet they become the basis for its identity; although the majority of the sketches show incises, there are some monolineal sans that need to be taken into consideration; despite some articles situating the origin of this style as pre-Roman the samples are mostly dated 1500s to 1800s, with some exceptions. To create the letters the stone was removed around the borders of the letters, contrary to the classic Latin or Greek inscriptions, where the letters were carved on the stone. I am definitely not an expert on this part and I hope Juanlu will inspect this in detail. This technique of carving out is what gave the letters that idiosyncratic forms.

[1] historically and culturally the Basque Country is formed by seven provinces, in Spain and France, officially there are only three, all in Spain.

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4
So what happened after Colas book? Was it Basque letterforms everywhere? What was the reaction at that time? I wasn’t aware at the time or writing this of If any research attempting to quantify its impact, so I tried something myself. Using the digital library Liburuklik, for all things Basque, I checked the 293 monographs dated 1900–1950 held at one of the online collections (Sanctuary of Loyola). I had to work hard (by clicking) to find 25 covers using Basque letterforms, of which more than 15 were periodicals. Surely, this sample is not enough to extrapolate conclusions, but it tells us that yes they were used, but not massively. The lettering used in these covers is a free interpretation of Colas’s sketches. They are fresh and exciting, they work fantastically in that medium. And the bring, even if not quite exact, a legacy with them. I also wonder what was their source. It couldn’t be all from Colas. A more recent book (Grafía vasca by Edorta Kortadi Olano, 1994) includes a bibliography of contemporaries to Colas that is worth checking.

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All images from Liburuklik online catalogue.

5
A second book that shaped both the history and the Basque letterforms was Arquitectura Popular y Grafía Vasca (popular architecture and Basque lettering*) by brothers Pablo & Jon Zabalo. Pablo was an architect and Jon (Juan, John, but also known as Txiki, small ins Basque ) was an illustrator and commercial artist. The brothers and their families were one of many who had to leave Spain during and after the Spanish civil war. While the architect brother went to Argentina, Jon, who was born in Manchester, was exiled in the UK. The book was edited and published in the exile, in Buenos Aires, with the brothers in different continents. Pablo focused on the architectural side and Jon in the lettering. His is the first proper classification and comparison of Basque letterforms. The book was published in 1947, by the publisher house Ekin in Argentina.
I might be wrong, but this is the book that created the myth, it wasn’t Colas encyclopaedic enterprise, but Zabalos’ siblings publication, in the exile, that took the tombs letterforms and made them a national sign.

Source: txikizabalo.com and eusko-ikaskuntza.eus

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6
So how all these history of Basque letterforms relates to today’s context? The photos included in this post show almost all Basque letterforms I encountered in a 15 mins walk in my hometown. Bars, restaurants, street signs, schools, one gym, bakeries… the letterforms are not restricted to any particular kind of brand or shot, although they are highly common in bar and restaurants.

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7
This rainy week visiting my parents in my hometown has come to an end, as well as this series of posts about Basque letterforms. I always considered them repetitive, boring, quasi-Frankenstein, but here I’ve tried to keep this bias to myself and they have surprised me. I hoped to separate the myth from the lettershapes to understand their past so we can improve their future. Although I have the feeling that their street presence is dwindling they are widely used in packaging, bars and restaurants (see images 1 to 8: packaging, street signs, book covers).
Because Basque letter shapes are here to stay I’d like to finish with a question: can we recover some of the fresh and fun solutions of the 30s and 40s? How can we make the Basque landscape less repetitive and break the typographic rigidity? How do let the old lettering inform contemporary type design?

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Addenda:
In the Instagram posts, I didn’t include the story behind the creation of the Basque typefaces. This has been documented and it is time to now for a proper review. Together with Zabalo’s book was the second key moment in the widespread of the Basque letterforms in every possible printing shop.
There has been a recent revival of the Basque letter shapes, Juan Luis’s typeface Harri being one of the most exciting ones, able of captivating the Basque essence while keeping its composure.

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The Basque letterforms will have to wait until my PhD is finished. In the meantime go watch the lecture Basque lettering: letters for self-assertion.