The independent Swiss type foundry Grilli Type was established by Noël Leu and Thierry Blancpain in 2009, and celebrated their 10th birthday just last week. Over the past decade this small, but very dedicated team has made some serious splashes on the typographic scene, establishing themselves with clean and balanced designs – not to mention the stunning mini-websites they use to promote new releases like GT America or GT Cinetype.
Driven by our desire to introduce sophisticated and contemporary typography to the Bulgarian crowd, earlier this year we collaborated with MELBA in a bid to invite Grilli Type as guest-speakers at the second annual Melba Design Festival. Eventually our efforts paid off, and on a sunny weekend this November we witnessed Noël Leu and lead designer Reto Moser share their thoughts on the creative process, 20th century Estonian typography, and even a Polaroid snap from Disneyland Tokyo.
Even though the pair only had a few days in town, we applied our irresistible charm and invited them to our offices on the evening before their festival presentation. After a heated game of table football and lots of typographic chit-chat, we sat down for a quick, but insightful talk with Noël and Reto. Scroll down below for more on their distribution strategy, the future of type design, and Grilli Type’s constant search for inspiration.
First off, we’d like to welcome you to Bulgaria on your first visit here. How would you describe yourselves to our readers who might not be familiar with the studio and your work?
GT: Grilli Type is an independent Swiss type foundry based in Lucerne. It was founded by Noël Leu and Thierry Blancpain in late 2009, and since then we’ve been lucky to be joined by Reto Moser, Lind Haugaard, and Tobias Rechsteiner.
We offer original retail and custom typefaces, and often collaborate with other designers, artists, and developers like Josh Schaub, Pieter Pelgrims, Refurnished+, XXIX, and David Elsener.
What would you say is the purpose of typography?
GT: It gives words shape and makes written language legible. It’s therefore one of the main pillars in communication and knowledge as a whole.
How do you define good design, and what makes Swiss design so special?
GT: Good design doesn’t position itself as more important than the content.
Where is Grilli Type currently located? How do you go about organizing the work process, and do you find remote work difficult? What kind of daily challenges do you face when it comes to it?
GT: We are located in Lucerne, Switzerland. All team members work remotely though, which together with the different time zones and a shifting work day makes for a serious challenge.
What do you turn to for inspiration when creating a new font? Do you look at a particular historical period, or are specific forms more crucial when it comes to the creative process?
GT: We all have different approaches when it comes to creating a new font. It often grows out of a graphic design project, but can also be inspired by travel and interacting with other cultures, or an antique bookshop find even. Historical references often play an important role in the development process as well.
Developing a font from scratch can take a long time, and typographers are notorious for their attention to detail. How do you know when a project is finished and ready for distribution?
GT: We try to keep a pretty clear release schedule for upcoming projects, setting the time frame for the designers beforehand. Projects tend to float around for some time before they get scheduled for release, and by then they’ve already grown substantially. The final stretch is always stressful though.
Do you remember the first time you saw your font in use? What was the experience like?
R: Unfortunately I don’t remember the first time I came across one of my fonts in use, besides my own practice. But I can vividly recall seeing GT Eesti being used in the first restaurant we visited while on a workshop in Tallinn, Estonia. It felt very flattering.
Seeing your font applied in a brilliant manner is always a great feeling, but have you had the opposite happen? In the same line of thought, do you prefer working on retail products or custom jobs?
R: Because of the specifics of type as a product, one can’t really control the application and manner of use. Of course not everything appeals to us, but we’ve come to terms with this fact. Personally I prefer to work on retail products, as there’s much more freedom involved.
Do you explore typography in your everyday lives? For example, have you spent an embarrassing amount of time in a department store, looking at the character of the font terminals used to describe the energy values in fresh milk?
R: I like to visit second hand bookshops every week to find nice examples of typesetting, but of course, I can’t pass any poster or look into any book without having to take a closer look at the typeface.
What are your thoughts on Bulgarian Cyrillic? Are you familiar with our typographic heritage and the local type scene in general?
R: I really like the Bulgarian Cyrillics, as they bring a bit more color and playfulness into an otherwise very static letter system. I’m not hugely familiar with the typographic heritage or the local type scene, to be honest, but it was great getting to know all the people at Fontfabric while in Sofia!
What is your approach to projects involving non-Latin scripts? Do you rely on outside assistance or advice?
GT: We like to do as much as we can ourselves, with the help of consultants here and there. Insights from native speakers or people with a distinct knowledge of certain scripts are vital, and also very educational.
What will the industry look like in 10 years from now? Do you think the role of type designers will change significantly in the coming decades?
GT: It’s hard to say where things could go from here. Ten years is a long stretch in this day and age. Type as a means of communication won’t lose its significance, but in a more globalized world the requirements for it are constantly changing, and need to be adapted.
What were your impressions from the Melba festival? Did you get a chance to meet some of the other speakers?
GT: We enjoyed ourselves very much during the festival and had a great time in Sofia. Both of us got to see quite a few of the presentations, and we also met some of the speakers at the after-party.
Switzerland has one of Europe’s busiest cultural calendars – with that in mind, what would you say to young, up-and-coming designers or event planners that are looking towards the west in search of inspiration?
GT: Don’t hesitate to come to Switzerland and pay a visit. Cities often feel more like villages, and it’s not difficult to get in touch with the local scene, so don’t be shy.
We know you were here just for the weekend, but did you manage to get a feel for Bulgaria and its capital? Anything that stood out to both of you?
GT: Unfortunately we didn’t have a lot of spare time to spend in the city after the main event at Melba. But people were very hospitable and welcoming, and we immediately felt in good hands!
Thank you for taking the time to speak with us – we really appreciate it, and so will our readers. Hope to see you in Sofia again someday, and until then we’ll be looking out for your future releases!
*Melba Festival photos courtesy of Mihail Novakov