Deberny et Peignot and French Deco types

In 1921, two venerable French foundries combined to create Deberny et Peignot. By the '30s, Deberny et Peignot was seeing revenue from its exclusive French distribution rights of the German Futura typeface, which they rebranded as "Europe" (emphasizing further its internationalist associations). "As to type fonts, a new internationalization is taking place," observed foundry collaborator Maximilien Vox in 1929.

But ever the patriot, Vox added, "It is not impossible that France, with its innate sense of proportion, will see the birth of 20th century type." That same year, Deberny et Peignot debuted a French modern type, Bifur, designed by A. M. Cassandre (1901-68).

Four years earlier, Cassandre had been winning prizes at the famous Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, the exhibition of modern design that gave the Art Deco style its name. Foundry chief Charles Peignot hired Cassandre to design letters for the firm. Cassandre's Bifur, like his later Peignot type, exemplifies the Art Deco typefaces that were advertised as modern, but with French style and taste.

In promoting a uniquely French version of modernism, foundry art director Charles Peignot (1897-1983) helped to shape the interwar design trend known as art moderne. It sprang from a desire to provide an accessible, commercial version of avant-garde ideas, palatable to the growing bourgeoisie. French designers were eager to seize upon new markets, as France had been losing ground to foreign European competition as the world's major exporter of luxury goods. The Art Deco exposition, which had been planned for 1915 but postponed until a decade later due to World War I, became a launching pad for a sleek modern look that became the new paradigm of beauty. It replaced the flamboyant, sinuous lines of the Victorian and Art Nouveau styles that preceded it while signaling a return to prewar prosperity.

Peignot wanted to promote his family foundry and saw this new style as an opportunity. He hired Cassandre, Vox, and others to produce and promote new fonts. These were successful commercial options that purposefully differed from the German style. Peignot was aware of France's prewar position as the world's arbiter of taste. His own family foundry had produced the elegant and popular Cochin, a French typeface designed in the 18th century and revised in the early 20th century to great success. While Deberny et Peignot continued to produce traditional fonts like Cochin, it also staked a claim on the cutting edge of fashion with modern typefaces promoted with sleek advertising. At about this same time, Deberny et Peignot began publishing I, a journal of art and design that helped to define and promote modern French design.

Cassandre's Bifur is a notable example of Deberny et Peignot's moderne types. Bifur, with its open counters (interior spaces of the letters), somewhat resembles stenciled lettering; its simplification also suggests geometric shapes. But most radical is the type's two-tone design (to bifurcate means to divide into two branches). Each letter in this typeface has a segment that is omitted while a line-shaded or color-printed background helps the eye to recognize the whole letter form. This treatment reduces the letter strokes to core or elementary shapes while using a decorative effect to aide with legibility. For example: the "A" has no crossbar, the "E" and "L" have no stem, the "G" is represented only by its lower half, and the "N" forgoes both stems leaving only the diagonal middle stroke. This innovative typeface was applied to an uppercase only.

With the onset of World War II the graceful and sophisticated style of Art Moderne became obsolete. Though Deberny et Peignot's art deco fonts adapted the elementary form after the German style, they remained uniquely French in their stylish sleekness and decorative gracefulness. Contemporary typographer Samuel Welo referred to this as "the 'chic' so typical of the French people."1

— Christopher Schout

1Quoted in Steven Heller and Louise Fili, Typology: Type Design from the Victorian Era to the Digital Age (Chronicle Books, 1999), 101.

Suggestions for further reading:

Hugill-Fontanel, Amelia. "Arts et Métiers Graphiques Web." Rochester Institute of Technology. http://ellie.rit.edu:1213/index.htm.

Jubert, Roxane. "The Bauhaus Context: Typography and Graphic Design in France." Design Issues 22, no. 4 (2006)