Gerhard Munthe's revival of medieval Norwegian lettering

Gerhard Munthe (1849-1929) looked to the medieval traditions of his native Norway for inspiration. In this retrospective search for pre-modern cultural roots, Munthe followed the lead of William Morris, the driving force of the British "Arts and Crafts" movement; in fact, Munthe has been called "the William Morris of Norway."

Munthe's enthusiasm for tapestries and rugs from the Middle Ages showed in his paintings, but it was especially in book design that he revived old Norwegian traditions. He assembled and illustrated fine books that collected centuries-old folk ballads and tales.

Dissatisfied with the fitness of existing printing types for one of these books, Draumkvædet (1900-04), Munthe hand-rendered the lettering, based upon medieval Scandinavian models. After its publication and enthusiastic reception, he worked with the German type foundry Klingspor to produce this alphabet in type; however, Munthe's type was never released, and was lost when the foundry was bombed during World War II.

Gerhard Munthe's hand drawn letter designs developed out of his visual artwork, which was highly influenced by Norwegian folk art. In the late 19th century he traveled into Norway's isolated valleys where folk traditions were well preserved. Seeing the architecture, furniture, wall paintings, textiles and costumes caused him to reflect on his artwork, which thereafter took on a flatter decorative style. Forms were given outlines and filled with the solid colors found on folk art objects and paintings. With this shift in his artistic style and interest in folk tales, he began to integrate text into his compositions in the same manner as the Norwegian picture weavings called billedvev. When he began to design his first book, in which his illustrations were to be accompanied by full text, he was unable to find suitable type. With this realization, he decided to design his own letterforms.

His book project was commissioned by the newly formed Norwegian Book Society and the subject for the book was the popular Medieval Norwegian ballad, Draumkvædet (Dream poem). To create his letterforms he turned to a 14th century Icelandic manuscript called Heimskringla (Sagas of the Norse Kings) and he hand-drew the lettering for all 51 verses of the poem. After the book was published in 1904 it received enthusiastic reviews both nationally and internationally, hailed as an example of the Norwegian concept of decorative art in the medieval spirit, yet harmonious with its time. Thus encouraged, Munthe decided to have his designs made into metal type.

With the help of Fredrich Deneken, director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum, Munthe connected with the world-renown Klingspor type foundry in Offenbach, Germany, known for their work with artists. The Klingspor brothers, Karl and Wilhelm, agreed that Munthe's letter designs were very good, but noted they would be challenging to cast, due to the long arching extenders on many of his letters. When part of a letter extends into the vertical space of the next, kerning is required (making a custom-fit overhang of the type pieces to allow them to overlap), which complicates both type casting and setting. Munthe, unwilling to compromise and with little understanding of the type-making process, proved challenging to work with. After five years, the foundry completed the project and ran the first test of the typeface they named Muntheschrift. Energy behind the project soon dissipated and Muntheschrift was never commercially released.

Though a 1941 bombing destroyed the possibility of Klingspor resuscitating the Muntheschrift project, in Norway Munthe's letters have not disappeared entirely. An Oslo-based foundry with respect for national traditions, W. C. Fabritius and Sons, began their own revival of Munthe's design in the forties. Completed in 1962, this type, too, found limited use. More recently, digital versions of Munthe's type design have been crafted. These have been spotted, among other places, in the identity marketing of a Norwegian music group.

— Lisa Ranallo

Suggestions for further reading:

Barnes, Michael. Draumkvaede: An Edition and Study. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1974.

Dal, Erik. Scandinavian Bookmaking in the Twentieth Century. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1968.

Eng, Torbjørn. "Gerhard Munthe - glemt skrifttegner." Typografi i Norge.