Vojtěch Preissig's types for Czech alphabets

The European map was redrawn with the end of World War I, forming the new nation of Czechoslovakia (1918). This relative independence fed the pride of the Czech population of that country, united by language.

The Czech language is written in familiar Latin letters, but includes a number of diacritics (additional marks above or below letters to indicate altered pronunciation) that are unused in other European languages. At the beginning of the 20th century, printing in Czech was largely accomplished with types from German foundries, and the necessary diacritics were in some cases unavailable and in others poorly harmonized with the letters they accompanied.

Czech designers saw the need to create types of their own, which would serve the particular needs of written Czech; for example, type and book designer Vojtěch Preissig (1873-1944) cut new type punches to add proper diacritical marks to several existing faces. He went on to create the striking Preissig Antiqua typeface (1925).

Czech designers rejuvenated their printed language through the development of new type designs as a way to differentiate Czech culture from the various ethnic groups that could now be called "Czechoslovakian." The newly drawn borders of Czechoslovakia in 1918 enveloped a diverse mix of ethnicities that had not previously lived together in these proportions or under these power distributions. In addition to the Czechs and Slovaks in the country, by 1921 the nation also included Germans, Hungarians, Ruthenians, Ukrainians, and Russians. It should be pointed out that the Germans, who had been part of the dominant culture under the previous Austro-Hungarian rule and whose type designs had been used to print the Czech language for years, were now ethnic and political minorities. In addition, the Czech Lands, where Czechoslovakia's capital of Prague was located, stood out as having substantial advantages over the other nation-states formed in 1918 and the remainder of the country. This area's social and political structures more resembled the established nations of Western Europe and included high levels of industrialization, urbanization, nationalism, social welfare systems and literacy.

An opportunity to present a "Czech" image to the leading democracies of the West on an international scale was the Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in 1925. Under the roof of its own pavilion, Czechoslovakia displayed type design, pottery and textiles, among other arts. Among the type designers who exhibited here was Vojtěch Preissig, a Czechoslovakia native who had moved the United States in 1910. Keeping in touch with the design community in Prague, Preissig had been asked by the director of Prague's newly formed State Printing House, Karel Dyrynk, to create a new type specifically for the Czech language that would be shown in Paris in 1925. Preissig began the project in 1923 and worked for two years on the typeface he called Preissig Antiqua.

Although Preissig Antiqua was designed in the United States, Preissig worked closely with Czechoslovakia's State Printing House to get it print-ready. For Preissig's first draft, he sent his design in the form of a sample print made from his copper matrix. The printing house then created metal type based on the sample print, printed a proof and sent it back to Preissig for his approval. Preissig was disappointed with the results as it seemed the type cutter "fixed" his cubist-inspired design. Where Preissig had intentionally created letterforms from wedges and diagonal lines, the type cutter straightened the strokes to be parallel with each other and rounded edges that were meant to be angular. In Pressig's words, "They 'adjusted' my typeface, although only the word 'slaughtered' can express what they did." For the second draft, Preissig sent the actual copper matrix from which the printing house could print, but it came back modified yet again. Preissig was still unhappy with a third draft, but entered it into the 1925 exhibition.

The Paris exhibition, according to Iva Knoblach, was perceived as the "first national manifesto of Czech typography abroad" and Preissig Antiqua was received as the first Czech typeface because of its integration of diacritics with letterforms. His design placed such a strong emphasis on diacritics that the marks directly influenced the shapes and sizes of the letters with which they are paired. Not only did Preissig Antiqua set a precedent for future Czech designers, but stated to Europe that although Czechoslovakia was newly sovereign, it possessed a distinct national identity and could participate on equal footing with fellow democracies of Western Europe in politics, industry, design and the arts.

— Lisa Melander

1Quoted in Iva Knoblauch, “Vojtech Preissig: Czech Typographer?” Typo no. 14.
2Iva Knoblauch, “Vojtech Preissig: Czech Typographer?” Typo no. 14.

Suggestions for further reading:

Gaultney, J. Victor. "Problems of a Diacritic Design for Latin Script Text Faces." Master's thesis, University of Reading, 2002.

Knoblach, Iva. "Vojtěch Preissig: Czech Typographer?" Typo no. 14.

P22 Type Foundry. "Vojtěch Preissig."

Typo.cz and Designiq.cz. "Diacritics: All You Need to Design a Font with Correct Accents." "Czech."