A Parisian Palimpsest

This one took me a minute.

Gustave Peignot spent the last four decades of the nineteenth century acquiring small French typefoundries, which by 1899 were formally organized into the firm of G. Peignot & Fils. Twenty-three years later they would merge with the venerable foundry of Laurent & Deberny, and Deberny & Peignot would be born. Soon after, this collaboration would produce the most significant typefaces of the Art Nouveau period, designs by Eugène Grasset and Georges Auriol, and later, Machine Age masterpieces by A. M. Cassandre. There would be historical revivals in the manner of Garamond and Didot, new work by Imre Reiner and Maximilien Vox, and in 1952, a series of faces by a new Swiss designer named Adrian Frutiger. Five years into their collaboration came Univers.

A design long associated with Peignot — but not attributed to any particular designer — is the typeface Nicolas Cochin. Named after an eighteenth century French engraver (but not especially representative of his work), the Nicolas Cochin typeface was advertised in a lovely little booklet produced by Peignot & Fils around 1920, a copy of which survives, barely, in our library. After an introduction and a number of settings in period dress, the specimen unfolds into an album of blue kraft paper pages, framing a charming collection of printed ephemera. There’s a menu, a calendar, a business card; one delightful page is an interior decorator’s invoice. And then there’s this.

Aside from the fabrication technique — the checkered background has the smoothness of offset lithography, and the image appears to be impossibly continuous-tone (!?) — there’s the design, which looks about sixty years ahead of its time. The atmospheric quality of the background reminds me of a Vaughan Oliver album cover for 4AD, and the deconstructed typography-in-motion feels very much like something Pierre Bernard might have made with Grapus. The explanation, of course, is a happy accident: the page was originally a pink and lavender parquet, parts of which have oxidized through eighty years of contact with the facing page, but the result is simply beautiful. I’m hoping that whoever designs the poster for the next Peter Greenaway film keeps this typographic ambience in mind. —JH

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