Designing a digital typeface from the early 20th century work of German designer Rudolf Koch.
A student project completed in 2017 at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. I recently redeveloped and released Kabella as a commercial typeface.
Designing a typeface has been on my designer bucket list for some time, but I always thought it was something I would do later on, someday. However, when the opportunity arose in my first semester at Emily Carr to pick a major project of my own choosing, I decided now is as good a time as any! I purchased a copy of Glyphs Mini, dove in, and immediately fell in love with type design.
I had been studying the work of Rudolf Koch in a few previous assignments, and I was fascinated by his story. Koch was a German designer in the early 20th century who—while the rest of the world was moving toward functional and rational design—was a devotee of William Morris and the Arts & Crafts movement.
But instead of just focusing on his calligraphy and ornamental design work, he spent much of his career in perhaps the most functional and rational of design fields—type design. He was incredibly innovative, experimenting with many different styles of lettering, and was known for designing typefaces that blended the uppercase of one style with the lowercase of another.
Most of Koch’s typefaces have been digitized by various designers over the past few decades, but I was fascinated by the one that seemed to have been overlooked: Kabel’s little-known swash capitals.
Designed by Rudolf Koch for Gebr. Klingspor in the late 1920s, this art deco-inspired typeface has since faded into obscurity. It has never been resurrected in digital form, until now. Kabella was originally released as Geschriebene Initialen zur Grotesk, which simply means “handwritten initials with sans-serif”.
The font consisted of swash capitals that were designed to accompany the existing lowercase set from Kabel Licht Kursiv (light oblique).
Klingspor and other type foundries were scrambling to release their own geometric designs to compete with Paul Renner’s revolutionary Futura (1927), and the task fell upon Koch. True to form, he took on the challenge, but not without injecting his own idiosyncratic style into it. Kabel is the strangest of the classic geometric sans typefaces, and I like to think that Koch just couldn’t help himself in adding a set of curvy swash capitals. They’re like an estranged aunt in the Kabel family, and I decided to name them Kabella.
I knew I was in for a monumental challenge. In a matter of weeks I had to teach myself the basics of designing type: beziérs, optical compensations, spacing, rhythm, proportion—I found resources, read everything I could find, watched online tutorials, and then bought a copy of Glyphs Mini and got straight to work.
When I first began considering the project, all I had was a low quality image of the red and green checkered cover (above) of the Geschriebene Initialen zur Grotesk specimen book. That may have been enough to design a digitization, but it would be difficult. I did some research and was lucky to find that the University of Virginia’s library has a copy of the specimen book, and they were kind enough to scan the entire book for me.
The Kabella revival remains true to the original, with some minor optical adjustments, and an expanded character set that includes modern symbols and Western European language support.
As part of the project, I designed a few in-use examples to show how Kabella could be used, including a couple of pairings with Kabel.
I recently redeveloped and released Kabella as a commercial typeface.
- Original typeface: Rudolf Koch
- Digital typeface: Justin Penner
- Kabel specimens
From the California Historical Society, including a rare showing of Kabel’s swash initials.
- Rudolf Koch: Letterer, Type Designer, Teacher
English biography by Gerald Cinamon (out of print, unfortunately).
- Why we need a new Kabel
Ferdinand Ulrich on the history of Kabel and the rationale for one more revival by Marc Schütz.
- Neue Kabel documentary
The making of a new Kabel.