Sticking to the Script
It was about half way through the tour of the Château of Germolles that our aimiable and erudite guide—who it turned out was one of the current owners—ushered our little group into a darkened room. The shutters on the large windows were almost closed, allowing just a few rays to penetrate what seemed to be a high-ceilinged chamber. There was just the hint of a smile on our guide's lips as he admonished us to not bump into the walls.
Huddling immobile in the obscurity, our eyes began to adjust to the dimness as we learned that this room was a special one, in a château that the immensely wealthy Margaret of Flanders, wife of Philip the Bold, ruler of Burgundy, spared no expense to transform into one of the favorite haunts of the Burgundian court, thanks to a binge of building and landscaping that lasted from 1382 to 1392. It was at that point that the interior decoration began, under the watchful eye of the duke's favorite painter, Jean de Beaumetz.
The room we were in was Margaret's bedroom, we were told, and with that the shutters were flung open, to dramatic effect. All four walls were covered with white, yard-high letter M's and P's in a bold script on a background of pale, mottled green. The overall effect of these simple, elegant script letters was powerful, yet harmonious. There being no barriers of any kind, we could also inspect the lettering at close quarters and make out individual brushstrokes. Definitely a striking example of hand lettering, but why the theatrics with the darkened room?
Well, one of the fascinating things about very old buildings is how they have evolved in the hands of their many owners. Châteaus spanning hundreds of years are a perfect expression of changes in architecture and the decorative arts, with medieval and Renaissance elements often found rubbing elbows with the dubious taste of nineteeth-century nouveau riches, who snapped them up for a song (along with an impressive title) in post-Revolutionary France.
What made this room special was that while the château was recently being restored, the workers discovered that below unremarkable layers of wood paneling lay this regal decoration, untouched since its creation almost 700 years ago. The M's of course were for Margaret and the P's for Phillip. In deference to her husband, the P's are slightly larger and each one is unique in some way, with small flourishes here and there to distinguish them. The shutters had been closed partly for dramatic effect but also to protect the delicate pigments. Mind the walls, indeed!
I have to admit that this experience had an impact on me. While I began in print publishing, my recent focus has been on the web, a medium which is to script fonts as light is to vampires. What's up with script fonts these days, I wondered? It turns out they're doing just fine, thanks to lots of fresh thinking that takes advantage of the capabilities of the OpenType format. An OpenType font can employ up to 65,536 glyphs (as opposed to the 256-character limit of PostScript fonts), so there's room for the wide range of character variations and ligatures that brings script fonts to life.
Savvy font designers can leverage these large character sets via glyph substitution and character positioning, with Lintotype's Zapfino Extra Pro leading the way by providing at least four alternates for each character form, driven by automatic substitutions to the point that the font has, according to Typophile, "achieved what seems to be limited sentience." That's all we need, fonts with a mind of their own. I can see it now: "You're setting me at what point size?" or perhaps "The kerning, I keep telling you to watch the kerning!"
If you check out recent releases from the major foundries and font vendors, such as FontShop, you'll find lots of nifty new scripts, many with old origins. One of my favorites is P22's Brass Script Pro, shown above, which is based on letters from a 1910 German booklet of hand foil stamping type, and has the unusual ability to provide a variety of swash underscores that adjust to the length of the word. P22 suggests using Brass Script for wedding invitations, packaging and advertising.
Script fonts, it would seem, are timeless. What are your favorite scripts and what kinds of designs do you use them for?