Claire Hartten: sweet type
This is a synopsis of Claire's lecture
My lecture will touch upon an example of edible letters, but it is more broadly about the relationship of typography to the world of food and drink. A cross-analysis of culinary arts and typography in historical terms reveals a basic similarity: small-scale and artisinal producers of both typography and food have responded to the same technological innovations and social shifts for centuries. For example, Gutenberg designed his press after the advent of two similar mechanisms: wine and cheese presses. Today I will focus upon three type-intensive products from our contemporary foodscape that maintain strong ties to culinary history: French wine labels, the Slow Food movement and Dutch chocolate letters.
Many historically anointed ‘fine’ foods and drinks, such as Russian caviar, Indian tea, and French wines, remain in production today. These products rose in Western popularity during the Victorian era, a time when consumers were hungry to emulate aristocratic ways and to experience exoticism associated with colonialist pursuits. The labels on wines and liquors from France are particularly interesting in typographic terms. These labels are an enduring reflection of typography’s hallmarks during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The typography here still supports a hierarchy of information that is understood by consumers world wide as an expression of desirability and authenticity and as a framework to measure their own taste and sophistication.
Overall, French wine labels resemble the title pages and colophons found in elegant French books of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Today they continue to display this pattern of typographic usage that includes decorative frames, ornamental lines, small, loosely-spaced capitals for details about production and origin, and larger type or script for content and a maker’s name. Garamond and copperplate scripts remain the enduring favorites of this region’s wine makers. Only recently have some wine producers around the world challenged the French-dominated wine market and broken away from the shadow of the French wine-label approach.
Like French wine makers, many producers of artisinal foods are finding that labeling is the key way to cultivate niches in the global and local market places. They are being supported and advised by Italian-based Slow Food, an organization that aims to undermine fast-food mentality. Slow Food promotes the use of improved labeling to call attention to the authenticity and origin of traditional foods and artisinal methods of food production. Here again we find a crossover between fields: authenticity and origin are the two issues that have long obsessed type designers and traditional food makers alike. Food labels that list production methods, origins of materials, makers and other colophon-like details engage the consumer in a different way than logo-branding—the label on a Coca Cola can does not tell you the origin of its ingredients, where as a carton of Fair Trade juices does. For the consumer of Slow-supported products, the ‘story’ of origin and maker is delivered intact on the label.
Slow Food also produces a typographically sophisticated journal that is casting a glamorous and intriguing light upon huge cultural conventions such as conviviality at the dinner table, eating more healthfully and farming in environmentally friendly ways. In the case of this organization, typography is serving a cause that promotes people to think globally and act locally. The Humanist spirit is clearly alive in Italy.
Chocolate letters is one traditional food that has been thriving on the mass-market place in the Netherlands for 150 years. As design forms, chocolate and the alphabet share several historical aspects: both forms are freshly manipulated by each new generations of practicioners; they relate to advances in 19th-century moulding techniques; and they appear as large popular forms during the Industrial Revolution. Today, chocolate marketers refer to chocolate letters as ‘novelties’ just as the type world categorizes 19th-century decorative alphabets as ‘novelty faces’. These intriguing edible letters are based upon various sturdy type forms, such as the handsome slab-serif letters made by Droste or the kid-like forms by Weber. For children, chocolate letters are a delightful ephemeral way to encounter the alphabet. They are told how Sinterklaas, their Father Christmas, leaves chocolate letters of the first letter of their names hung on their door knobs as a Christmas-morning surprise. Chocolate letters exist in seasonal market isolation and are available rarely outside of the Netherlands.
Claire Hartten is a MA student at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design, London. Until recently she taught typography and the history of type in various New York colleges and also ran her small freelance studio, Pineapple Design, Writing & Research. She is a proud member of both St Bride Library and of Slow Food’s new London chapter.