Typefounding in the 19th century was full of experimentation. Looking through specimen books from various foundries, it seems as though no idea was too crazy for a world which was constantly expanding and an industry that was rapidly growing. It was in this ecosystem that a type founder in Paris made a a typeface full of character, exploration, and resourcefulness which became the catalyst for Essonnes. A typeface which sought to redefine establish paradigms (who says a a lowercase g can’t have serifs?) and solve a myriad of problems which plagued earlier designers. Born of a union between Didot experimentation, late Victorian extravagance, and contemporary pragmatism, Essonnes is a type system which brings both the familiarity and creativity of a Didone together with the situational requirements of the 21st century.
It’s a common belief among designers that Didones don’t work for text. This wasn’t true in 1819 and it isn’t true today. Like its forebearers, Essonnes is a truely optical family—not just a study in adjusting contrast. The text and display weights have been designed from the ground up for their intended roles. This means that everything from the height of the uppercase & lowercase letters have been specifically tuned for their intended purpose.
As the above example shows, contrast isn’t the only thing that changes between the text and the display weights. For the design of the text weight, the x-height is higher, the italics are a little less sloped, the capitals are a hair wider, the descenders are a little shorter, and the counters are a little more square.
In keeping with the rest of the optical tricks. Essonnes Text features little kinked areas in the bowls of most of the lower case. These kinks allow for the bowls to be as open as possible while still allowing the thin strokes to be as thick as they need to be.
One of the most recognizable aspects of the 1819 Didot Type was the unique handling of the lowercase g, s, y, and, in the text weights, the C, G, and S—it was these characters that led to the birth of the Essonnes project. For some reason, the type Essonnes references only included these “devil tail” serifs on the uppercase were only available in the text weights. Now, with the possibilities offered by stylistic sets, the designer has the option to utilize an updated version of Didot’s decidedly different take on the Latin script.
Like many typefaces, Essonnes started after falling in love with a piece of history. In this case, it was the eccentric forms of Pierre Didot’s Type and the evolution of the High contrast Didone throughout the 19th century. It was out of curiosity and love for these forms that led to the first draft of what would become Essonnes back in 2011.
This first draft was rough. But even in this rough first draft there was a goal: to make something that was more than a copy. While it would be obvious where the inspiration came from, there was never any scanning and tracing. The goal here was to take the eccentricities and make them useful; whether that meant toning them down or ramping them up.
It’s (relatively) easy to pick an old typeface and say “I want to bring that back to life.” What makes it special is the intent of the design and the personality of the designer. What we do is take what has existed and filter it through ourselves and our needs to make something that is unique and contemporary while still referencing the history that preceded it. Essonnes, for example, has been designed to be uniquely suited for situations which would have never have been an issue for Pierre Didot or any of the Victorian type designers (backlit screens weren’t too common in the 1800’s).
These unique situations—screens, modern printing methods, the previous 200 years of typographic innovation since the original design, my own life experiences—have led to a typeface that, while based on history, is not stuck in it.