Mānuka design information

Mānuka is new growth from old wood. With deviant details pilfered from Teutonic timber type, Mānuka grafts a contemporary antipodean aesthetic onto 19th century German root-stock.

1,695 words by Kris Sowersby

Early European wood type documentation is sparse. War, technology and time make it difficult, particularly in Germany. But that’s slowly changing thanks to researchers like Pierre Pané-Farré. Compared to the United States, domestic German wood type production (Holztypendruck) took a few decades to get cracking.¹ Pierre dates it to around the 1860’s when “specialised wood type manufacturers appear in the German printing trade.”² Specimens exist, but they’re rare.

The colourful history of United States wood type is well documented. Specimens from the 1840s onwards are well digitised and there’s many accessible facsimile publications.

Pierre Pané-Farré, “Panorama : A reassessment of 19th century poster type”, filmed 2019 at ESAD Amiens. Video, 23:05. Retrieved 10 November 2020.

So when I was foraging in Google Books a specimen of raw fonts startled me. The initial ad for sewing machines threw me off, I wasn’t sure who actually cut the fonts. My rudimentary German twigged that «Plakat-Schriften» means “poster-type”. The real specimen measures about 285 × 445 mm, not apparent from the poor quality digitisation.³ Eventually Pierre’s thorough research cleared it up: Will & Schumacher cut the fonts and J. Schneider printed the specimen sometime after 1865. The fonts don’t have names, but are numbered sequentially. For example Blatt 1 [sheet 1] has 4 sizes of a rounded, condensed sans: Nº 1-4. Based on this system, Pierre determined the specimen is made from individual sheets printed over two separate periods, and several sheets seem to be missing.

But what remains is superb. I love this crude specimen, it’s like a typographic punch in the guts. The letterforms are big, brash and weird. You can feel the human hand getting it both right and wrong — charming inconsistencies flourish across related styles. Despite the variety, most of the fonts are bold and condensed, like branches from a common trunk. Sparse word fragments framed within the layout make the specimen a work of sublime, ancient concrete poetry.

The specimen, “Plakat-schriften. Schriftschneide-Anstalt von Will & Schumacher in Mannheim…” (c. 1865) is held in the Ghent University Library. Google Books has the digitisation. Retrieved 20 November 2020.

The advertisement is for Wheeler & Wilson sewing machines, manufactured and distributed by Bassermann & Mondt. See Pierre’s essay, “The case of Will & Schumacher” for detail.

Nº 4.

Nº 36.

Nº 83.

Nº 87.

Nº 148.

Nº 130.

The mid-1800s were early days for sans-serif. Like most other type makers, Will & Schumacher were still figuring the genre out, and their specimen preserves these pioneering forms. A few letters feel too wide or narrow, some are wonky, and most have minimal optical correction and overshoots. Scattered throughout the specimen are 7 groups of sans-serifs. It opens with a well-made rounded sans, Nº 1-10, but with some occasional irregular sharp corners. An early ancestor of the DIN lineage, Nº 29-51 are bold, mechanical and surprisingly contemporary. Nº 81–84 are similar, but further condensed. The strict verticality is relaxed in Nº 85–91 and closer to what we now consider a “regular” weight. Nº 124–135 & 141–149 follow the same style, but outlined and dimensional.¹⁰ So far so good, these are still familiar forms.

For a good explanation of optical correction & overshoots, see Frere-Jones, “Typeface Mechanics: 001“, February 10, 2015. Retrieved 10 November 2020.

Blatt 1–4.

Blatt 10–17.

Blatt 29.

Blatt 30–31.

Blatt 42–46, 49–51.

Nº 255.

Nº 257.

Nº 256.

Nº 258.

Nº 259.

Nº 260.

Nº 261.

Nº 262.

The Nº 254–263 fonts got my attention.¹¹ They have the same mechanical compression but very sharp joins in letters like a d h n m u — a rare and unusual detail for sans-serifs. Normally sans-serifs, especially condensed ones, favour monoline construction.¹² This detail elevated the letterforms above the usual genre tropes. Tight spacing, closed apertures and sharp joins make a compelling texture, like sunlight sparkling through a forest canopy. Vertical slivers of light shimmering amongst acute arcs planted the roots for Mānuka.

Blatt 81–84.

“Monoline” strokes look like they’re the same width and weight. There is less contrast between thick and thin strokes like a serif for example. Compare Mānuka to Söhne Schmal or Founders Grotesk Condensed.

Nº 82 / Mānuka Condensed Medium.

Nº 254 / Mānuka Condensed Bold.

Nº 281 / Mānuka Condensed Bold.

Nº 25 / Mānuka Black.

Nº 256 / Mānuka Condensed Bold.

Nº 279 / Mānuka Condensed Medium.

Nº 39 / Mānuka Bold.

Nº 256 / Mānuka Medium.

Many details were used with minimal intervention. This was refreshing, 150 year-old letterforms usually need heavy pruning to graft into contemporary digital fonts. Will & Schumacher’s sans-serifs have weathered well. Their curves remain taught and their stature proud. The elegant kick on R pre-dates Helvetica’s by a century, as does the graceful upward sweep of a. Elongating r’s terminal helps fill the inter-letter space, and harmonises with others on e c and the ear of g. The original link of g is superb, echoing the sharp joins of n with a serpentine twist. The semicircle spur on G is a sly surprise, contrasting with the chamfered top of t.

Nº 90.

Mānuka Medium.

Not everything survived. I wasn’t interested in making a digital clone, just transplanting the good bits. Coming up against dead-wood gives a good opportunity to asess Mānuka as an interrelated system. The Nº 90 specimen illustrates a few problems. W doesn’t have any optical correction, it’s bolder that S and I. Best practice says to thin out the strokes and add ink-traps to visually balance the black mass.¹³ The fluid spine of S didn’t fit the rigid structure of Mānuka, further exaggerated by & — also too wide and aesthetically ill-fitting. Even the rectangular full-stop wasn’t quite right for this weight. I consider punctuation directly related to accents and other auxiliary marks. Rectangular, vertical forms like this were reserved for Mānuka’s thinner weights.

Ink-traps are notches where strokes join. Historically, they pre-empted ink spreading on paper making letters seem heavier than they should. They’re still used these days as the principles of optical correction still apply.

Nº 91 / Mānuka Medium.

Nº 260 / Mānuka Condensed Medium.

Nº 279 / Mānuka Slab Medium.

»Plakat-Schriften« are physically large letters, designed to communicate urgently with size. When poster letterforms get taller, they tend to get narrower to fit more words per line.¹⁴ This is useful for languages with long words like German. The condensed horizontal proportions are obvious in the Will & Schumacher fonts. Vertical proportions are just as important. Mānuka is designed for big sizes to emphasize mass at scale. I wanted the fonts to be stackable with minimal linespacing. This meant shaving down ascenders and descenders, and maximising the x-height. Mānuka’s proportions depart significantly from the source, particularly in the slab.¹⁵

Pierre Pané-Farré’s “Soirée Fantastique” (2018) catalogues Leipzig wood-type posters from the late 1800’s, with bonus archival in-situ photos.

There is a total of 5 descending lowercase letters in the Will & Schumacher specimen. Thank God there was a decent g.

Nº 265.

Nº 266.

Nº 267.

Nº 268.

Nº 269.

Nº 270.

Nº 271.

Nº 272.

Immediately after the sans-serifs is a stand of magnificent, bizarre slab-serifs, Nº 264–282.¹⁶ Their proximity suggests a similar genus, as do the sharp joins and general proportions. But these slabs are different beasts altogether. I’d never seen anything quite like them before — they’re truly graphic. If Mānuka and Mānuka Condensed are like a managed pine plantation, Mānuka Slab is gnarly native bush.¹⁷

Blatt 84–89.

“Bush” is a New Zealander colloquialism for endemic forest.

Nº 277 / Mānuka Slab Medium.

Nº 19 / Mānuka Slab Bold.

Nº 281 / Mānuka Slab Medium.

Nº 264 / Mānuka Slab Bold.

Nº 266 / Mānuka Slab Medium.

Nº 279 / Mānuka Slab Medium.

Nº 274 / Mānuka Slab Bold.

Nº 281 / Mānuka Slab Medium

Mānuka Slab’s brackets set a solid foundation, allowing deviant details pilfered from other styles to creep in. We’ll never know what possessed a 19th century «Schrift-Kunstler» to make a rogue double-bite in the t, but I’ll be forever grateful. Borrowed from the sans, the link from g joins a vertiginous rectangular ear, echoed and exaggerated in r. Expected details like the brackets on s are a good solution, transplanted to unexpected places in Mānuka Slab like ? and the numerals. The ball terminal from J is spliced into f j y, pushing the limits in the Black and Ultra weights. And the pointed, curly pig-tail from Q was simply too cute to cut.

Nº 39–41.

Mānuka Bold.

Nº 47–49.

Mānuka Black.

Under normal circumstances these strange details would be edited out or sanded to a smooth polish. But the atmosphere of the Will & Schumacher fonts encouraged eccentricity. Mānuka’s dense texture helps naturalise the weirdness, like the knots and burls in seasoned, milled timber. A plank of wood by itself is dull or showy, but several dovetailed can have a sublime texture.

In 10,000 original copies I wrote about acknowledging history and continuing typographic traditions. Contemporary typeface designers are no different from any other design discipline, our past is verdant with fertile material. Humans love new things and modern design culture is no different — we love new fonts. But it’s important to remember that all modern typefaces have roots in previous centuries. Our job, as always, is to make new growth from old wood.

Featured fonts

7 styles
7 styles
7 styles

Notes & references

The colourful history of United States wood type is well documented. Specimens from the 1840s onwards are well digitised and there’s many accessible facsimile publications.

Pierre Pané-Farré, “Panorama : A reassessment of 19th century poster type”, filmed 2019 at ESAD Amiens. Video, 23:05. Retrieved 10 November 2020.

The specimen, “Plakat-schriften. Schriftschneide-Anstalt von Will & Schumacher in Mannheim…” (c. 1865) is held in the Ghent University Library. Google Books has the digitisation. Retrieved 20 November 2020.

The advertisement is for Wheeler & Wilson sewing machines, manufactured and distributed by Bassermann & Mondt. See Pierre’s essay, “The case of Will & Schumacher” for detail.

For a good explanation of optical correction & overshoots, see Frere-Jones, “Typeface Mechanics: 001“, February 10, 2015. Retrieved 10 November 2020.

Blatt 1–4.

Blatt 10–17.

Blatt 29.

Blatt 30–31.

Blatt 42–46, 49–51.

Blatt 81–84.

“Monoline” strokes look like they’re the same width and weight. There is less contrast between thick and thin strokes like a serif for example. Compare Mānuka to Söhne Schmal or Founders Grotesk Condensed.

Ink-traps are notches where strokes join. Historically, they pre-empted ink spreading on paper making letters seem heavier than they should. They’re still used these days as the principles of optical correction still apply.

Pierre Pané-Farré’s “Soirée Fantastique” (2018) catalogues Leipzig wood-type posters from the late 1800’s, with bonus archival in-situ photos.

There is a total of 5 descending lowercase letters in the Will & Schumacher specimen. Thank God there was a decent g.

Blatt 84–89.

“Bush” is a New Zealander colloquialism for endemic forest.

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