La linéale géométrique dans un labyrinthe étranger

A typical 19th century French galerie... or is it?

Ikoku Meiro no Croisée, or La croisée dans un labyrinthe étranger, was a pleasant surprise and one of my favourite shows this season. Even though Junichi Sato is only doing series composition, it still feels like Aria. We have girls leaving their homes to go to a strange foreign land and learn about it, set to classy music. All we have to do is trade MANHOME for Japan, Space-Venice for Paris, 23rd century for 19th century, and strings for clarinets.

But there was one thing that caught my eye and has bugged me ever since.

Why does this text on my window look so round?

Now, I’m not a graphic design student or anything. I just think typography is cool, so please bear with me as I play amateur type historian. I’m also not that confident in my ability to identify typefaces on the spot. I’m relying heavily on Linotype’s excellent sans serif history articles and Robert Bringhurst’s excellent The Elements of Typographic Style for more general stuff. I’ve been using a combination of Identifont and FontBook to attempt to identify stuff. Anyhow, I expect I will say some wrong things.

A few months ago, I got the chance to read through some type history for a paper. While most of it was on neoclassical type, which was late 1700s/early 1800s, I did skim through 19th and 20th century stuff. Armed with that knowledge, I thought it was a bit weird seeing stores with sans serif signage in general. But other than the problem of sans serifs possibly existing before they were created, they just felt wrong because they looked too “new”. Croisée is set some time in the second half of the 19th century and a quick search revealed that the earliest sans serif faces showed up early in the 19th century but didn’t get big until almost 100 years later.

An attempted reproduction of the above

So I’m pretty sure this is Futura. If it’s not, it’s definitely a geometric sans serif. And as it turns out, geometric sans serifs are products of the early 20th century, with Futura being created in the 1920s. Geometric faces are born from attempts to form idealized letterforms out of circles and lines, coming out of the whole Constructivist movement. It’s a pretty huge contrast to anything from the Romantic era, which is why it look so strange hiding among all of the old shops in the Galerie.

Definitely not Arial

Here, we have what appears to be Helvetica, that venerable Swiss typeface that is used everywhere nowadays, from subway signage to being slapped on photos on tumblr. Or, at least, I’m pretty sure it’s Helvetica, based on the G. The problem is that Helvetica was created in the 1950s. Of course, that’s not a lot of letters to go by and it could be one of Helvetica’s ancestors, but the earliest of those seems to have appeared in the 1880s or 1890s at the earliest. These typefaces, called Grotesques, were pretty popular in Germany, but didn’t catch on elsewhere until the 20th century. This might make its appearance in Paris a little strange, although I’m not sure of the exact timeline.

The lowercase letters were especially helpful

On this cart, we have a gothic sans serif. Gothics are a British creation from the late 19th century and early 20th century. These are recognizable as the ones that show up in old-timey newspaper headlines. Again, I’m not sure about the exact timeline so I’m not sure how it propagated in Europe, but they were pretty popular in the States. However, it’s my understanding that very few gothics were drawn before 1900.

It was annoying trying to take screens with this lady in the way

Finally, here’s what appears to be a humanist sans serif, based on the R and the C. Humanists are supposed to resemble writing more than the mechanical construction of geometrics or grotesques, but it’s hard to tell from just the capital letters. And again, since there aren’t too many letters to go by, it could turn out to be something else, but I don’t recall seeing anything that resembles that C when going through the other early 20th century typefaces. Anyhow, I feel like that could’ve come straight off of a Windows 7 screen or something.

What other typographical shenanigans are hiding on those storefronts?

I focused on sans serif typefaces because they’re relatively easy to pick out and differentiate between. I’m not pro enough to be able to distinguish between serifed fonts yet. But, this little exercise makes me wonder if there isn’t any typographical weirdness lurking among the signage set in serif faces.

I got started on this entire thing because I remembered Mark Simonson writing about the fonts on the maps in the Indiana Jones movies. I actually didn’t think about it until that Le Papillon d’Or sign caught my eye and made me go ‘waaaaaaait a second’. It’s the first time I remember doing that for anime, probably because most of the time, the signs are in Japanese. I guess the fact that it’s trying to present an accurate historical depiction of Paris also creates a sort of uncanny valley effect and things that would normally get passed over start to pop out.

Anyway, everyone should watch this show, because clarinets and cheese and baguettes and 19th century weeaboos and Yuneeeeeeeeee.

6 thoughts on “La linéale géométrique dans un labyrinthe étranger

  1. Great attention to detail.

    There is a small error on the name of the anime, though, it’s called Ikoku, not Ikuko. You may be interested in changing it so Google can correctly index your article.

  2. Wow, great post. I had no idea the fonts were off. It kind of reminds of how Gosick’s fashion was off. There are always these little things in anime set in the past that are hard to get pinned down exactly.

    Also, another thing to note is that most French people of this era didn’t eat cheese for breakfast or pot au feu made with bacon.

    • Yeah, what’s funny about these things is that it’s probably close enough that it passes through for 99% of the people watching, but ends up bugging the hell out of the 1% that notices it staring them in the face throughout the entire show.

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