THE ART AND DESIGN OF ALPHONS MUCHA

Alphons Mucha was born in Bohemia in 1860 and moved to Paris in 1890 where he became the star of the poster-art movement under the patronage of the Sarah Bernhardt. After World War I he returned to Czechoslovakia and founded a slavic arts and crafts movement which combined elements of art nouveau with classic national themes. In addition to commercial art, jewelry design, interior decoration, sculpture and stage design, Mucha is probably best known for his exceptional posters, which include unusual calligraphic lettering which provides excellent source material for unique typefaces. Mucha's style is virtually synonymous with French Art Nouveau and he is one of the most imitated artists and designers of all time. Mucha's work was so widely immitated by artists like Maxfield Parrish, Leon Bakst and artists of the German Jugenstil movement that it is sometimes hard to tell where his work ends and the imitations begin. His style became so ubiquitous that by the 1930s it had become a cliche against which post-war modernist artists of the 1950s aggressively rebelled. Despite this, his legacy continues today and he is still imitated. In fact, I was recently in a Czech import shop recently and it was full of jewelry and crystal derived Mucha's designs and ideas.

The body of Mucha poster designs offers what may be the richest source for original Art Nouveau calligraphy in the world. For a font designer it is a literal treasure trove of interesting and visually arresting design ideas. Mucha did hundreds of different poster designs and advertisements and although there are certain standards to his lettering, he virtually reinvented his lettering style for every poster, producing dozens of distinctly identifiable styles.

Mucha's style is easily identified and easily differentiated from other Art Nouveau lettering. Unlike most lettering, almost all of Mucha's styles have the unusual characteristic that their vertical alignment is established by the position of the tops of the characters, rather than the bottom which is the standard alignment for most lettering or the center which is common among art and decorative styles. In addition, Mucha's characters are almost always tapered, with the top of each character substantially wider and heavier than the bottom, though this tapering is occasionally reversed. Mucha letting is also characterized by a tendancy for characters to have very flat, broad lines, almost like hats, on the tops of the characters. These elements make it easy to identify Mucha lettering and provide a basis for imitating or expanding on his style.

Surprisingly there are very few adaptations of Mucha lettering to any form of type or font, so we have been working to correct this grievous oversight. To date we have produced four Mucha-based fonts, Slava, Moravia, Bernhardt and Abaddon. Making a Mucha font usually requires a fair amount of adaptation and creativity, because since each poster has a different lettering style there is usually only a small sampling of characters to work from.

Moravia is our most recent font. It is derived from letting on a poster for a 1911 performance of the Moravian Teachers Choir (shown at left). The lettering and art on this poster fit in with the later phase of Mucha's career, derived from the style he developed for his Slavic Epic series of panel illustrations under the patronage of Josephine Crane. In designing Moravia we had an excellent set of very ornate characters to work from. They are extremely bold and have many of the characteristics common to Mucha lettering, such as tapered letter shapes and flat tops. Only a few characters had to be extrapolated from the source material, and the result is a typeface which is very true to Mucha's style. The 'M' which is shaped like a ancient Greek helmet is particularly characteristic of Mucha's lettering, as are the 'A' with a raised left leg and incomplete crossbar and the decorative top bar on the 'H'. Variations on these letter forms are found in a number of Mucha posters from the period around the first World War.

Slava is another typeface based on Mucha's later lettering, from a poster for the 1926 Sokol Festival in Prague, combined with some elements from one of the posters for an exhibition of his Slavic Epic series. It has many of the common Mucha lettering themes, plus some unusual elements which are characteristic of this very late period, such as the double lines on the 'A' and 'E'. Slava does not have as much of a traditional Art Nouveau look as Moravia or Bernhardt, but it is still clearly a Mucha style.

Bernhardt is based on a sample of Mucha's earlier lettering from the start of his career in Paris. The source for Bernhardt was a poster for Sarah Bernhardt's production of Hamlet in 1899. During this period Mucha made an effort to express the theme of the play he was advertising in his lettering, so for Hamlet we get a narrow, nervous looking style, while the lettering for Gismonda has a medieval look, the lettering for The Samaritan has a Middle Eastern look and Medea features a Greek style. We plan to do fonts based on these early Mucha styles as well in the near future.

Of all of our Mucha fonts by far the most popular (and our first) has been Abaddon. It was originally inspired by a sample of Mucha-imitation lettering designed by Will Stout which inspired us to seek the original Mucha source of his design. It is probably the least true to the Mucha original from which it was derived because it was developed from a very small and somewhat distorted sample from a poster for a 1902 Carriage Exhibition in Philadelphia, and modified to have some of the characteristics of the Stout lettering. This lettering was done during a period in which he did a lot of work for American patrons, which ultimately resulted in a temporary move to New York city and a teaching position at the New York School of Art. Abaddon has many of the standard Mucha characteristics, but was made somewhat more severe and exaggerated to create a more 'horrific' look, which is why it has been used as the title font for various horror novels and at least one horror movie. It actually doesn't look much like the source which inspired it, because elements from other Mucha designs were incorporated to achieve a sort of generic Mucha effect.

Given the great influence which Mucha has had on artists and designers in the past century it is surprising that there are so few typefaces available based on his lettering. It is possible that he has been overlooked because his style is so unusual and his designs are relatively specialized. Since there seems to be a real interest in unusual typefaces now that so many people have computers we plan to produce more Mucha fonts in the future.