A Love Letter to Amsterdam’s Curly Letter
The result of a personal research project by Ramiro Espinoza (the designer who runs the Dutch foundry Retype) and photographer/graphic designer Rob Becker, The Curly Letter of Amsterdam (De Amsterdamse Krulletter) is an engaging love letter to the beautifully crafted and fast-disappearing hand painted lettering which can be found on the windows of some of Amsterdam’s oldest bars.
Ramiro Espinoza’s fascination with the elegant letterforms known as Krulletter began when he left his native Argentina to join the TypeMedia Masters Course in Typography at KABK in Amsterdam. Being an outsider, Espinoza picked up on something which had always been taken for granted by the native Amsterdammers. In his preface to the book, after noting that the Dutch design world can be somewhat ‘self-satisfied’ at times, Jan Middendorp notes that the project is ‘a brilliant example of how an outsider managed to dig up facts and stories that would otherwise have faded into the black hole of history, and to make connections that haven’t occurred to any Dutch designer – or academic for that matter’.
The resulting book is published by Lecturis, and as you’d expect from this high-end printer and publisher, it doesn’t disappoint. It’s a handsome but modest hardback edition that definitely deserves a place on your bookshelf. As well as the expertly captured and very atmospheric black and white photographs of the Krulletters in situ in the so-called ‘brown bars’ of Amsterdam, there’s a detailed examination by Espinoza of the Krulletters themselves, charting their history, and putting them in the context of the city’s vernacular lettering.
The distinctive style of lettering was originally created by the sign painter Wim Visser in the 1940s, and subsequently carried on by Leo Beukeboom. In his text, Espinoza provides us with a detailed look into the various sources and inspiration behind the letters, and traces these all the way back to some fine examples from the seventeenth century, from both the Netherlands and Italy. Espinoza’s text is clearly well-researched and makes for interesting reading, for both lettering geeks and non-geeks alike. Keen to expand the use of this quintessentially Dutch style beyond the streets of Amsterdam, in 2008 Espinoza released a digitised typeface based on the Amsterdamse Krulletter called Krul, through his own Retype foundry.
As the city changes, Amsterdam’s traditional brown bars are disappearing at a rate of knots. Gentrification, combined with an increase in the use of cheaper vinyl lettering, means that the future of the Krulletter does seem very uncertain – thus the timing of this book is particularly significant, as it will no doubt raise awareness among those keen to preserve some of the city’s precious visual heritage.
It’s not all bad news though, as a new generation of Dutch signwriters has emerged (e.g. Amsterdam Signpainters) who have the skills to both renovate and recreate the traditional letters. In addition to this, they now have a handy book showing off some of the best examples. Another lovely touch included in the book is the fold out ‘model for the Krulletter’, a specimen created by Espinoza from the best signs by Visser and Beukeboom which contains all of the upper and lowercase letters and is intended for use as a much-needed reference piece.
Ramiro Espinoza and Rob Becker have created a timely and very appealing book which records the best examples of this often-overlooked style of lettering, and will no doubt inspire future generations of signwriters. As Jan Middendorp points out, the Krulletter is so much more than charming pub lettering, it represents ‘a consistent example of a style that is rooted in a centuries-old, very Dutch tradition.’ And, if you’re tempted to nip over to Amsterdam to see the Krulletters in the flesh, there’s even a handy list of the best-preserved signs along with addresses included in the book. Cold beer and curly lettering… what could be better?
De Amsterdamse Krulletter by Ramiro Espinoza and Rob Becker is published by Lecturis, €31,00.