Monumental Type
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Monumental Type

In 1980, Toronto’s Polish community—and the general public—got more than it bargained for. Six years previous, the Canadian Polish Congress held a meeting where, among other things, a decision was made to erect a monument in Beaty Boulevard Park (1575 King Street West) to the thousands who died at Katyń forest as part of the invasion of Poland. Back when public art was selected from a talented crop of international and local designers, Katyń’s winning design was that of Tadeusz Janowski, a Polish émigré living in the United States. Janowski’s background was in architecture, but his versatility, as evidenced by the intense, impacting silhouette created by his monument at King and Roncesvalles, speaks for itself.

Beyond the obvious significance, however, this sculpture offers what is one of the best-executed examples of custom type in the city. Combining artistic and technical dexterity, the text on each side of the monument—one side Polish, one side English—infuses the slab of bronze with a much-needed vitality. Type of this nature, in this context, is increasingly atypical, where text is set either by robots or by the inexperienced. While it’s unrealistic to expect the public at large to ever truly give a hoot about the perils of using Zapf Chancery all caps (or Zapf Chancery anything, for that matter), or the importance of kerning, there is a reason designers should create and set type, all ego aside.
The results are obvious (and dreadful) when municipal governments recruit the Minister of Parking Meters to also handle road signage. For anything appearing along the side of a highway, federal governments usually undergo a series of type tests to see which faces are most legible during the day, when illuminated by headlights, or when backlit. However, as budgets tighten, the expertise of the typographer is suddenly seen as frivolous.
Just as owning a typewriter does not make one an author, or owning a camera make one a photographer, typesetting, or creating type (usually—incorrectly—referred to as “fonts”) isn’t something that just occurs because a copy of Microsoft Word is available. True, not all applications actually require any so-called expertise. Type is very often perfunctory and anything else is gravy. But in the case of something as necessarily stark as the Katyń cenotaph, the central crack notwithstanding, type is the only connection available to the audience. Like liturgical calligraphic titan Fred Peter (so old school, his web presence is crazy bad), Janowski’s ability to push type to its limit, while maintaining a sense of structure or purpose is matched by few. The Pricewaterhouse Coopers logo, while obviously created by a typographer or designer, attempts what Janowski pulls off handsomely; only PwC’s logo is weak and misguided: Yes, “waterhouse” looks like water, we get it. But “Coopers” doesn’t look like… a cooper.
Of course, some will question why any of this is significant in the first place. After all, if a non-designer designs type, it’s not nearly as disastrous as a typographer installing brakes at GM (yikes!). Dear reader, we need only consider the alternative.
Photographs by Jake Bauming