Fedra typefaces reviewed

Typeface stories by Andy Crewdson
970 words5 min read

There are some good reasons to be sceptical of the keywords that come attached to new typefaces. The terms designers use to describe their typefaces can provide a useful context for evaluating the work, but when the terms are applied carelessly or relied on too heavily, they can just as easily obscure what they intend to explain. Because there have been more than a few instances in recent years of the misapplication of terms to typefaces, people interested in understanding type these days may rightly be resistant to the labels that accompany new types. Knowing that dubious typefaces have in many cases been couched in equally dubious words, it follows that the use of these sorts of terms—when they are called for—should be discussed and explained.

Peter Bilak, the designer of Fedra, has in the following pages offered several keywords for the types shown in this booklet. Of these words, the one that seems most broadly relevant, and that serves to unite the others, is the term ‘polyhistorical’. In his statement, Bilak explains his approach to type design as it relates to history and progress, and through this he implicitly suggests how Fedra can be seen as a set of polyhistorical typefaces. Bilak views history not as a burden, but as a continuous process that cannot help but play a part in its own advancement. If the past is accessed intelligently, Bilak argues, then it has plenty to offer those who would like to move things forward. Along these lines, Bilak’s conception of polyhistorical type design seems to be clearly expressed in the Fedra typefaces: in the way they reinterpret historical models according to their own parameters and in the way they integrate inventiveness with tradition.


While ‘polyhistorical’ may be the best way of describing the Fedra family at a high level, another of Bilak’s words may be more apt for talking about some of the typefaces’ specific qualities. This term, ‘synthetic’, is introduced by Bilak in relation to Fedra Serif, and it is in that member of the family that the combination of different tactics and techniques—resulting in a ‘synthetic’ construction—is most obvious. But because the term, like ‘polyhistorical’, can be extended to cover Bilak’s overall approach to type design, it is helpful in explaining the origins of the Fedra series as a whole.

Bilak traces the development of his synthetic approach back to the mid-1990s when, as a student, he began experiments that would eventually lead to his first text typeface. Having been taught in school theories of type design that were based on chirography, Bilak was comfortable with the assumption that the way letters were written could determine the logic of a typeface. But he had also gradually become aware of the limitations inherent in the strict application of chirographic ideas to type design. As Bilak considered how he could combine the influence of the hand with other methods of construction—drawn, modular, geometric—he began to see some of the possibilities that this sort of open-minded approach might allow for. At the same time, Bilak benefited from conversations he had with Gerard Unger, a respected type designer whose work has frequently incorporated synthetic ideas. Unger’s advice further bolstered Bilak’s confidence in the making of serious types that could stay within a range of conventionality while still combining different methods in an unconventional way.


Bilak’s early commitment to a synthetic approach led to the design of his first type family, FF Eureka, which began as a seriffed roman and italic in 1995 and would later expand into a large collection of weights and variants. Through the combination of generous vertical proportions and long serifs with a low stroke contrast and loose spacing, FF Eureka aimed to reconcile ‘Humanist qualities with Grotesque features’, in Bilak’s words. As an initial attempt at producing a substantial set of useful typefaces, FF Eureka was certainly competent; Bilak maintains that it was ‘honestly made’ and that in many instances it has worked well. He also concedes that some aspects of FF Eureka’s design now appear to him naive, and that due to his inexperience at the time, he ‘simply didn’t have enough knowledge to make [the design] work better’.

Whatever mistakes Bilak now sees in his first sustained attempt at putting synthetic ideas into practice, it is clear that what he learned by making Eureka was valuable. Though the earlier set of types might not look on the surface to have much in common with Fedra, Bilak sees the development of the two families as being directly related. ‘Eureka set a lot of the preconditions for making Fedra’, Bilak says, and one way to view the Fedra typefaces would be as a more mature expression of the ideas and motivations that determined Eureka. Instead of revising Eureka’s forms, Bilak has chosen to use the same underlying principles to produce an entirely distinct series of types. Given his strong arguments for continuity and re-evaluation in type design, it is logical to think of Fedra—at least in part—as Bilak’s reaction to his own work.