Helmut Matheis Schrift- und Markengraphiker, letterhead (detail)

“I take great pleasure in shaping letters” · On the 100th birthday of Helmut Matheis

By Florian Hardwig

When he was born, Germany still had a Kaiser. When his first typeface was released, there was no Helvetica yet. Now Hans Helmut Matheis celebrates his 100th birthday, which might very well make him the oldest living type designer. In honor of the centenarian, Fust & Friends shows a selection of his work as lettering artist and designer of logos and typefaces. As a special gift, one of his typefaces, Presto, is made available in digital form for the first time ever. Happy birthday, Herr Matheis!

“Oh yes, I’m still alive! Dum spiro spero”, Helmut Matheis answers the phone. He’s in good spirits – his daughter is visiting, he just received a letter of congratulations from the Federal President, and the local museum will soon open an exhibition with his works. Matheis can look back on a long life dedicated to the arts. “I have always loved to draw. In 1941, I applied to the Munich Academy of Arts.” This was in the middle of the war, and Matheis first had to serve his time in the Reichsarbeitsdienst and the military before he was allowed to study. Professor Ernst von Dombrowski saw talent in him. “He decided: ‘Schrift, graphic class!’ This set the course for my later life. I delved into the library and began to copy historical writing styles. I wrote and wrote all day long. It’s like in music: You have to copy before you can compose.” After four semesters his studies came to an abrupt halt: The avid art student was drafted and sent to the eastern front. A mere two weeks into the war, he got severely wounded. “That saved my life – I was sent back home. Thank god it was the left hand!” Matheis spent a year in hospital and then continued his studies, now as a master student in the class of Fritz Helmuth Ehmcke. For a while, when the academy was evacuated to Ellingen, he also studied under Max Körner.

Calligraphy, lettering and logo design
Matheis set up shop as a freelance graphic artist in Munich and mainly worked for publishers and card manufacturers. “I have written and drawn countless greetings cards: for weddings, birthdays, anniversaries – you name it. They always featured letters – often exclusively letters, in ever new script variants.” In 1949, he was awarded at the first Rudolf-Koch-Preis, a competition for emerging lettering artists. Soon after, he was commissioned to design the German Sports Badge. Signs, trademarks and monograms by Matheis were featured in Gebrauchsgraphik – International Advertising Art (April 1956) and in the book Marken und Signete (1957). “I have always been very much interested in logos. And I still am! If there is a call for proposals, I’m up for it.”

Deutsches Sportabzeichen in Silver, Gold, and Bronze. Matheis’ design with the intertwined script caps “DSB” (Deutscher Sportbund) was in use from 1952 until 2006. Image courtesy of Die Orden und Ehrenzeichen unserer Republik.

Matheis once devised a booklet on the historical development of calligraphic hands, with 23 plates artfully demonstrating Roman capitals, Uncial, Half-Uncial, Rotunda, Textura, Schwabacher, Venetian Oldstyle, Kanzlei, Chancery Italic, Kurrent and more. “My Schriftkunst was originally a kind of dissertation. When I eventually had the idea to publish it, there were already several other books on the subject, so the project was shelved.” In 1960, he was invited to show his works in the exhibition “International Calligraphy and Lettering” in Edinburgh. It filled Matheis with pride to see his name among the many celebrities on the list of contributors.

  • Detail from Schriftkunst: Family tree.

  • Detail from Schriftkunst: Blockantiqua (geometrically constructed sans serif caps).

  • Detail from Schriftkunst: Roman capitals.

  • Detail from Schriftkunst: Gothic versals.

  • Detail from Schriftkunst: Textura.

  • Detail from Schriftkunst: Latein-Kursive (Chancery Italic).

  • Detail from Schriftkunst: Kurrentschrift.

  • Detail from Schriftkunst: Kurrentschrift.

Typeface design
In the mid-1950s, Matheis made his first foray into typeface design, and wrote to several foundries. “Ludwig & Mayer was interested. So I went to Frankfurt, showed my portfolio, and was commissioned to design a script typeface.” Primadonna was first cast in 1956. In the following 25 years, eleven more designs of his were realized. Most of them are calligraphic in nature. “This corresponded to my personal inclination. Typically, the designs didn’t follow a brief. They were free developments that I submitted for review, and some of which were accepted and produced.”

His greatest success arguably was Charme (1957) and its slightly bolder sibling Slogan (1958), a pair of spirited pen scripts with some quirky details that reveal their roots in the German handwriting tradition. With the exception of Verona (Genzsch & Heyse, 1958), all of his designs were issued by Ludwig & Mayer. Together with Karlgeorg Hoefer, Matheis shaped the catalog of the Frankfurt foundry in the mid-20th century. Windsor (1977) and Prestige Kursiv (1982) were among the last typefaces to be cast by the venerable company.

  • Charme in use for a döner restaurant chain in Berlin, Germany.

  • Prestige in (fictional) use for a wine label.

  • Slogan in use for a neon sign in Hyderabad, India. Photo: Gregoire C.

  • Slogan in use for Rotring’s ArtPen and ArtPencil calligraphy line. Photo: R. Anderson.

  • Verona in use for a pancake restaurant in Scheveningen, Netherlands.

When the era of metal type came to an end, Matheis turned to other interests like painting. “Unlike my famous colleague Zapf, I couldn’t really get excited about the technological aspects.” Others picked up his designs and issued them as phototype and in digital form. Matheis did not receive royalties anymore. “When I signed my contract in the 1950s, I couldn’t foresee the future developments. What bothers me more than the lost money is the fact that my designs are expanded and changed without consulting or even notifying me.” Matheis never stopped drawing letterforms, and over the years he gathered a whole folder full of sketches and ideas. In 2010, he tried his luck again and sent designs to BauerTypes in Spain. “Herr Hartmann happily gave the green light, and Meneer van Leeuwen from Visualogik kindly took on the digitization of my drawings.” In 2013, the script was published by Neufville Digital as Judo ND. “I am very grateful that I was afforded the opportunity to realize a new typeface.”

Helmut Matheis still loves to paint, draw letterforms, and play the keyboard.

Presto, a free font for the 100th birthday
Today Fust & Friends is happy to announce the release of another Matheis typeface. Presto is a bold advertising script, with slightly inclined joined-up letters and economic proportions. Originally issued by Ludwig & Mayer in 1970, the metal version came in eight sizes from 12 to 48pt. Until now, Presto never made it to the digital age. At the initiative of Florian Hardwig and with the authorisation of Matheis, Andreas Seidel created a digital revival of Presto, based on a specimen courtesy of Hans Reichardt. Presto Free is free for personal use. It is made available to the readers of the Fust & Friends website to celebrate the 100th birthday of Helmut Matheis in November 2017. Herzlichen Glückwunsch!

→ Download Presto Free

All images by Florian Hardwig unless otherwise noted.

Our friends at BauerTypes in Barcelona have kindly published a Spanish translation of this article on their website: ¡Feliz 100 cumpleaños, Helmut Matheis!
BauerTypes joins the celebration by offering the Judo ND typeface free of charge until January 15th.