Sex Appeal
The art of allure in graphic and advertising design
ed. Steve Heller
Allworth Press, New York, 2000


The erotics of type

From the simple figure 69, to elaborate tongue-in-cheek exercises
like Michael Worthington's 'Dominatrix' typeface, typographers
and type designers as well as readers (and censors) have used
letters and ciphers to suggest 'prurient' content. Throughout the
history of typography, the 'abstract' medium of type is employed to
evoke eroticism, not by merely using the obvious words, but by
using the letterforms: Copulating letters, erotic ligatures and the dot.


Chris Vermaas: 'casual sex', 2000

A simple way to describe how type can be erotic, or, if you want, pornographic, was demonstrated to me by typographer Chris Vermaas: “this”, he said typing some characters at my keyboard, “is the most concise manner to depict the female sex – only three strokes!” I had to admit that his typographic drawing was quite accurate, even if it wasn't set in Dom Casual, which Chris stipulated would be the best typeface to render it in. I wondered how one could be so explicit with such limited means – was it my own dirty mind, or perhaps a congenial aspect of all pornographic imagination; that it needs only the slightest outline to conjure up the most detailed picture?

In more puritanical times (and still today in some demure cultures), this same mechanism of imaginative crystallisation has been used the other way around, to censor from the written, public, imagination what cannot be kept from the mind’s p.....e eye. The most sophisticated use of this typographic device, these priggish but all too telling dots, is hidden in a 19th century German novel in which an officer – no gentleman, alas - admits his burning desire to a lady who cannot bear to hear this and thus faints, upon which he . This single dot, separated from the rest of the story by two spaces, tells of the unmentionable. For those who haven’t read the signs, it will become clear in the following chapters of the book that the lady has been ‘taken advantage of’ during this unfathomable moment, and, tragically, has become pregnant because of it.

Goethe, in his epos about Doctor Faustus’ longing for forbidden knowledge, uses similar means both to escape the censor and tickle the imagination and poetic proficiency of his readership when he changes words for dashes. In these sentences, for instance, the devil shares some of his most impudent musings with an old woman:

Einst hatt’ ich einen wüsten Traum;
Da sah ich einen gespaltnen Baum,
Der hatt’ ein –  –  –;
So – es war, gefiel mir’s doch.

The rhyme – and of course the context – suggests that the missing last word in the third sentence is ‘Loch’ (hole), and a contemporary of Goethe would probably not have had too much trouble in finding the rest. Such accentuations give another meaning to the word typographic – indeed, typography has been perversely used as a means to graphically depict what could not be written, ever since the invention of print.

And it is not only by the most abstract of signs, dots and dashes, that both writers, typographers and the censor have tickled their own and their readers’ imaginations. In the history of type, it seems, there remains an incessant longing for the pictorial. Far from forgetting that letters once were pictograms, typographers of all times have sought to compensate the letter’s growing level of abstraction with ever more vivid pictorial renderings of the alphabet, foremost of which is of course the anthropomorphic alphabet.

From Peter Flötner’s alphabet of the 1530s to Anthon Beeke’s photographic version of the 1970s, engravers and typographers have seen human bodies in letterforms.

   Peter Flötner: Anthropomorphic alphabet, Germany ± 1540

Flötner’s all-caps ‘human alphabet’ has been widely copied, more or less explicitly. A German advocate of the Italian Renaissance, Flötner seems to have had no trouble with depicting classically nude figures in sometimes rather confronting poses, as in the ‘V’, or ‘M’, which both depict a man lying on his back with his bottom towards the reader, his legs spread wide in the manner consistent with the letters. Only in some later versions does the man wear briefs.

Peter Flötner: Anthropomorphic alphabet, Germany ± 1540 (detail)

Apart from the mere fact that the engraver uses nude human figures, the erotic content of these anthropomorphic alphabets is initially marginal: Flötner's ‘A’ is made of two women kissing and holding each other’s arm, while the closest inter-gender contact is his letter ‘H’, in which a man and a woman hold hands. In both cases the arms constitute the horizontal bar of the letter. An Italian version of the ‘human A’ a century later (and not necessarily connected to Flötner), from Giovanni Batista Bracelli’s Alfabeto figurato of 1632, shows the letter as a man mounted by a woman – perhaps a typographic play on a Latin lover’s deepest fear, to be taken for a ride…

Giovanni Batista Bracelli: Alfabeto figurato, 1632, Italy

One of the most elaborate ‘human alphabets’, in terms of its formal quality, is of course Anthon Beeke’s, published by de Jong & Co. printers in their experimental ‘Kwadraat’ series in 1970. His capitals, built entirely out of carefully choreographed ensembles of nude girls (no less than twelve for the ‘M’ and the ‘W’), are a tongue-in-cheek reaction to Wim Crouwel’s experimental ‘new alphabet’, published in the same series some years earlier (1967).

Anthon Beeke: Nude alphabet, Kwadraad. Steendrukkerij De Jong & Co, Hilversum, The Netherlands, 1970

Piquant as it may be, Beeke’s alphabet is also a meticulous reconstruction of the outlines of classic Roman capitals – the Baskerville Old Face was the inspiration –, including thicks and thins and serifs. Although, as a programmatic counterpoint to the conceived mechanical coolness of Crouwel’s proto-digital exercise, Beeke certainly wanted to celebrate the sensual aspect of classical letters with their subtle curves and roundings and their perfect proportions, his nude alphabet is not explicitly erotic.

But since the association between letters and the human figure, or a combination of figures, has been made, it doesn’t come as a surprise that these configurations have also been used to depict the most obscene poses, especially in our sexually revolutionised times. Joseph Apoux, a French genre painter from the 1880s, is an early and in terms of drawing technique quite sophisticated example. His alphabet of decorated capitals is as cheerfully prurient as it is blasphemic: the ‘C’ is formed by a nun administering a blowjob to a hooded old monk who is toting a whip…

Joseph Apoux: Alphabet Pornographique, ±1880, France

Letters like these were of course ‘anathema’, banned by the church, and lived ‘under the counters’ of shadowy places, known only to the connoisseurs.

It took the 1960s and the ‘sexual revolution’ to bring such pictorial plays with letters and words out into the open. Quite literally, a Parisian announcement for a salacious Revue, in 1965, demonstrated a defiance of any censorship, clerical or other, by using the word ‘anatheme’ as the show’s title and rendering it as an acrobatic mound of caricaturesque figures in lewd poses.

ANATHEME, flyer, anon. 1965, France 

By the early 1970s, such typo-graphic exercises were abundantly adorning the pages of the spawning erotic press and the classified ad sections of liberal magazines.

Plexus, anon., 1969, France

The virtual acrobatics needed to bend human figures into the shape of such letterforms has its match in the 1970s’ intense interest in erotic positions. These, in turn, become schematised almost to the point of typographic abstraction in a then popular sticker that incites people to “make love, not war”.

“Make love not war”, sticker, anon., 1970s

The rigid structure of the letterform apparently offers an intriguing mold for the most impossible postures. Here, single letterforms are used as pretext for a highly improbable – and impractical – form of imaginative erotic gymnastics that in the world of literature probably only finds its match in the works of the Marquis De Sade. Fritz Janschka, for instance, an Austrian artist affiliated to the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism, devised some extremely fanciful conglomerations of figures engaged in all kinds of sexual intercourse, while at the same time managing to carefully follow the outlines of the classic Roman capital, serifs and all.

Fritz Janschka : ‘N’ from “Ulysses Alphabet”, Dortmund 1983

Janschka's initials, executed in the best etching and aquatint technique, were made to accompany quotations from James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, subtly associating on Joyce’s hero Bloom’s ambulant musings in “the most trivial of pornographic manners”, as Joseph Kiermeier-Debre and Fritz Franz Vogel remark in their splendid book on “die Bildwelt der Buchstaben” (the world of images in letters), to which I owe many of the examples mentioned here. Another example of a truly pornographic use of letterforms can be found in a rare dedicational drawing by Salvador Dalí, in which he ‘writes’ the names of his two friends Paul Eluard and the latter’s wife (and Dalí’s lover), Gala, in an all-revealing script of obscene poses.

Salvador Dalí: ‘Paul e Gala’, 1931, France 

But type’s erotic caprices are not exhausted with human figures ‘as letters’.  Nor do they have to be as subtly typographic as the one Chris Vermaas demonstrated to me. Roland Topor, for instance, finds an even more epigrammatic, though less detailed, way to depict the female sex, by using an inverted ‘A’ at the designated spot in his 1975 drawing of a woman reading a “love letter”.

Roland Topor: “Une lettre d’amour”, 1975, France

Her face is an ‘A’ too, and the letter reads “ah!” The simple, though somewhat contorted, drawing suggests that mind and underbelly mirror each other, at least when the right words are used. Such play with the different meanings of the word ‘letter’ is extended in typographies of other words that enhance certain aspects of their meaning. What to think, for instance of the logo for an Italian gay magazine of the 1970s, ‘Homo’, in which the title is typographed as a well-hung ‘H’?

“Homo”, magazine cover, anon., Milan, 1972

In this way, the typographer can limit the field of association of certain words instead of broadening it with typographic means. Thus, a word like ‘obsession’ becomes rather focussed when Robert Brownjohn writes it on a woman’s bare chest, using her nipples for the ‘o’s. And Max Kisman’s interpretation of the opening in a violin’s body leaves little room for contemplating the auditory associations of he sign.

Max Kisman, typ, 1996

Rather, it is an allusion to the ‘violon d’Ingres’ and to Man Ray’s interpretation of that term: a photo of a nude woman, kneeling, with the two mirroring ‘f’s painted on the small of her back. And, of course, it’s the first letter of that four-letter word…

With all these more or less pictorial interpretations of type associated with eroticism, a question remains: can type be inherently erotic? In a most general sense, typographers often admit to being in one way or another aroused by the beauty of details and proportions of perfectly decent letters:

the slim waist of a Garamond,

the voluptuous curves of a Baskerville,

or the buxom firmness of a Gill Sans Bold ...

Slovak typographer Peter Bilak is somewhat more explicit, when he states his ‘The Case Mix’ has a peculiar erotic feel in its merging letters, with their fluent forms – a liquid quality that can indeed be interpreted in sensual ways…

Peter Bilak: ‘The Case Mix’, font sample, 1998

More openly erotic is Michael Worthington’s typeface ‘Dominatrix’, a font that is obviously inspired by the BDSM-scene’s predilection for Blackletter type. Here, it is not so much the explicit eroticism of the typeface itself, but the suggestive context to which Worthington makes a cheerfully kinky reference in the presentation sheet for his font, not forgetting to add the command:
"honour + obey Typographic Rule".

Michael Worthington: “Dominatrix”, font, 1997 

For decades, those who seek the bizarre in eroticis have appropriated Blackletter and associated typefaces. Although the association of the letter family’s character with power, dominance and aggression is, for obvious reasons, historically rather problematic, it is used to great effect in any design that aims at suggesting an eerie flavour of dangerous sex. The inspiration for Worthington’s ‘Dominatrix’ comes from such bizarre titles as ‘Demona’, a 1970s Milanese horror-sex magazine,

“Demona”, magazine cover, anon., Milan, 1973

or affiliated publications, one of which used a kind of Blackletter in combination with a half-naked girl in a noose, and the rather discomforting catchline: “If you don’t buy this magazine, we will hang this girl” – considering the targeted public a rather problematic choice...

promotional flyer, anon., 1970’s 

With this kind of politically quite incorrect visual and verbal language, we’re back at the provocative side of eroticism, that epater le bourgeois aspect that seemed to have vanished from civil discourse ever since the mid-1970s. Provocative is Barry Deck’s ‘Canicopulous’, a quite disrespectful version of Gill Sans, made after Deck read that Gill fooled around with dogs. The font consists of, in Erik van Blokland’s words, “letters that try to stick things into each other”. Another typographic provocation – in this case a social critique as well – is Worthington’s ‘Viagra’ font, which can’t be set in any size smaller than 72 pts. In these and similar cases, the erotic content of the typeface is highly contingent on the associations triggered by the fonts’ names – as with most erotic content, the substance of the message is realised primarily in the mind of the beholder.

When sharpened by context, or sheer lust, innocent little details can become highly titillating. Ligatures for instance. A normal f-l or f-f ligature, in a classic Roman typeface, already has a definite sensual quality in its subtle merging of lines. Almost obscene – as with any exaggeration  – it becomes in Emigre’s all-ligature font ‘Mrs Eaves Just Ligatures’, especially with the italics. The ‘f’ and ‘y’ are still dancing, holding hands and drifting along with the music; the ‘g’ and ‘y’ are definitively having serious intercourse; and with ‘i’ and ‘t’ ‘it’ happens…

Emigre: “Mrs Eaves Just Ligatures Italics”, 1998 

With the advent of movement in computer-based typography, these kind of – whether intended or not – playfully erotic associations can be made more explicit, as Luc(as) de Groot has shown with the 1994 series of typo-erotic animations he called ‘MoveMeMM’. In these, plain sans-serif capitals morph into highly pornographic images. The simplest is the ‘Q’, in which the tiny protuberance starts to move in a rather indecent manner. The ‘W’ is mainly cute, demonstrating that the letter is actually made up, not of two ‘V’s, but of two ‘W’s in love; The ‘A’ morphs into an extremely sexualised summary of female details; The ‘P’ jerks off; and the ‘L’ grows into a full-blown phallus.

Luc(as) de Groot: “MoveMe Multiple Master” font, FontShop, 1994

Such bizarreries, as Luc(as) de Groot seems to acknowledge in his rendering of the ‘L’, the first letter of his own name, are the typographic variant of the famous drawing of Freud’s portrait, entitled “what’s on a man’s mind”, in which the face of the arch-psychoanalyst is rendered as a woman’s body. This drawing, in combination with its title, suggests that it’s not a thing of and by itself that is erotic, but the fact that we can project eroticism onto practically anything.

Nonetheless, type is a special case. It’s the stuff texts are made of, the most direct – and sometimes only – way of communicating our deepest fancies, beyond the spoken, or whispered, word. Conversely, as in our adult life we are apt to read erotic allusions in the most improbable visual stimuli, we see letters in anything that remotely suggests them in a contour or a shadow.

Paul Elliman: alphabet, Fuse no.5, 1992

Paul Elliman’s Fuse alphabet of 1992, is a good example of this, of what I termed ‘imaginative crystallisation’: His ‘S’ is based on the flitting appearance of the letterform in the locks of the performer, and although one could hold that the girl is simply shaking her head, the resulting expression is almost archetypically erotic. And maybe one would be over-interpreting Elliman’s ‘M’ and ‘Y’ as erotic images by themselves, but what if one writes ‘MY’ in this alphabet? Eroticism, after all, is in the eye and mind of the beholder. Why, for a narcissist the letter ‘i’ would be arousing, regardless of the typeface it is written in…


Paul Elliman: alphabet, Fuse no.5, 1992
(collage MB)

max bruinsma