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History of type

Rediscovering a long-lost master designer

Who is Jaroslav Benda? Czech typographer Petra Dočekalová has spent the past seven years finding the answer.

One of TypeCon 2019’s most stylish and fascinating talks was a quick introduction to Jaroslav Benda, an obscure Czech designer from a century ago. Benda, who played a vital role in the establishment of the Czech style, was a wildly prolific graphic designer, editorial designer, and everything-else designer. For a time, he was one of the country’s top three creatives, yet for a period of roughly 80 years, he was buried—perhaps intentionally.

The TypeCon presenter, Petra Dočekalová, discovered Benda while looking for her bachelor’s degree thesis subject in 2013. The accidental search started with signage. Then it turned to book covers in antique stores. Then came cultural magazines from the 1960s with some already-old reproductions. Monograms and stained-glass windows, ceiling murals and furniture textiles—Petra traced Benda’s diverse and bizarre design career right through to its premature demise in the mid-century.

Benda was born in 1882, and by the early decades of the 20th century, he was among the best Czech designers. Petra explained that “the trio of Vratislav Hugo Brunner, František Kysela, and Jaroslav Benda managed and designed the visual culture of the early 1900’s in our country.”

As one of the nation’s top creatives, Benda designed practically everything. When asked about the most surprising item in Benda’s portfolio, Petra had no trouble making a list:

He designed textiles for the furniture in a friend’s villa. He designed wooden frog toys for children, but they were quite scary, and I cannot imagine anyone buying one for a kid. He designed military outfits for Czech soldiers. He designed brooches, coffins… I went to the National Library, and the little librarian woman asked if she could help me find something. I said, ‘No, I’m just looking at your ceiling. Do you know if it was repainted?’ She said, ‘No, it’s from the 30s—Benda did it!’ That was one of the most shocking moments in my research, because then it had to start looking at all the ceilings in important Czech buildings.

The cover of the 2019 Czech edition, featuring a short profile of Benda in his distinctive blue.

Unfortunately, Benda was out of date and out of fashion well before his death in 1970. This obsolescence was not entirely on accident, either:

Czech borders were closed after the second world war until 1989. For all those years, our people had no contact with the design scenes in America or Berlin or anywhere else, so Benda could not develop the same international acclaim as some contemporaries. Within Czechoslovakia Benda was forgotten quickly because he was never in the Communist party. If you were not in the party, you weren’t publishing work, you weren’t invited to competitions or exhibitions.

Petra Dočekalová, Tomáš Brousil, and Radek Sidun at Jaroslav Benda’s original letterpress studio.

Yet now, five decades later after his passing, Petra and her colleagues at Suitcase / Briefcase Type Foundry have produced a book about the mysterious and fossilized Benda. The first edition, which Petra released last year, is in Czech—perfectly accessible to what she expected would be the extent for such a book’s audience. The TypeCon talk proved otherwise, and for 500 lucky Kickstarter supporters, an English edition is on the way.

The book, designed by Petra’s college Radek Sidun, is divided into two parts. The first part, which contains five chapters on Benda’s typography, is set in blue text and features blue images. Petra explained that “Benda preferred blue.” The second part is less text-heavy, showcasing Petra’s entire collection of Benda’s type and lettering.

The book displays and contextualizes nearly all of Benda’s lettering efforts, from stamps and book covers to his incomplete typeface designs.

What about the stained-glass windows and furniture textiles? Petra “If we had more critics in our country who would write for it, I would love to extend the publication to include his sculpture, painting… a full monography.” It is a shame that the book doesn’t contain Benda’s non-typographic work, but for those interested primarily in type anyway, it’s a treasure trove. Every little piece of lettering he created—from marble inscriptions to logotypes, from book covers to stamps—is included.

Much of it looks dated and much of it is, in Petra’s words, “weird.” But that is part of the appeal for her and other genuine Benda fans: “It’s disturbing by its oddity, because you want to touch it and fiddle with it and do it differently. That’s inspiring.”

The book is as much about Benda as it is about curiosity. Unlike the task of penning a book on any of Benda’s contemporaries, there were no secondary sources available to Petra. Every image and every letter in this publication is the direct result of her intrepid seven-year fascination. A fascination that will soon be shared by anyone who secures one of the 500 copies.

The Kickstarter campaign ends on December 16.

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