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Local Designers Create Typefaces Inspired by a Bygone Era

Local designers are bringing the craftsmanship of Vietnamese typography into the digital world.

Republish is "a collection of open-source typefaces inspired by Vietnamese typographic remnants." The project is spearheaded by the team at Behalf Studio and the RMIT design lecturer, Giang Nguyen. 

The typefaces are available in Vietnamese, English, alphabetically, numerically and with symbols. The size, shape, coloring and shading are adjustable, making the user experience feel collaborative. The three completed typefaces come with detailed articles about the history of the typefaces they revive, bringing an element of storytelling to the designs. 

Visiting the Behalf Studio, Saigoneer spoke to Nguyen about the inspiration behind Republish. Nguyen's interest in typographic remnants began during his Master's program in Savannah, Georgia. During his time in America, he found himself climbing up a church in Georgia at night to get a closer look and digitizing the type of the original New York City subway, the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT). The IRT was purchased by New York in 1940, and the type was eventually changed to Helvetica.  

Returning to Saigon after living in the Big Apple, Nguyen felt exposed to aspects of the city that he hadn't realized had been here before. For the past five or six years, he has been "digging around and taking photos" of typographic remnants, researching, writing and doing type design. At one point, he was speaking to a friend who urged him to solidify this work by making it public: "If you get hit by a bus, we're going to lose a lot of shit."

And so the idea of making permanent and public his knowledge of Vietnamese typography, in this life where we never know when we'll get hit by a bus, smushed by a piano, or cease to exist for any number of reasons, propelled Nguyen to digitize the disappearing.

Currently, there are three completed typefaces on the site ready for download. The first is Barber, or Tho Cao, which attempts to preserve the craft of sign-painting by mimicking it digitally. It is based on the sign for a barbershop in District 5 that opened in the 1980s. The bold and colorful lettering has been covered over by what is now a lawyer's office. If you peek behind the current storefront, you can find the old sign hidden behind its modern replacement. 

The second is a revival of the typefaces on Ben Thanh Market and is called Westgate, or Cua Tay. Nguyen fell in love with this typeface for the elegant solution it poses to some of the difficulties of Vietnamese diacritics for typography. Where Barber is chunky, the lettering of Westgate is delicate and elongated due to the art-deco influences typical of design done during French colonization. This design allows room for the Vietnamese tones to be placed nicely without crowding the lettering.

The third typeface in the series is Danh Da. This is the only of the designs that is not based on a specific typographic remnant, but on "an amalgam of various references from 20th century women's magazines." This typeface is made in collaboration with the Chicago-based artist Huong Ngo for her project "To Name It Is To See It," in which she explores her visual identity and "The Proposal for a Translation" of the word "feminism" by Vietnamese thinkers and artists.

The two typefaces on the site that are "coming soon" are titled Finesse, or My Nghe, and Patriot, or Khang Chien. Finesse is an interpretation of the hand-painted sign on a cart that sells watches by the famous sign-painter, Hoai Minh Phuong. Patriot is inspired by sheet music that can be found framed in the Ho Chi Minh City Museum on Ly Tu Truong Street. 

For the crew of collaborators creating Republish, designing these typefaces is being done to combat the apathy towards maintaining the historical design elements of Vietnam. Further, the ethos behind the "100% off sale" on the typefaces is because Nguyen believes, "it is unfair if I sell it." For the designers involved, it is a learning experience, and the typefaces and the history behind them "belong to the people."   

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