New faces | Scala

by Emily King

Emily King is a London-based writer and curator with an interest in graphic design. On May 25, 1995 she visited my studio in Arnhem for an interview about Scala and Telefont, to be used in a chapter for her PhD ‘New Faces’.  The part about Scala can be found here, [with comments by me between brackets].


Born in 1960, Martin Majoor attended art school in Arnhem between 1980 and 1985. During those years he became very interested in the design of type, but was not encouraged to concentrate upon the subject because the broadly Bauhaus programme pursued at the Arnhem Schools of Art aimed to promote a conceptually-based generalism rather than professionally-focused specialism amongst its students. Majoor’s interest in typography was fired by the history of the subject. He has remembered scouring the libraries of Arnhem for books upon the subject and has argued that his largely unguided research has left him with a healthy collection of “diverse” influences.

Majoor’s enthusiasm for type emerged in the years before PostScript and the Macintosh computer. In his desire to design letterforms he was not responding to any immediate technological cues and after leaving art school, not yet able to design and distribute typeface independently, he went to work in the Research and Development Department of the company Océ-Netherlands. In the mid- to late-1980s, Océ was concerned with the development of proprietary digital systems. Investing heavily in speculative research, the company employed a significant proportion of Dutch type designers at the outset of their careers.


In 1988, after two years at Océ, Martin Majoor was required to fulfil his commitment to the Dutch government. As an alternative to military service, he was allowed to work as a graphic designer at the state run Vredenburg Music Centre in Utrecht [the design departement was headed by Jan Willem den Hartog whom I knew from the School of Art in Arnhem, he gave me the great opportunity to work at Vredenburg, MM]. Designing the publicity and programmes for the centre, it was at this point that Majoor first started working with Macintosh computers. Soon dissatisfied with the range of typefaces that were available on the Mac, Majoor was quick to realise that he had access to the technology to craft his own face. He has remembered asking himself: “Why don’t I make a typeface with all the things we need like lower-case figures, non-aligned figures, and ligatures?”

5 Dutch Type DesignersIt was the paucity of the Macintosh’s early typographic provision that prompted Majoor to design his first complete typeface, a face that evolved into the now widely used Scala type family [it was again Jan Willem den Hartog who had the vision and the courage to give me a chance to start working on Scala, MM.]. Designing Scala specifically for the use of the Vredenburg Centre in 1988, the distribution of the face came about by chance two years later. Scouting for fonts to distribute under his new FontFont label, Erik Spiekermann from FontShop saw Majoor’s typeface at Type 90, the Oxford based ATypI conference. Spiekermann approached Majoor for the rights to license the design in tandem with a group of fonts from other young Dutch designers, including Max Kisman, Just van Rossum and Erik van Blokland. The face became the first FontFont that was designed specifically as a text face, and as such it remains rare within the collection which has remained largely devoted to distinctive display types. [image above: cover of the first FontFont type specimen ‘5 Nederlandse letterontwerpers’ (5 Dutch type designers), designed by Just van Rossum in 1990]

In 1993, Martin Majoor designed a sans serif partner for Scala, Scala Sans which was also released as a FontFont. He has claimed that this, rather than being a response to the demands of the font market, was a project in which he had been interested from the outset. Through the 1990s, Scala and Scala Sans have remained the only pair of Majoor’s typefaces to be available through retail. The designer has argued that he is solely concerned with creating typefaces for specific typographic purposes and has no interest in the speculative design of type, becoming servant to the whims of font buyers. While Scala and its sans serif companion have become known well beyond the context for which they were originally conceived, Majoor has continued to regard them as the product of a particular project: the design of material for Vredenburg.

Martin Majoor has described Scala as being “based upon a humanist model with influences from different style periods” [1].  Expanding upon this, Robin Kinross has called Scala “a text-face without exact historical precedents, but rooted in tradition” [2].  Scala’s interdeterminancy of historical reference, its ability to speak broadly of typographic tradition while shying away from commitment to any single historic model, might be responsible for its success. Kinross gave it credit for being an “an all-purpose roman” [3], it allows the contemporary designer to give a nod to tradition, without getting involved in the baggage that accompanies the use of, for example, a meticulous reworking of the types of Garamond. The alphabet of Scala’s partner, Scala Sans, is derived from that of the seriffed original. This means that, unlike the large part of twentieth-century sans serifs which are based upon geometrical models, Scala Sans is of humanist proportions. Majoor has argued that this renders the typeface “more ‘open’ than non-humanist sans serifs” [4].  The humanist sans serif, which has been a significant trend in post PostScript type design, might be seen as the outcome of a cultural sensibility that is particularly Dutch. Types of this kind could be said to combine a commitment to positive change with a respect for the past, effectively displaying a kind of soft-edged modernism. 

Both Scala and Scala Sans offer extensive provision for the designer concerned with typographic nicety: real italics, non-lining figures, small capitals and ligatures. By including these kinds of features within a standard character set, Martin Majoor clearly demonstrated an allegiance to the values of the traditional book typographer. In the Scala Sans specimen book, Majoor stated that the combination of Scala and Scala Sans is effective in “the production of high quality typography” [5].  While Scala’s quality of generic historicism might have appeal for many new users of type, it is clear that Majoor was more concerned with the requirements of the more experienced typographer.

The popularity of Scala and Scala Sans has been striking. Possibly picking up on the faces original purpose, as a design for a small arts institution, the serif version was adopted immediately on its release by the British designer Tony Arefin, who used it within publications for innovative galleries such as east London’s Chisenhale. Later, both the serif and sans serif became widely used within art publishing. In the mid 1990s, probably as a result of acquired associations, they were picked up by Taschen [by designer Mark Thomson], a large German publisher specialising in popular art books. Since 1995 Taschen have used the faces in the design of a large part of both their books and their publicity material. The prevalence of Scala and Scala Sans is such that by the mid-1990s it had begun to seem as if they were the in-house faces of the European art world.

But not only employed in cultural publications, Scala and Scala Sans have also been used for purposes much further from that for which they were originally intended. Particularly conspicuous has been their adoption by the Netherlands’ second highest circulation newspaper, Algemeen Dagblad, in March 1995. The paper uses the two faces in combination, for the most part employing the serif for headlines and text and the sans serif for more punchy side-bars and summaries. Majoor slightly fattened his designs to render them more suitable for newsprint, but apart from this he had nothing to do with the design of the newspaper. He has appeared slightly bemused by the increasing ubiquity of the Scala typefaces, whose correspondence with the cultural mood of the mid-1990s has been remarkable.

Book design

After leaving Vredenburg in 1990, Martin Majoor set himself up as an independent designer, sharing a set of studios with fellow type designer and typographer, Fred Smeijers. Rather than a type designer, Majoor has preferred to view himself as a book typographer, and is backed in this claim by a large body of finely crafted work in this area, using established historic faces and traditional typographic devices such as small capitals for emphasis. As a designer of books, Majoor has used many typefaces designed by others, about which he has strongly held and sometimes fairly idiosyncratic views. For example, claiming PostScript Type 1 renders typefaces “too light”, he has favoured the technically inferior Type 3 versions, which appear more robust on the page. Still a devotee of typographic history, Majoor has welcomed many of the recent type revivals, singling out Adobe Caslon as being particularly successful, but has regretted the absence of good PostScript versions of other existing designs, such as those of W.A. Dwiggins. Majoor’s interests and enthusiasms ally him to some of typography’s most stalwart traditionalists, for example he has continued to make a strict distinction between the categories of text and display faces and as a teacher of design at the Schools of Art in Breda and Arnhem, it has seemed appropriate to him that type design remains the concern of a limited number of specialists. However the fresh, spacious, unconstrained nature of his designs, both for the page and the letter, belies the rigidity that these views might imply. Majoor is anything but a slave to typographic tradition.

[1]  [4]  [5]  Scala Sans specimen, 1993
[2]  Kinross, Robin, 'The Digital Wave', pp.26-39, Eye, 7/1992
[3]  Kinross, Robin, Eye, 7/1992

© Emily King, 1999. ‘New Faces – type design in the first decade of device-independent digital typesetting (1987-1997)’.