Julieta Ulanovsky: The Designer Who Created Montserrat

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Julieta Ulanovsky - Feature image
Photo by Xavier Martin

1.      Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I live and work in Buenos Aires. I like to walk around the city and even though I go the same way, I always see new things. Sadly, these days due to the pandemic I don’t go to places anymore. But something similar happens to me at home. I see the same things and I love and like them. I find new things in those objects. And I like to have things that give me a sense of beauty – I never tire of it. Now is a rare time and I rarely go on a walk. I would like to share with you a clip of our home. It was made for the last edition of Open House, Buenos Aires, virtual edition:

My work operates in a similar way. I try to find new ways of looking at (and showing) what we already know. Working in communication implies the same challenge. You have to be clear and get the message across. But if it arrives in an attractive and unexpected way, much better! It will surely tell you something new.

2.      In 2011, you released the font Montserrat. It proved to be one of the most popular fonts globally, and made its way to many critical lists. What made you create that font?

I was always attracted to that kind of letters. Let me tell you something special. Many years ago, there was a design contest to identify the neighbourhood Montserrat with one of its main activities: the business of the textile world. It was called ‘Montserrat Arte y Moda’ (Montserrat: Art & Fashion). I participated. And I worked on the same idea. There was no Montserrat Typeface at the time nor the remotest idea that it was going to happen. This was in 2003 and Montserrat came out in 2011. I chose the Trebuchet font that seemed to me to be the most geometric at the time. It had an M whose centre reached well below the line (for some reason that seemed so important to me) and then I concentrated on portraying the neighbourhood. In other words, the neighbourhood and the character of its urban letters had already been questioning me. I didn’t win the contest but recently I found that project and I realised it is still beautiful and, above all, current.

Trebuchet font. Credit: Wikimedia
Montserrat font
Montserrat on Google Fonts

3.      Why did you name it Montserrat?

Montserrat is the result of my graduation work from the typography design degree I did at the FADU UBA Faculty of Architecture, Design and Urbanism, University of Buenos Aires. At that time, the project was called Progreso (‘Progress’) because I liked the idea of ​​portraying what was beginning to narrate cities as such. And how those letters had a particular aspect. The letters identified and wrote that new space that had appeared and brought novelties: the cinema, the market, the canopies: the urban landscape as a new stage where things happen. As the English say, the place to be.

All that spirit of the future and its graphic and typographic correlation attracted me a lot. It seemed to me that it combined with the idea of ​​speed, industry, advancement, a certain faith in progress, as we perhaps see it today in technology. But when it came to the real world of typography, the name ‘Progress’ was already taken and I couldn’t use it. I tried the name of a very beautiful cinema in Buenos Aires, called Gaumont (which has the ‘G’ that I chose for the font) and it was also taken. Finally, one day I came up with Montserrat, which is my neighbourhood. I found it sonorous and with a friendly pronunciation for several languages. I tried it and it was available. And I liked it. I think that somehow the name of a neighbourhood, gave it that broad character. My neighborhood is where I live and work. And where there are many examples of letters like that. And that someone from another neighbourhood or someone from another city or directly from another galaxy can feel that the letters and the type family serve them. Perhaps because I took parameters that happened in many parts of the world, of which many (like you at Poets Versus) can feel part of.

Montserrat, a short movie by Fernando Lazzari based on the font.

4.      In El libro de los Colectivos (2005) in which you engage with patterns and graphic design elements and patterns on buses in Buenos Aires, the whole book conveys a sense of warmth and being at home. Why did you choose those buses and those elements as your topic?

I always really liked city buses. Here in Buenos Aires they are giant moles but full of colour. They have a way of bringing colour, and if you move away a bit, they look like abstract art paintings. They carry on them some contemporary, geometric art. Colours come from previous decisions such as company identities but are already installed in the urban landscape. And they recognise each other in the distance thanks to that. Lately many companies have disappeared, so the lines without companies are acquired by other companies. Unfortunately, they do not retain their colours but only change their number. On the one hand this complicates the recognition of each line but also makes them lose that unique combination of colours. And they become all red, or all yellow. There is a company called Azul (meaning ‘blue’) and their buses are all yellow.

Something similar happens with old bars. Here in Buenos Aires there is an important tradition of bars. And they are certainly old. And it is very sad when one of those bars closes and is replaced by a coffeehouse chain. I think that if a transport company buys a line or a chain of bars buys an old bar, it can manage them and make it work without necessarily taking away its identity. I think it would be a good campaign for companies and coffee-shop chains.

Back to my discussion of city buses: and just as they are giants, they are often immensely cute. Each unit (as they are called) has the work of its owner and/or its driver who imprints their love on it: their musical preferences, their photos, their decorated mirrors (traditional folk crafts that decorate and personalise the interior of the buses). And that love is something that always caught my attention. It is something silent, and it is not in any identity manual of the transport lines. However, it is an undeniable identity.

We started the book without knowing if it was going to be possible, if it was going to be interesting, if it was going to show that magic. It took us almost two years of work but we did it. We are trying to get the second edition out.

The book El libro de los Colectivos, Buenos Aires City Buses
The book El libro de los Colectivos, Buenos Aires City Buses

5.      Later in 2013 and 2019 in the books, Divino Barolo y Divino  Salvo, and Extraordinario Planetario, you explore and study two landmarks of Buenos Aires, as well as patterns, captured with exquisite photography. Why these two landmarks and those elements?

Buildings and books are formats that get along well. The design and narration, the journey and the history get along well both in digital formats and in works of architecture. In the case of Divino Barolo, it is a book that is based on a building that in turn is based on a book. The Barolo Palace is inspired by the Divine Comedy and that gives it something special. Even without knowing anything about the book, it is evident that it is a special building. It is full of interesting decisions, it has mystery, weird shapes, and a very clear identity. Nobody feels indifferent when entering, even if they do not know about literature or architecture. And although it is a ‘normal’ building (it is not an institutional or governmental building) people are always surprised, starting with us (Valeria Dulitzky, my partner and I) who have had the studio there for 27 years. An architectural historian defined it as a lay temple.

Julieta Ulanovsky with Valeria Dulitzky, her partner in ZkySky. Photo taken by : Fernando Lazzari

And the Planetarium is also a very special building. It looks like a spacecraft or an embassy of Saturn on Earth. It is a building of the modern era of buildings and being my contemporary (it is from 1967 and I am from 1968) it challenges me in a particular way. Since I was a child, it always gave me a feeling of being in the future. Today that future has passed, so it becomes a retro–futuristic piece. The work is made on philosophical principles and innovative decisions in its production, which again, as in Barolo, even without knowing them, you perceive as soon as you pass the entrance threshold.

Extraordinario Planetario, Valeria Dulitzky and Julieta Ulanovsky. Photography by Xavier Martin.

6.      What is it that you love about the city and what are the times you feel safe?

I love surprises. There is something that only the city gives you: the unexpected. For better and for worse. But when it is good it is extraordinary. From meeting someone on the street, discovering an architectural detail that you did not know, being able to stop for a coffee and clear your mind. I love that. And that makes me feel safe and happy. There is a certain type of dialogue that takes place on the street that is unique. There is familiarity with the stranger. (This is something I published in Fabian Muggeri’s project, where I tried to share some of that experience, when I met with a little truck delivering bread: muchosdiasfelices.com.ar).

7.      We use your font for our new publication, Poets Versus Sexual Harassment: An Anthology.  What are your favourite poems (or poem) from the anthology and why?

I didn’t read all of it, I must admit. But from what I saw, I liked: Mucal because it runs through something too intimate and suggestive at the same time; and I enjoyed Freedom: I like that the wings are not broken but we forget how to use them. And I loved the sharpness of Nudes Are Flowers for Men.

8.      We decided to mention the type designer in our Anthology on the same page as we introduce Poets Versus and our partners. We try to empower womxn designers on our platform. What can publications and art circles do to empower womxn designers more?

I believe in organisation as the tool that can change the place of women. Take us from an unfavourable place to one of visibility and improvements in working conditions. The union, participation and culture of solidarity between women is something to cultivate more and more. I belong to a group “Hay Futura” where there is a climate of effervescence in relation to this. There are talks, there are proposals for change, action in commissioning work, and hundreds of women dedicated to the world of design with desire and firm intentions for change.

9.      What other projects are you working on at the moment?

A couple of months ago I released “Confitería”, a new typeface that I designed together with Sol Matas. It is based on the calligraphy of the external sign of a very beautiful confectionery in the city of Buenos Aires. A very classic place that evokes everything I like. It is a script, geometric and connected letter. Also, in the studio we are working on a new series of buildings for a new book. And it also occupies me a lot to think about how we are going to live from now on, how it will be to exist in cities now. What will become of our jobs, of the world as we knew it until today.

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