Just around the corner from where I live in Berlin is a big street, an architectural ensemble, of imposing residential buildings and associated shops — a monument of the so called Zuckerbäckerstil (Socialist classicism).The whole thing was built in the late 50s and 60s, after the area was destroyed in WW2. At this time, the small number of neon signs adorning the blocks of flats and shops were part of the architectural concept and carefully designed.
One of my favourite signs hangs over a large former bookshop called the KARL-MARX-BUCHHANDLUNG (now an event location). I would often come across the big uppercase letters, shining in yellow neon, when I came home at night, and it always attracted me. The curved A and M, the proportions of the K and X were fascinating. So I started to design a typeface inspired by it: Babetta.
I tried to track down the initial designer of the letters several times. Although Berlin has a well organised authority for the conservation of monuments and historic buildings, my reasearch was unsuccessful. At first sight, the neon letters have some Swiss Grotesque feeling (see C and G), are somewhat dynamically drawn (see U and X), and use Art Deco proportions (see A and R). I decided to design the alphabet as a combination of neon letters and Art Deco elements.
The concept behind this design was never to transfer the original neon sign into a digital font. The shop sign was a starting point for a new typedesign. Note the different shapes of the letters K, N or X for example.
The first version of the typeface was released in 2013 as an uppercase-only alphabet, it came with five weights and three layers for the neon style. In 2018 I started to design the matching lowercase letters. Since the original neon sign was also uppercase only, I had to look for some other reference for the lower case letters, and quickly came to Microgramma. The typeface by Alessandro Butti und Aldo Novarese, designed in 1952, was also initially an uppercase-only typeface. The width of the letters and the closed forms of letters like C or G made it a good source of additional inspiration.
After finishing the basic alphabet, figures and punctuation marks, the playful part was adding alternate letters and a bunch of decorative ligatures. The typeface comes with an alternate E, and alternatives for the German umlauts Ä,Ö,Ü and the Scandinavian Å, Æ, Œ and Ø. There are more than 75 letter combinations, most of them groups with S or SS.
Choosing an accurate name for a typeface can be a difficult final task. During the design process, I usually go with a working title. In this case the initial name was ‘Karl-Marx’, which seemed too political for a decorative typeface like this one. I came up with a long list of ideas, but finally went for the name of another building in the street, the Salon Babette, a former GDR beauty salon, and changed it a little to Babetta.
Try it out and type it!