19 August, 2009
Inside the H&FJ Drawing Office
A View of the Drawing-Office of Hoefler & Frere-Jones, Manufacturers of Phonograms & Allophones. Special Designs & Estimates Submitted on Enquiry. Write: H. & F.J., Houston-Street, New York.
Just kidding. Thanks, Eric Baker, for the photo! —JH
5 August, 2009
John Downer at The Propagandist
Twenty years ago, John Downer and I were introduced by a mutual friend. He’d introduced us as “type designers,” a flattering description of my professional achievements to date (I was a recent refugee from graphic design), and a somewhat elliptic summary of John’s credentials. Whether or not he was intentionally vague, I’ll never know, but it set me up for a very entertaining afternoon.
John visited my studio, where I was working on a set of roman capitals that would ultimately become the Requiem typeface. He had some suggestions about the design, which like most critiques were especially hard to articulate; typography suffers from a poverty of terminology. Eyeing two bottles of Rich Art poster paint in my taboret, John reached for these along with a sheet of typing paper, and the cheap plastic paintbrush that I kept for dusting my keyboard. In a few effortless strokes of black, he perfectly reproduced Requiem’s capital S, waited a moment for the paint to dry, and then reloaded the brush with white to render his corrections. The whole shebang couldn’t have taken fifteen seconds, most of it spent waiting for paint to dry. I just stared: it was like watching someone fold a paper napkin into a remote control helicopter, and then pilot it around the room. The detail our mutual friend had neglected to mention, of course, is that John came to type design through his other profession: he is a master sign painter.
Type design has always been a wonderfully polygenetic field, and a random sampling of practitioners is likely to include calligraphers, graphic designers, stonemasons, letterpress printers, engravers, graffiti artists, and programmers. This mixture produces a marvelous synthesis of perspectives in terms of both technique and culture, and serves to make type design a vigorous and exciting discipline. But few type designers I know bring this particular experience to bear on their work:
I began graduate studies in painting at The University of Iowa in 1973 after working at sign shops in Des Moines for about a year. The chairman of the painting department at the UI was Byron Burford, proprietor of The Great Byron Burford Circus of Artistic Wonders — a traveling art show and circus, in one. It included moving cutouts of exotic animals, motorized trapeze artists, contortionists, and acrobats...
15 December, 2008
Typographic Gifts for Designers, Part 14
Hot on the heels of my open question about artists and fives, I came across this marvelous photograph by Berenice Abbott featuring a pair of gorgeous fives in starring roles. Abbott is best remembered for Changing New York, her seminal collection of photographs that documents New York of the 1930s; it’s both an inspiration and a great resource for designers, especially typeface designers whose work is influenced by the public sphere.
For eighty years, the A. Zito Bakery stood at 259 Bleecker Street, a short walk from the H&FJ offices. In a street now dominated by bar room neon and vacuform plastic, Zito’s window looked in 2004 much the way it did when Abbott photographed it in 1937. Bread Store is among a collection of Berenice Abbott Photographs now available from AllPosters.com as high-resolution Giclée prints, lovely not only for the glimpses they offer into a grander New York, but for some marvelous lettering as well. These barber shop windows (1, 2) must be tremendous up close, and the humble decals in Zito’s window above have long been a favorite of ours: our Delancey font is based on them. —JH
20 October, 2008
The Neon Boneyard
Our own Andy Clymer has returned from a trip out west with some fine photos of Las Vegas’s infamous neon boneyard. A project of the Neon Museum, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation and study of one of the nation’s great lettering traditions, the neon boneyard is of course located in the Las Vegas desert: an ideal climate for preservation, and convenient to the center of the energetic neon carnage of the 21st century.
Years ago I enjoyed a tour of the boneyard during a visit with Yesco, the Young Electric Sign Company, who are responsible for the haberdashery of a significant number of megawatts on the Vegas strip. It was with a combination of pride and horror that I discovered how many H&FJ fonts were being used on the new digital signs that were fast replacing the old neon: even today, Yesco’s own site advertises their digital abilities using a little Knockout. For a type designer with a love of signs, it’s a very odd feeling. —JH