John Downer at The Propagandist

John Downer

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...

This is from Freshjive’s The Propagandist, which today is presenting a nice slideshow of John’s work in connection with a line of lettered t-shirts. —JH

Wearable Rococo

Look up and you’ll see the floriated, ornamented, shaded letters of the H&FJ logo (l. gravura tuscana), as well as an italic cousin used for the News, Notes & Observations nameplate. I have a special fondness for these kinds of letters, which reflect a synthesis of traditions from both typemaking and engraving. Is it therefore any wonder that I love these alphabet brooches from Bena Clothing, spotted by our friends at Design Sponge? They’re made from laser-etched cheery veneer over mahogany, thoughtfully offered as set of 53 pieces with duplicates of popular letters. (I wonder how the frequency distribution of initials differs from that of other kinds of words: extra Js, I imagine?) —JH

Typographic Gifts for Designers, Part 12

I liked samplers as a kid. In the fictional account of my life, I could trace this affection to my dear great-grandmother Abigail, who spent hours embroidering by candlelight (when she wasn’t busy repairing uniforms for returning Union soldiers.) But having grown up in New York in the seventies, it’s more likely that I first noticed the style while watching Family Feud, and that a steady diet of Atari 2600 and NAMCO simply predisposed my developing brain to a sympathy for bitmaps.

Etsy is carrying a charming little bag that pays homage to the cross-stitch, a gusseted Canvas Tote silkscreened in orange or blue. At 11" × 14" (30cm × 35cm) it’s big enough for the usual junk that designers lug around, and is of course a sound alternative to grocery store plastic, whether you’re ecologically responsible or just self-righteous. Either way, be stylish. —JH

Typographic Gifts for Designers, Part 5

If there’s one thing that says Gotham Fabulous, it’s rhodium-plated silver with a hit of CZ. Sara found these Initial Pendant Necklaces online, each offering 0.2 carats of genuine cubic zirconium in a tarnish-free setting. A full alphabet’s available, though sadly no ampersand, otherwise the whole H&FJ posse would be rolling in style.

A classier alternative is this stunning diamond necklace by Irina Block. But either option requires a primo backup gift. —JH

Holiday Gifts for Typophiles

An office full of type designers is already a dangerous a breeding ground for the highly contagious chronic arrowmania, but H&FJ alumnus Kevin Dresser has taken things to the next level with the DresserJohnson Arrow Ring. A chic adaptation of one of the duo’s great icons (their logo for Brooklyn Bunny is one of my fondest memories of modern logodom) the Arrow Ring makes possible marvelous moments of unwitting self-annotation such as this. A great stocking-stuffer, available in sizes 2–13. —JH

Your project exceeds the 1,000k limit, so your changes have not been saved.

Try adding fewer fonts, fewer styles, or configuring the fonts with fewer features.