What’s in a Font Name

For as long as fonts have had names, they’ve had bad names. Historical inaccuracies have been common for two hundred years: typefounders of the Industrial Revolution groped for historical labels to apply to newly-invented styles (Egyptian, Gothic, etc.), and it wasn’t long before typefaces began to bear the recognizable names of unrelated historical figures. Alongside the very un-Dutch Series Rembrandt, a nineteenth century French specimen book shows the Series Victor Hugo, unconnected with the author but doubtless hoping to cash in on his celebrity; Hugo was still alive at the time.

But most entertaining are faces like this one, which honor prominent figures from typography’s own history. This charming face is from the 1928 type specimen of the Nebiolo foundry in Torino, and here we have a typeface full of Art Nouveau vigor, fresh from the window of a chic gelateria, or a cinema marquee. And what famous early twentieth century figure is it named after? Why, Johannes Gutenberg of course (d. 1468), father of movable type. Can’t you just see Gutenberg stepping out of his Fiat GP racer, his handsome olive complexion set off by a rakish tweed cap?

It seems that most of the world’s typefounders have suffered this cruel fate. Here are some especially juicy mistreatments.

Continues…

A Living Fossil on the 1 Line

Photo: David W. Dunlap, The New York Times

Passing fancies in lettering often vanish without a trace, and no style has died a harder death than Art Nouveau. Even in its heyday, the style’s contributions to typography were slight: there were never many Art Nouveau typefaces, and the few eccentrics that have survived may owe something to a resurgence in the sixties, when their smoky and vegetal forms found favor among the psychedelic set. It was not typography but lettering in which Art Nouveau reached full flower — sometimes literally — famously in the posters of Alphonse Mucha, and the Paris Métro signs of Hector Guimard.

Parisians have guarded their Art Nouveau treasures well; New Yorkers less so. New York was no stranger to the style — two blocks south of our office is Ernest Flagg’s splendid Little Singer Building, and it was in the borough of Queens that Louis Comfort Tiffany established his factory — but lettering from the period has become scarce. This morning, David W. Dunlap writes in The New York Times of a new piece of lettering that has surfaced, in of all places, the uptown platform of the No. 1 subway line at Columbus Circle. A visit is yours for $2.

Dunlap’s article contains the full and fascinating story, including this irresistable opener: this lettered encaustic tile, specially created for the station, is somehow older than the trains themselves. —JH

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