An H&FJ Type Tasting

Typefaces: Sentinel and Gotham

We keep a running tally of the interesting media in which we’ve seen our fonts used, from corrugated cardboard to topiary. The designers who choose our fonts often share their more startling experiments on our Facebook page, including more than a few typographic tattoos. But with the holiday season upon us, things have taken a decidedly gustatory turn.

Designer Luke Elliott kicked things off over Halloween with his Gotham jack-o-lantern, to our knowledge the first example of in-gourd typography featuring an H&FJ design. An anonymous designer followed over Thanksgiving with a beautiful collection of Gotham cakes that revealed the challenge of inlining a sans serif, in fondant no less. The latest contribution to the genre came last night, with designer Zach Higgins tweeting his exploration of the Sentinel Light Italic lowercase z rendered in toast. We’re left to wonder if our graded faces, such as Mercury Text or Chronicle Text, might provide designers with micro-fine control to adjust the relationship between color and burn. Please help us with this important research and share your findings. —JH

Typographic Gifts for Designers, Part 16

“Modern Gaspipe” is the charming taxonomic name for this kind of letterform. We’ve explored the style in our Tungsten type family — itself a fine holiday gift, ahem. But for those with a hankering for decor, the always fruitful Three Potato Four has this unlittle item for sale, a huge handpainted wooden figure three (34" / 86cm), perfect for your living room, studio, or threearium. Thanks to Brian Hennings for finding this one: frankly I’m amazed that he hasn’t had his fill of these kinds of letters. —JH

G Thing

Typeface: Acropolis

An Acropolis Italic sighting is a rare event, so even at 48 pixels I couldn’t help but notice that George Garrastegui used the font’s letter G in his Twitter icon. George was kind enough to send me the original file, though it’s not the mere design fragment I’d assumed: it’s a photo of a foot-high sculpture in corrugated cardboard, made manifest by fellow designer Maurizio Masi. Thank goodness George’s name begins with a letter that can stand on its own, for had he been ‘Frank’ or ‘Peter’ he’d have been doomed to the Sisyphean life of forever righting his own lopsided initial.

Is it me, or is there something vaguely menacing about the typeface when it’s enlarged to these proportions? Maybe it’s a byproduct of being given material form; curiously, this is not the first time Acropolis Italic has gotten a spooky 3-D treatment… —JH

A Type Tablet

Typeface: Ziggurat

When Abi Huynh sent me this image, I thought at first that it was a website graphic in the prevailing style: a digital rendering of high-gloss black acrylic, against a reflective white surface, in that “web 2.0” style that will not go away. But no! It’s an actual artifact, and a lovely one at that. Dominic Hofstede and Wendy Ellerton designed this limited edition stencil, a lovely laser-cut thingum at A5 size, produced as a promotional gift for the Australian studio Hofstede Design. Front and center here is our Ziggurat typeface, the lone representative of roman capitals to join a great typographic crew: among others, the design features one of the world’s best ampersands (from Caslon), along with sundry other punctuation (you know I love paragraph marks and daggers), and a Fraktur capital S. —JH

Breaking News!

Typeface: Verlag Condensed Black

We’re resisting the temptation to go against last year’s declaration that April Fools’ Day website goofs are inherently unfunny, so it pleases me to instead have an genuine update regarding someone else’s typographic silliness.

Eighteen months ago, we reported on a mysterious typographic gift that materialized outside the H&FJ offices. Today, I am delighted to report that the culprit (artist) has come forward! Rob Keller — who may well be a typeface designer graduated from the University of Reading, but will always be known to me as The Grecian Bandit — apparently included us on his rounds when distributing ceramic letter sculptures throughout the city, as part of a project called Left Out Letters. Check out the collection of photos on his blog: in addition to Plaintiff's Exhibit A documenting his Acropolis Italic h and fj, there’s a fantastic tableau showing a French Clarendon lowercase m being worshipped by a field of dairy cows. Which is exactly how type designers like to imagine our planet looks like from outer space, at least metaphorically. —JH

The Gerrit Noordzij Prize, Part 2: Incoming

Typeface: Gotham

Type designers are accustomed to approaching the line between homage and parody with great care. It’s especially daunting when its subject is a living colleague, as was the case last Friday when Tobias presented an award of his own design to Wim Crouwel, winner of the 2009 Gerrit Noordzij Prize. (In keeping with the tradition, the current holder of the prize designs the award given to its next recipient.) To design an award for Crouwel, a Dutch icon who is indelibly associated with a strong and recognizable personal style, takes great sensitivity: imagine having to design a business card for Piet Mondrian, or select a ringtone for Igor Stravinsky.

If there is anyone able to see past the obvious, it is Wim Crouwel. In the 1960s, Crouwel’s fresh yet doctrinaire approach to graphic design earned him the pejorative nickname “gridnik,” which Crouwel, with typical flare, adopted as a moniker, and later chose as the name for his best known typeface. In his acceptance speech on Friday, Crouwel described his decades-long disagreements with his friend Gerrit Noordzij — in whose name the award is given — and both men reflected gleefully on their continuing philosophical differences. This fruitful synthesis has colored both the study and the practice of graphic design, and it’s satisfying to see it recognized. This is what awards should be for.

In keeping with the custom, Tobias designed an award that uses his own work but includes a nod to Crouwel’s. In celebration of the pre-history of the Gotham typeface, Tobias arranged for the fabrication of a traditional enamel sign, featuring an abundant grid of Gotham’s many styles (64 out of 66, to be precise.) Hearing Crouwel speak with such good humor at the presentation ceremony, I was almost tempted to reveal Tobias’s original idea, which was to find a way to bridge the Dutch tradition of chocolate letter-making with Crouwel’s arresting new alphabet of 1967. (“I probably could have done it with Kit-Kat bars,” Tobias mused.) I am certain Crouwel would approve. —JH

The Gerrit Noordzij Prize, Part 1: Outgoing

One charming aspect of the Gerrit Noordzij Prize is the design of the award itself. By tradition, it’s something created by the current prize holder, and presented to the incoming awardee. Past winners have used the occasion to create something that not only encapsulates their own work in some personal way, but postulates some connection to the interests of the next designer in succession. Erik Spiekermann, winner of the 2003 award, presented the above to Tobias in 2006: it’s a witty rendering of his twentieth-century Meta typeface, produced in the distinctly nineteenth-century technology of wood type. As a gift to a type designer whose work regularly engages with historical form, I thought it was especially poignant.

The set was made by Scott Polzen, who began exploring the resurrection of wood typemaking while still a student. His latter-day wood types are lovely artifacts, cut from cherry and finished with sandpaper and file, as Polzen explained in an essay in Letterspace, a journal of The Type Directors’ Club. As intriguing as the how of this project is the why: “I’ve come to understand,” Polzen writes, “that my real motivation for this project was to gain a greater sense of participation in the culture of reading and writing: making wood type forced me to think quite literally about how the written word works.” I thought this sentiment nicely echoed Noordzij’s own philosophy about the primacy of written, not printed, words; it makes Polzen’s connection to the award even more apt.

Wim Crouwel will receive the 2009 Gerrit Noordzij Prize on Friday, when we’ll have the first photographs of the award that Tobias designed for him. I will miss seeing it around our office. —JH

A Secret Universe in Your Desk Drawer

My weapon of choice is a Pilot Precise rollerball, but I keep a General’s Sketching Pencil below my monitor. I don’t write with it: it’s not sharpened; it’s there because I admire its typography, which in less than four inches goes from italic small capitals to a cheery script, to a pair of unrelated sans serifs in two different sizes. It is eclecticism incarnate, and it’s got a lot of heart.

Once you start to notice their markings, pencils draw you into a beguiling world of exotic lettering. With color unavailable to their designers — absurdly, the color of a pencil either definitely indicates the color of its lead, or is completely arbitrary — pencils have historically expressed their identities through playful typography. The range of information they need to convey (manufacturer, product name, grading and classification, place of origin) calls for a self-contained system of semantic distinctions, and the unforgiving process by which tiny letters must be hot stamped into soft pine demands durable letterforms of considerable ingenuity. These conditions recall the challenges of designing newspaper text faces, which must first and foremost be legible. But where expressiveness trumps clarity, things get interesting.

Bob Truby’s Brand Name Pencils offers an inviting tour of his collection, complete with closeups of each and every specimen. The brief sampling above already reveals more kinds of script, blackletter and tuscan than can even be categorized, and these are among the collection’s more conservative members. Check out the Dixon Aerial 2280 No. 2, whose logotype might be classified as “open Lombardic capitals with terminal lightning bolts.” Definitely not a species you see every day. —JH

Type in Three Dimensions

Taking a break from my top secret Independence Day project that combines typography and patriotism (more about this later), I came across something marvelous that I had to share.

The August 2008 issue of Print has this arresting image on the cover. I recognized that the typography grew out of our Gotham Rounded font, which is the magazine’s signature typeface, and had assumed that this treatment was a clever and curious bit of digital rendering on someone’s part. It is and it isn’t: designer Karsten Schmidt used software of his own devising to give Gotham Rounded’s polished letterforms these intriguingly organic roots (using a branch of mathematical modeling called reaction diffusion) but then fed these digital inputs into a 3-D “printer” in order to produce a physical object.

I’m fascinated by 3-D printers (read: want one.) They’re essentially inkjet printers, but instead of rendering an image using a grid of ink splatters on a page, they produce successive cross-sections of an object by strategically injecting liquid binder into a polymer powder. Taken together, these high-resolution cross-sections form a dimensional object, like the one Schmidt produced here. Print is running an article describing the making of the cover, and its designer has detailed the entire process, step-by-step, in this illuminating Flickr set. Check it out! —JH

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

Ode on a Grecian Kern

Greek Week Continues!

Like all good New Yorkers, we know how to respond to unattended packages: with deep dread and unbridled panic. Yet despite our daily diet of Orwellian public service announcements, a devil-may-care attitude moved someone at H&FJ to immediately open the unmarked brown paper parcel that was left outside our door (candy!), inside which were these: a pair of fired clay sculptures in the shape of — what else? — the h and fj from our very own Grecian italic typeface, and this week’s cause célèbre, Acropolis Italic. Bookends? Graven images? Anyone care to fess up? Whoever you are, you’ve earned your stripes for ginning up an ‘fj’ ligature where there was none; that takes both thoughtfulness and pluck. So thank you for the gift, secret admirer! Do get in touch so we can send you a proper thank-you note, or a restraining order. — JH

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