His Name Was Almost Legion

Typeface: Great Primer Uncials

James Mosley shared with me this striking photograph of some of the world’s oldest type-making material. These brass matrices, made by a Dutch punchcutter in 1508, are now in the collection of the Enschedé Museum in Haarlem. It’s remarkable that they’ve survived long enough to celebrate their 500th birthday.

Especially enthusiastic type buffs might recognize these as the Great Primer Uncials that we adapted for our Historical Allsorts collection, but even the most devoted connoisseur is unlikely to know the name of the man behind them. It’s amazing that we don’t, given his significance: historian H. D. L. Vervliet identifies an entire historical period with the designer’s name alone, noting that as many as half of all books printed in Holland in the first half of the sixteenth century featured this one man’s typefaces. This was an extraordinary achievement for a man less famous than his contemporaries Garamond, Granjon or Plantin, so we have to ask — doing our best Graham Chapman impression — why is it that the world has forgotten the name of Henric Pieterszoon Lettersnijder?

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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.

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The One Ill Building

When I first saw the banner unfurled on Sixth Avenue, I figured The One Ill Building was a Beastie Boys’ foray into urban planning. (Long overdue, if you ask me: if Jade Jagger can be an architect’s muse, why not the King Ad-Rock?) If not a real estate development, then surely theoneillbuilding.com was promoting a documentary about sick building syndrome, narrated by, say, Al Gore.

Turns out it’s neither. So what is The One Ill Building? It’s this, and I feel quite the sucker.

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