The Origin of Gotham
Long before the emergence of a profession called "graphic design," there was signage. Up until the mid-twentieth century, the job of providing architectural lettering often fell to engineers or draftsmen, most of whom worked outside of the typographic tradition. The shape of facade lettering was often determined by the practical business of legibility, rather than any sort of stylistic agenda — although inevitably, even the draftsman's vision of "basic building lettering" was influenced by the prevailing style of the time.
An American Vernacular
Like most American cities, New York is host to a number of mundane buildings whose facades exhibit a distinctively American form of sans serif. This kind of lettering occurs in many media: the same office buildings whose numbers are rendered in this style, in steel or cast bronze, often use this form of lettering for their engraved cornerstones as well. Cast iron plaques regularly feature this kind of lettering, as do countless painted signs and lithographed posters, many dating back as far as the Work Projects Administration of the 1930s. And judging by how often it appears in signs for car parks and liquor stores, this might well be the natural form once followed by neon-lit aluminum channel letters. Although there is nothing to suggest that the makers of these different kinds of signs ever consciously followed the same models, the consistency with which this style of letter appears in the American urban landscape suggests that these forms were once considered in some way elemental. But with the arrival of mechanical signmaking in the 1960s, these letters died out, completely vanishing from production.
During the first months of their collaboration, Hoefler and Frere-Jones discovered their mutual affection for this disappearing species of lettering. In 2000, a commission to design a signature sans serif for GQ afforded them the chance to explore the style, for which Frere-Jones undertook a massive study of building lettering in New York, starting with a charming but rarely examined sign for the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Though Frere-Jones wanted his drawings to exhibit the "mathematical reasoning of a draftsman" rather than the instincts of a type designer, he allowed Gotham to escape the grid wherever necessary, giving the design an affability usually missing from 'geometric' faces. Unlike the signage upon which it was based, Gotham includes a lowercase, an italic, a full range of weights, and an extended range of widths: a Narrow, an Extra Narrow, and a Condensed.
Gotham Photo Gallery
Frere-Jones began the research for Gotham by chronicling the many forms of vernacular lettering throughout New York City. What started as a collection of attractive letterforms quickly became a photographic odyssey, in which Frere-Jones photographed every single scrap of public lettering in some of New York's most historic but ever-changing commercial neighborhoods. Below, some examples of Gothamesque lettering in a variety of media, captured in an inevitable race with the wrecking ball.
Steel signage. In the middle of New York's meatpacking district is the Gansevoort Market, on the corner of Tenth Avenue and Little West 12th Street. The simplicity of these letterforms helps guard against interfering shadows, which lengthen with the approach of winter.
Neon channel letters. Broad and open letters, devoid of sharp angles, follow the natural shapes of neon tubes. So many urban liquor stores seem to have this very sign; this one is on Eighth Avenue, west of Pennsylvania Station.
Truck lettering. Hand-painted trucks are one of the last bastions of sign painting. Even in these days of vinyl and silkscreening, entire fleets of delivery trucks are still painted by hand, most of them expertly done. This one was parked at Bleecker Street and La Guardia Place, blocks from the H&FJ office.
Cast bronze. Lower Manhattan contains most of the city's municipal offices, and some of its finest lettering. Even though courthouses and police stations frown upon telephoto lenses, Frere-Jones captured this bronze fascia at 3 Hanover Square.
Aluminum signage. Where it all began: the eighth avenue facade of New York's Port Authority Bus Terminal served as the touchstone for the Gotham project.
Illuminated channel letters. No longer electrified, these plastic-faced letters remain an attractive architectural detail, on one of the Hudson River's commercial piers.